May 17th, 2022


From Strength to Strength:  Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks (Publisher:  Portfolio) Feb. 15, 2022, ISBN 9780593191484.

You may have read the work of Arthur C. Brooks in his “How To Build a Life” columns for The Atlantic, or in one of his dozen-and-counting published books (including several New York Times bestsellers).  His political range is centrist yet his influence extends to the left and to the right – he has been the president of a conservative think tank, The American Enterprise Institute, and has been a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School.  His Wikipedia bio states that he “is an American social scientist, musician, and columnist . . .”

The Elusive State of Happiness

In his new book, Brooks tackles the subject of happiness – as do many of his “How to Build a Life” columns – particularly as happiness relates to fulfillment later in life for high-achieving professionals.  When I started reading Brooks’s most recent book, I wasn’t expecting it to have much relevance to a website on employment law for medical professionals.  But I soon saw the relevance when I read, early in the book, that the Harvard Business Review identifies the “top two loneliest professions” as being doctors and lawyers.

The primary thesis in From Strength to Strength is that humans have two types of intelligence that manifest at different stages in our life:  fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.  Citing work by a British psychologist, Raymond Cattell, who published a book in 1971 called, Abilities:  Their Structure, Growth and Action, Brooks explains that there are “two types of intelligence that people possess, but at greater abundance at different points in life.  The first is fluid intelligence, which Cattell defined as the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems.  It is what we commonly think of as raw smarts, and researchers find that it is associated with both reading and mathematical ability. . . . . [and] there is also crystallized intelligence.  This is defined as the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned in the past.”

While Brooks points out that different professions rely upon fluid intelligence to varying degrees – and identifies certain endeavors as relying heavily upon fluid intelligence — there are others that rely moreso upon crystallized intelligence.  And even if your work early in your career relies upon fluid intelligence, Brooks notes that, “there always exists the ability to redesign your career less on innovation and more on instruction as the years pass, thus playing to your strengths with age.”

Our Learned Exemplars

To illustrate his argument, Brooks draws upon an intellectual trove of philosophers, scientists, gurus and scholars, religious thinkers and historical personages.  If Indexes are akin to literary name-dropping, Brooks is a name-dropper nonpareil –Beethoven, Bourdain, and Ben Bradlee; Forbes, Freud, and Forster; Jesus, Jobs, and Jung; Mallory, Marx, and Milton; Tolstoy, Thoreau and Thomas Aquinas – you get the idea.  Utilizing his crystallized intelligence, his “stock of knowledge learned in the past” (and compiled in researching this new book), Brooks highlights some gems of wisdom; while I’ve read a fair amount of David Foster Wallace, I wasn’t aware of Wallace’s assertion that, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what to worship.”

And Brooks, chapter by chapter, presents a methodical – and convincing – argument to the effect that, over the arc of a lifetime, if we humans steadfastly persist in doing the same things we’ve always done, whether in pursuit of money, power, or prestige, we do so at the peril of increasing dissatisfaction, if not downright unhappiness, in the latter part of life.  If we rely exclusively upon the fluid intelligence that serves so well earlier in life, coupled with a zealous work ethic, we can find ourselves left with little room or time for family and meaningful relationships with friends.  Brooks juxtaposes “deal” friends with “real” friends (with a nod to his son for suggesting the distinction), with deal friends being what fluidly intelligent, successful individuals often have, as opposed to real friends.

The reliance upon deal friends may be conducive to career and business development, while real friends are those with whom we have genuine human connections and ultimately sustaining social bonds.  Hardcore reliance upon fluid intelligence, and the rewards that may bring, can leave one with few if any real friends and with fractured relationships with family and erstwhile (former) friends.  On the subject of hard-driving professionals, note that Brooks has a legitimately critical take on the workaholic personality.  I was surprised to learn that the term “workaholic” is of relatively recent coinage, first used in the 1960s by psychologist Warren Oates, who, according to Brooks, conceived of the word “after his own son asked for an appointment at Oates’s office to see him, so scarce was his father’s time.  Oates defined workaholism in 1971 as ‘the compulsion or uncontrollable need to work incessantly.’”

When, Why and How to Make the Jump

As Brooks quotes from Dante’s fourteenth century Divine Comedy:

Midway upon the journey of [y]our life

[You may find your]self within a forest dark

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Fortunately, along with describing how the once-fulfilling pathway may be lost over time, From Strength to Strength is not only descriptive but also prescriptive.  I don’t want to give away the ending, so suffice it to say that a shift to reliance upon crystallized intelligence may serve us well later in life.  Our transformation may serve others, as well, if we share the wisdom so to speak, with less emphasis on our own worldly rewards and more on giving to others.  Such a metamorphosis may require a jump to new ways of thinking – and Brooks has a great anecdote from Hawaii to illustrate – but the leap can be well worth the risk.  Crystallized intelligence is particularly suited to teaching professions, and historians are apt to like this book a lot; but, according to Brooks, we’d all be wise to consider transformation, to consider enthusiastically leaping to the “second curve.”

Brooks peppers his book with anecdotes, and one of my favorites is that of the composer Johann Sebastian (“J.S.”) Bach.  J.S. is the Baroque genius who, as Brooks points out, is remembered and celebrated (if not worshipped) for pieces like Saint Matthew Passion or Mass in B Minor.  But J.S. had, not surprisingly, several musically-talented offspring, including the most well-known of them, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, known as C.P.E., who in their contemporary times eclipsed the elder J.S. in fame and fortune.  Rather than competing with or resenting his son, C.P.E., who heralded the advent of “classical” music which made “high baroque as obsolete as disco,” J.S. took a step back (or, to use Brooks’s term, changed course and jumped to the second curve).  J.S. began to focus on teaching and writing his treatise The Art of the Fugue, while at the same time taking great pleasure in his son’s success.   Rather than “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as Brooks notes in a quote from Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” J.S. made the most of the stage of life at which he found himself, which included finding time to craft his ‘textbook,’ The Art of the Fugue, “a textbook so beautiful that it is considered a work of literature, or even poetry.”

Returning for a moment to the issue of doctors (and lawyers) and loneliness, it merits observing that happiness and satisfaction are not hard sciences.  Brooks attempts to impose order if not rigor upon our thinking about happiness, while acknowledging of course that there is hardly a one-size-fits-all formula for happiness.  While Brooks ladens From Strength to Strength with footnotes and a (mercifully) few charts, one may wonder about the nature of some of the studies documented in these citations.  For example, how do we measure loneliness?  Shifting to measurable indices, in one anecdote used to illustrate the extent to which fluid intelligence is the province of youth, Brooks cites a study which apparently shows that older anesthesiologists are more frequently sued than their younger counterparts:

“[T]ake doctors:  they appear to peak in their thirties, with steep drop-offs in skill as the years pass [footnote] It’s sort of reassuring to have a doctor who reminds people my age of Marcus Welby, MD.  However, one recent Canadian study looked at 80 percent of the country’s anesthesiologists and patient litigation against them over a ten-year period.  The researches found that physicians over sixty-five are 50 percent more likely than younger doctors (under fifty-one) at being found at fault for malpractice.”

(citing “Association Between Anesthesiologist Age and Litigation.”  Anesthesiology, 116(3), 574-79).  One can imagine a host of questions about this study (why 80%?), and, while I don’t doubt the study’s conclusion, myriad factors go into a malpractice case and context matters.

In the same footnote, Brooks cites a report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, which indicated that there was a 374 percent increase in physicians sixty-five or older from 1975 to 2013.  As Brooks notes, “As doctors have succeeded in keeping us alive longer, they’ve also kept themselves alive – and practicing clinically – longer.”  The increased prevalence of older doctors is likely due to a vast array of factors, but, in any event, the presence of increasing numbers of older workers, including doctors, in our workforce is certainly not a straightforward net negative, or positive, development.  As an employment lawyer, I generally welcome a trend that reflects older workers continuing to be productively engaged later in life – perhaps this means that there is less age discrimination at play than there once was.

A Strong Book

The timing of reading a book is key.  While I wasn’t expecting From Strength to Strength to be suitable for this website, it turns out that there could hardly be a more appropriate literary work to discuss in this initial blog.  While my career is in part still that of a litigator or trial lawyer, it makes sense, as Brooks encourages, to increasingly apply whatever wisdom I may possess to the tasks of counseling and advising as opposed to continuing to rely upon the physical and mental ability to work all night for weeks on end preparing for trial.  I can still do that, but is that the best use of the strength and crystallized knowledge I have?

Reading From Strength to Strength, regardless of the state of life in which you find yourself, may provide useful insight into how best to use your own strength, now and throughout the course of your life.  With its focus on the human trajectory of those with advanced degrees and careers heavily reliant upon fluid intelligence, From Strength to Strength is readable food for thought for medical professionals, and for all of us in knowledge-based careers, as we ponder the age-old question of how to make the best use of our abilities, which inevitably evolve and perhaps devolve as the years and decades go by.  Happily, there are paths that may keep us challenged and fulfilled beyond ‘the same old thing.’