When Working Harder Doesn’t Work, Time to Reinvent Your Career

Decades ago, a talented young musician pursued his childhood dream of becoming the world’s greatest French horn player, studying with great teachers, attending music festivals, and always earning first chair. At 19, he dropped out of college to tour the world, his goal of joining a top symphony orchestra as a soloist just within reach.

But suddenly, his performance started to worsen. No amount of practice or specialized training helped. In fact, the harder he raged against his decline, the faster it inevitably came. He took a job teaching music and, to hedge his bets, finished college through a distance-learning program. But this detour didn’t derail the career of Arthur Brooks, now a Harvard Business School professor.

Brooks explores his unlikely shift from budding musician to hard-charging head of a Washington, DC, thinktank and academic in his new book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. The book examines the changes in people’s brains as they near middle age that make old ways of doing things—such as constantly working harder—less satisfying and effective, and charts a course to finding a “second curve” that can be more rewarding.

The book weaves in the stories of high-achieving musicians, philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, and Olympic athletes—some who gracefully jumped to the second curve and others who stumbled, and whose despair watching their glory days recede in the rearview mirror offers cautionary tales.

Take Charles Darwin, who was despondent in his twilight years because he had not been able to replicate the success of his earlier work, On the Origin of Species. Like many strivers, Darwin was hooked on success, and he didn’t understand that the smarts that allowed him to innovate quickly in his younger years, called fluid intelligence, naturally decline toward midlife. He told a friend: “I have everything to make me happy and contented, but life has become very wearisome to me.”

Yet people on the back end of life don’t necessarily have to wallow in washed-up irrelevance. As fluid intelligence wanes, crystallized intelligence—a different kind of thinking marked by synthesizing and sharing knowledge—grows, writes Brooks, a professor of Management Practice at HBS. He points to Johann Sebastian Bach, a musical star who was later eclipsed by his son, but found that his teaching compositions in old age brought him even greater renown and satisfaction and ultimately more lasting fame.

“In business school, they don’t tell you about these two curves. They just say ‘Work your tail off, be smarter than everybody else, be more ambitious,’” Brooks says. “They don’t know that engine, that outboard motor is going to start [to sputter]. If you don’t know [the second curve] is there, or you’re afraid to use it, then it’s just going to be clear decline.”

The striver’s curse

Professional athletes expect that their talents are going to drop off, and many prepare for a second career well in advance. Brooks recalls not knowing exactly when his French horn skills started going downhill, but musicians, similar to athletes, rely on precise fine motor muscles that often deteriorate with age, use, and injury.

People in knowledge-based professions may think they’re different. Lawyers, financial professionals, doctors—these types of workers often expect their abilities to remain steady or grow with time. But Brooks points to data showing that’s not the case. In almost every high-skill profession, he finds, decline sets in between a person’s late 30s and early 50s as the brain’s prefrontal cortex degrades in effectiveness.

Innovation for physicists peaks at age 50; writers, between 40 and 45; financial professionals, between 36 and 40; and doctors in their 30s. Startups favor the young; most founders are between 21 and 34, with only 5 percent over 60. IQ and professional peaks occur on average some 20 years into a career. Brooks calls this the fluid intelligence curve.

An additional rub is that the better people perform, the steeper the decline they likely face. And the more attached they are to success, the harder its loss hits. That’s what happened to a tremendously wealthy Wall Street financier:

“Her decisions as a manager aren’t as crisp as they once were, her instincts less reliable,” Brooks writes. “Where once she commanded the room, now she sees that younger colleagues doubt her. … Her work was everything to her—she ‘lived to work’—and now she was terrified that even that was starting to slip.”

Her relationships are unsatisfactory and she drinks too much—but she can’t see another way.

“Maybe I would prefer to be special rather than happy” she explains. “Anyone can do the things it takes to be happy—go on vacation, spend time with friends and family … but not everyone can accomplish great things.” Often, when decline kicks in, people like her are too addicted to success to make a change.

Finding a new calling

For Brooks, the lightbulb went off when his 11-year-old son could see more moves ahead in the game of checkers than he could. Brooks was in his late 40s at the time, and, as the head of a prominent thinktank, was putting in 80-hour workweeks and basking in his role at the center of policy debates. He thought it would be interesting to write an academic journal article again, the mathematical, analytical kind that a decade earlier as a young professor had been his bread and butter.

“It was less fun and it was harder, and the paper was lower quality than what I had done 10 years before,” he recalls. “It was a tipoff that something had changed in the way I was thinking and in my own personal abilities. That’s when I started doing this research.”

The research showed that it’s not all decline past 40. Certain aptitudes grow during middle age that favor wisdom, teaching, and sharing ideas. Language skills and articulation tend to increase, he says, and professions that combine and use existing ideas—such as applied mathematics—see much greater longevity. Teachers often experience long-lasting success, and a Chronicle of Education study says the oldest college professors tend to have the best teaching evaluations.

Jumping on that second crystalized intelligence curve, says Brooks, requires people to take on a teaching or mentoring mindset in whatever field they’re in.

“Not everybody wants to do that. Many refuse,” he writes. “But for those who make the jump, the reward is almost always enormous.”

For Brooks, that leap landed him at Harvard, writing a column for The Atlantic, hosting a podcast, and giving talks.

A roadmap to the second curve

How do you know it’s time to look for that second curve?

“One of the big tipoffs is that you just don’t enjoy your work as much anymore,” Brooks says. “People love to do what they’re really good at. When you start missing a beat, you start enjoying it less.”

Each person’s second curve will look a little different; changing how one thinks is critical to seeing and seizing it. Brooks offers a roadmap with a few suggestions:

Practice a death meditation to neutralize fear of decline. Brooks says this one regularly:

  1. I feel my competence declining.
  2. Those close to me begin to notice that I am not as sharp as I used to be.
  3. Other people receive the social and professional attention I used to receive.
  4. I have to decrease my workload and step back from daily activities I once completed with ease.
  5. I am no longer able to work.
  6. Many people I meet do not recognize me or know me for my previous work.
  7. I am still alive, but professionally, I am no one.
  8. I lose the ability to communicate my thoughts and ideas to those around me.
  9. I am dead, and I am no longer remembered at all for my accomplishments.

Evaluate and improve relationships. “Understand the nature of your relationships and judge them fairly, the same way you would if you were assessing a deal,” Brooks says. “You’re super good at that. Turn your gift inward.”

Work, don’t wish, for change. “Everybody at HBS knows that wishing for something better is garbage,” Brooks advises. “You’ve got to work for everything you want.”

And a piece of advice for corporations: Value and hire for wisdom in the C-suite and on boards. Companies should elevate “modern elders” to the highest ranks of companies, Brooks says.

As for his first passion, the French horn, which taught him so much about the pain of early decline and what comes afterward, Brooks says he has only played it three times in the past 25 years and doesn’t miss it.

“Bach said that the aim and final end of music is the refreshment of the soul and the glorification of God. He didn’t say that the aim and final end of all music is just playing as much music and writing as much music as possible,” Brooks reflects. “What that means is that the aim and final end of our work is to refresh the souls of other people. You can’t do that if you are struggling and on the wrong side of the fluid intelligence curve and you’re working out of fear and misery. You’re not going to be able to be like Bach. And now, I’m a lot more like Bach than when I was a musician.”

From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life

Arthur C. Brooks

From Strength to Strength book cover

Chapter 2: The Second Curve

Decline is unavoidable. Period. But aging isn’t all bad news (and I’m not talking about grandkids and a condo in Sarasota, although that’s got to be nice, too). In fact, there are some specific ways in which we naturally get smarter and more skillful. The trick to improving as we age is to understand, develop, and practice these new strengths. If you can, you can transform decline into incredible new success.

Did you ever notice that as people get old, they almost never become less articulate? They tend to have a richer vocabulary than they did earlier in life. This leads to a number of abilities. They are better Scrabble players, for example, and can do quite well in foreign languages—not in getting the accent perfect but in building vocabulary and understanding grammar. Studies bear out these observations: people maintain and grow their vocabulary—in their native languages and foreign languages— all the way to the end of life.

Similarly, you may notice that with age, people are better at combining and utilizing complex ideas. In other words, they may not be able to come up with shiny new inventions or solve problems quickly like in the old days. But they get much better at using the concepts they know and expressing them to others. They also get better at interpreting the ideas that others have— sometimes even to the people who came up with them.

These abilities that appear later in life favor some specific professions. For example, theoretical mathematicians tend to peak and decline early, just as Simonton’s data predict. But applied mathematicians (who use mathematics to, for example, solve actual problems in business) peak much later, because they specialize in combining and using ideas that already exist— a skill that favors older people. Or take historians, the quintessential assemblers of existing facts and ideas. Weirdly, they fall way out of the typical range for decline, peaking 39.7 years after career inception, on average. Think what this implies: Say you intend to pursue a career as a professional historian and finish your PhD at thirty-two. The bad news is that in your fifties, you are still pretty wet behind the ears. But here’s the good news: at age seventy-two, you still have half your work to go! Better take care of your health so you can write your best books into your eighties.

If you take these facts as being random, you get very little actionable strategy for life, beyond perhaps becoming a competitive Scrabble player or working on a PhD in history. It isn’t random, however—not at all. In the late 1960s, a British psychologist named Raymond Cattell set about finding an explanation for why all this happens. He found the answer, and that answer can defeat the striver’s curse—and change your life.

Two intelligences

In 1971, Cattell published a book entitled Abilities: Their Structure, Growth, and Action. In it, he posited that there were 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. Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. Cattell, who specialized in intelligence testing, observed that it was highest relatively early in adulthood and diminished rapidly starting in one’s thirties and forties.

Based on this finding, Cattell believed younger people are naturally the best innovators in raw, new ideas. If he were alive today (he died in 1998 at the ripe old age of ninety-two), he would read what I have written up to this point and say right away that the professional decline I’ve been talking about—the initial abilities that fade all too early—comes from the fluid intelligence that virtually all hardworking, successful people rely on early in their careers.

If you have experienced professional success in the early part of your career, and your job involved new ideas or solving hard problems—most people reading this book, I would bet—you have fluid intelligence (plus your hard work, maybe your parents, and good luck) to thank for it. 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.

That’s not the end of the story, however, and this is where Cattell’s work matters. Fluid intelligence isn’t the only kind–there is also crystallized intelligence. This is defined as the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned in the past. Think once again about the metaphor of a vast library. But this time, instead of regretting how slow the librarian is, marvel at the size of the book collection your librarian is wandering around in, and the fact that he knows where to find a book, even if it takes him a while. Crystallized intelligence, relying as it does on a stock of knowledge, tends to increase with age through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties—and does not diminish until quite late in life, if at all.

Cattell himself described the two intelligences in this way: “[Fluid intelligence] is conceptualized as the decontextualized ability to solve abstract problems, while crystallized intelligence represents a person’s knowledge gained during life by acculturation and learning.” Translation: When you are young, you have raw smarts; when you are old, you have wisdom. When you are young, you can generate lots of facts; when you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them.

Let’s break things down a bit. Cattell is telling us that the success curve is, for all intents and purposes, the fluid intelligence curve, which increases to one’s midthirties or so and then declines through the forties and fifties. Meanwhile, there is another curve lurking behind it, the crystallized intelligence curve, that is increasing through middle and late adulthood.

This is a big finding for you and me—huge, actually. It says that if your career relies solely on fluid intelligence, it’s true that you will peak and decline pretty early. But if your career requires crystallized intelligence—or if you can repurpose your professional life to rely more on crystallized intelligence—your peak will come later but your decline will happen much, much later, if ever. And if you can go from one type to the other—well, then you have cracked the code.

Adapted from FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks, published on February 15th 2022 by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Arthur Brooks.

[Image: Unsplash/Matt Duncan]