Lost a step at work? Prepare to jump (review of Strength to Strength by Arthur Brooks)

Brace yourself Gen Xers.

Our careers are about to peak, if they haven’t already. What follows once we’re past our prime is a swift and steep drop.

“When it comes to the enviable skills that you worked so hard to attain and that made you successful in your field, you can expect significant decline to come as soon as your thirties, or as late as your early fifties,” says Arthur C. Brooks, author of From Strength to Strength. “That’s the deal, and it’s not fun. Sorry.”

Brooks says we have three options. One’s bad, one’s sad and one’s our ticket to a new kind of success, greater happiness and a deeper purpose in life’s second half.

We can deny reality and rage against the inevitable.   This means working harder and faster, tempting fate with our health and hoping no one notices that we’ve lost a step.

This traps us in a vicious cycle where we’re “terrified of decline, dissatisfied with victories that come less and less frequently, hooked on the successes that are increasingly of the past, and isolated from others.”

Our second option is to give up and make peace with our slide into irrelevance. For a preview of where this leads, take four minutes and 20 seconds and listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days.

Or we can work up the courage to jump to what Brook calls the second curve where there’s a new strength waiting for us.

“If you choose door number three, congratulations,” says Brooks. “There’s a bright future ahead. But it requires a bunch of new skills and new way of thinking.”

In our younger years, it was fluid intelligence that fueled our career. It’s this intelligence that let us come up with new ideas, solve hard problems, learn quickly and focus hard.

As that intelligence fades, crystallized intelligence takes over and draws on our lifetime of knowledge and experiences.

“When you are young, you have raw smarts; when you are old, you have wisdom,” says 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.”

So why are we so reluctant to jump? Brooks blames our addiction to success and our need to feel special. We’re not ready to give up the money, power, prestige and adulation.

“The symbols of your specialness have encrusted you like a ton of barnacles. Not only are these things incapable of bringing you any real satisfaction; they’re making you feel too heavy to jump to your next curve. You need to chip a bunch away.”

The trick is to redefine satisfaction. On life’s first curve, we believe that satisfaction equals continually getting what we want, success equals continually having more than others and failure equals having less.

There’s a different equation on the second curve. Satisfaction equals what we have divided by what we want. The key is to want less of what doesn’t matter.  Brooks recommends loving people rather than things. “To misplace your love is to invite frustration and futility – to get on the hedonistic treadmill and set it to ultra-fast.”

If you’ve hit the peak of your career, it’s time to gracefully step off that treadmill and put your crystallized intelligence to work on life’s second curve.   

 “No matter how you find your passion, early on, pursue it with a white-hot flame, dedicating it to the good of the world,” says Brooks. “But hold your success lightly – be ready to change as your abilities change. Devote the back half of your life to serving others with your wisdom. Get old sharing the things you believe are most important. Excellence is always its own reward, and this is how you can be most excellent as you age.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.