Book Notes #8: “From Strength to Strength” (By Arthur C. Brooks)

by | Jul 14, 2022

Read this book especially if you’re an ambitious, results-oriented person. Or as Arthur Brooks might call you, a “striver.” As strivers age, they inevitably experience a slowdown in capacity and ability. And that can be difficult to cope with. This book explains how to make the most of what’s left of your life. It’s a thought provoking read.

From Strength to Strength
By Arthur C. Brooks

Here are 7 takeaways:

  • The Striver’s Curse
    Accomplished people are used to getting things done. They make a goal, work hard, and achieve their objective. But over time, the ability of a striver naturally declines with age. And there is a reckoning. How will the striver cope with his or her decline? Will they just work harder? That can be a recipe for disaster. Or will they readjust their goals?

    What I found was a hidden source of anguish that wasn’t just widespread but nearly universal among people who have done well in their careers. I came to call the “striver’s curse”: people who strive to be excellent at what they do often wind up finding their inevitable decline terrifying, their success increasingly unsatisfying, and their relationships lacking.

  • Your Decline is Inevitable
    Brooks walks through a bevy of social science research that reveals that everyone declines — sooner than they may think. To be sure, there are exceptions and outliers. But striver’s will ultimately see their skills decline. Consider athletes because they know there is a window for their peak performance. The same should follow for all striver’s – those in the information economy. Brooks says that writers see their declines between forty and fifty-five. Financial professionals, around thirty-six to forty. Doctors, in their thirties.

    Here is the reality: in practically every high-skill profession, decline sets in sometime between one’s late thirties and early fifties…the more accomplished one is at the peak of one’s career, the more pronounced decline seems once it has set in.

    This can be attributed party to your changing brain. Your prefrontal cortex loses its effectiveness. You’re not as sharp and your “rapid analysis” will suffer. It also becomes more difficult to multitask. You have to focus on one thing.

  • Fluid Intelligence versus Crystallized Intelligence
    Brooks contends there are two types of intelligence: fluid and crystal.

    Fluid intelligence – ability to think quickly, analyze, and solve new problems. Innate intelligence. This is what people leverage early in their careers.

    The young killers in almost every modern industry rely on fluid intelligence. They learn quickly, focus hard on what matters, and devise solutions. Unfortunately, as we have seen in abundant detail, you generally can’t maintain this as you age — which once again might well be why you are reading this book.

    Crystallized Intelligence – the ability to leverage your prior knowledge. Applied knowledge, also known as wisdom. Brooks mentions that the best reviewed college professors are the older ones, the one’s who can put things in context and leverage their crystallized intelligence.

    Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

    An interesting bit: people grow their vocabularies as they age in both their native and learned languages. Even more reason to keep up the DuoLingo lessons!

  • Revel not in past glories
    Many strivers believe that they can work hard, achieve success. And then look back on their life, reveling in their past glories. Brooks says it doesn’t work like this. We’re not actually equipped to enjoy something we did many years ago.This is a point that I may disagree. I’m really proud of what I did early in my career. No, I don’t sit there marveling about a book that I wrote or an album I produced. But knowing that I did these things makes me feel like I have lived a life of meaning, and I’ve contributed something to society.


  • Redesign Your Career
    As a striver ages, it makes sense to build a career less on new insights but on instruction. Passing down knowledge, wisdom to others. Synthesizing the ideas of others, so that more can benefit from your insights.

    That’s one of the reasons I started my blog, where I feature others and spotlight their projects. Moreover, it’s why I started my Seven Point Sunday newsletter. I don’t want to keep writing long, research-driven op-eds that are driven by the news cycle and reviewed by editors. Blah. I’m trying to jump to that second curve (crystallized intelligence), the one of instruction and not just innovation.

    Brooks offers the example of J.S. Bach, the renowned composer. He was prolific and then he became obsolete. His own son C.P.E. became the en vogue composer. And J.S. ultimately turned to teaching and instruction, and in that mode he actually wrote some of his most well-known works.

    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.

  • Kick your success addiction
    Success (and workaholism), after all, can be an addiction. It’s unhealthy. This point really resonated with me. As I’ve no doubt been driven by success and the yen to get whatever I’m doing done at the highest level.

    What workaholics truly crave isn’t work per se; it is success. They kill themselves working for money, power, and prestige because these are forms of approval, applause, and compliments — which, like all addictive things, from cocaine to social media, stimulate the neurotransmitter dopamine….the thrill of success albeit momentary, blots out the blackness of “normal” life-achievement is a way to pull oneself above the grim baseline mood.

    It’s never enough, however. Strivers want more, more, more. It’s a fool’s errand to keep going, especially as your natural and cognitive abilities begin to decline. Strivers love the image of themselves, they self-objectify to think that their accomplishments are them.

    With the advent of social media, social comparison becomes the root of negative feelings. It’s a source of unhappiness. Success if often in relation to someone else. But everyone is running their own race.

    Ultimately we have to withdraw from this attachment. This is where the books turns to the wisdom of Buddha. The power and necessity of renunciation. To detach from the trophies and worldly things. Satisfaction becomes focusing on the little things like the growth of a flower and tending the garden (literally and figuratively)

    Saint Augustine astutely observed that “every other kind of sin has to do with the commission of evil deeds, whereas pride lurks even in good works in order to destroy them.”

  • On Friendship
    Brooks considers the Aspen Grove, a network of trees that are linked together by a shared roots system. They’re one of the largest organisms. I saw them up close in Aspen some years ago. Brooks point is that we should consider our second act like such a grove. And the interlinkage is the relationships, friendships, community.

    The problem is that strivers don’t have that many friends. I can relate. We have a lot of professional acquaintances. HBR found that lawyers and doctors are some of the loneliest professions. It can be difficult to cultivate friendships outside your job.When was the last time you called someone to just catch up? Not a family member. But an actual friend. Marriage bonds tend to be more powerful for men as they age versus women who often have a network of supporters. They have more friends.


    And what about you? Do you have real friends — or just deal friends?

    Friendship is a skill that requires practice, time, and commitment.


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