Book Review:  From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks

I hesitated before writing this review because I have mixed feelings about this book. I don’t like to write reviews of books I dislike out of respect for fellow authors in general; however, this book makes some good points that are worth discussing before proffering somewhat one-size-fits-all solutions to the dilemmas that older people face. I should say wealthy older people, because besides offering too-trite solutions, Brooke directs his advice primarily to successful people who need to cope with a diminishment of their success as they age. Still, as I said, there is some good food for thought herein.

Brooks starts off with the depressing declaration that for everyone, whether successful or not, decline is inevitable, and to corroborate this fact he offers the examples of well-known classical musicians such as Bach and Beethoven. However, he points out that there are ultimately two kinds of intelligence: fluid intelligence, which manifests when young and propels spectacular achievements, and crystallized intelligence, which is wisdom accumulated through experience. In other words, when you are young you have raw smarts, but when you become older you are able to benefit from drawing on a store of wisdom and knowledge. Brooks insists that at a certain point you have to repurpose your life to rely more on crystallized intelligence, to switch from innovative activities to instruction, teaching, service, and counsel.

According to Brooks, there are two curves in life: the fluid intelligence curve, which tracks early success and plays out and starts to decline around age forty, and the crystallized intelligence curve, which begins later but continues on into old age. All you have to do is jump from one curve to the other and you’ll be fine.

A profound difficulty to this approach, of course, is that everyone is different and cookie-cutter solutions such as these are unable to account for anomalies. Not to mention in the present tragic economic environ there are fewer and fewer people who are able to live the idyllic rapid-climb-to-success life that Brooks seems to suggest is common to so many. He assumes that his readers have taken the traditional route to success and are financially secure. My life has been anything but normal and I have never possessed an abundance of finances, so it was hard for me to relate to some of the advice he was giving.

Nevertheless, there are enough useful suggestions in the book that I kept reading. For instance, it is good to come to accept that you will ultimately decline and die, because it gives you better perspective in deciding what to do with the remainder of your time. Brooks brings out the value of human relationships and how they become even more important as you age. This is certainly true, and yet for many people solitude in old age is inevitable. Kids become adults and move out, and friends die. In my case, all of my closest friends from my youth, from Clarion West, and from my writing career have died. Not much I can do about that. On the downside, though, the spiritual advice Brooks offers is very surface-level and insubstantial, like slapping a Band-Aid on a mortal wound.

In conclusion, don’t expect to find a formula on “finding success, happiness, and deep purpose in the second half of life” in this book or you will be disappointed. However, it is for the most part an entertaining read, and you may be able to glean some useful tips and strategies that will help you along your way.

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