Your professional decline is coming sooner than you think, writes Arthur Brooks in his new book From Strength to Strength. It may have already happened. In almost every high-skill profession, decline sets in between one’s late thirties and early fifties. The problem is a decline in our fluid intelligence: the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve new problems.
We often try to fight or deny this decline, but it’s inevitable, and it will flatten us if we’re not prepared. Those who have built their identity on accomplishments and recognition will struggle the most. But there’s another option: you can accept this decline and build some new strengths and skills, leaning into what’s called crystallized intelligence or wisdom.
“When you are young, you have raw smarts; when you are old, you have wisdom,” writes Brooks. “When you are young, you can generate lots of facts; when you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them.”
Brooks wrote this book to help us repurpose our lives to rely on crystallized intelligence or wisdom so that the decline comes much later. “There is a second wave to ride to success that favors people who are older … By most estimations, what you get in this second wave is more valuable (if less lucrative and prestigious) than what you get in the first.”
The rest of the book explains how to learn a new set of life skills and live according to a different set of values.
Old Among the Young
I’ve found myself reading books like Gun Lap, The Second Mountain, and From Strength to Strength. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m in my mid-fifties in a community of twenty- and thirty-somethings. I now have a grandchild. I haven’t been able to fool others about my age for a long time. I can no longer fool even myself.
For the most part, I enjoy the changes in my life. I wouldn’t want to go back. I’m looking ahead to those who are older than I am who exhibit the kind of qualities I want in my life. It turns out that you can develop a life of beauty and wisdom as you get older that offers the world something valuable that you can’t get when you’re young. The people I admire the most are those who’ve been faithful for decades and who embody the kind of wisdom that only comes with wrinkles and scars.
I agree with Brooks: it is possible for one’s older years to be the most impactful years, but it will involve a shift in priorities.
From Strength to Strength gives helpful counsel about kicking our success addiction, pondering our deaths, cultivating relationships, embracing faith, and seeing weakness as strength. The book is replete with Scriptural references, but also with quotes from the Dalai Lama and Buddhism. If you’re looking for a rich gospel-saturated view of the brevity of life, look elsewhere.
But this book, along with the others I mentioned, helps us number our days and develop a kind of wisdom that will honor God and bless others in our latter years. Why try to cling to youth when you can glorify God as you get older as you place your hope in eternity?
Your professional decline is coming sooner than you think, but you can begin to number your days and live a life of wisdom. May God give us grace to do so.