Professional Decline: It’s Happening Sooner Than You Expect. Don’t Panic. [Book Review]

Prof. Arthur Brooks to the rescue.

7/3/20243 min read

person molding vase
person molding vase

Professional decline might seem an odd topic for a blog by a near-40-year-old. After all, I’m at the height of my career and abilities, right? Even as an elder millennial, I hadn’t given much thought to what my career (and personal life) might look like as I grow older.

Enter Arthur C. Brooks, the Paul Revere of “professional decline,” to warn us naive “youngsters”: Decline is coming, decline is coming! And sooner than you expect.

In his book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, Professor Brooks dispels the myth that professional decline occurs only in late life. He writes:

“Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California Davis studied the pattern of professional decline among people in creative professions and built a model that estimates the shape of the average person’s career. He found that the peak of creative careers occurs at about 20 years after career inception. Hence, the finding that people usually start declining somewhere between 35 and 50.”

35 and 50?! Say it isn’t so!

Synthesizing vast amounts of social science, psychology, and ancient wisdom, Brooks weaves a tapestry with a clear message: Prepare for decline or be caught by surprise. He recounts the lives of athletes, scientists, and musicians many of whom ignored their professional decline and suffered because of it. He even chronicles his decline—in his early 20s!—as a professional French horn player and how it started him down a path of career enlightenment.

But don’t panic. From Strength to Strength doesn’t leave readers with a sense of impending doom—quite the opposite. Brooks discusses how to direct your decline toward a rewarding “Second Curve,” where you build new strengths and develop skills to age purposefully. It’s not possible to evade decline, but it’s both possible and desirable to adjust your career accordingly for the sake of a flourishing life.

Riding High on the “Second Curve”

Brooks recounts the life of scientist Charles Darwin, a man who, by any standard, was a professional success to a degree few can achieve, yet he was profoundly unhappy later in life.

Celebrated across Europe upon returning from his renowned voyage at age 27 and publishing On the Origin of Species at age 50, Darwin was widely acknowledged as a groundbreaking scientist during his lifetime. Revered until death—and well past it—he was buried as a national hero in Westminster Abbey.

Yet Darwin spent the latter part of his life depressed. He pined for the productivity and acumen of his younger years, dissatisfied with his work post-50. He wrote to a friend, “I have everything to make me happy and contented, yet life has become very wearisome to me.”

Professor Brooks explains that Darwin’s experience is quite common. As professional abilities decline, we tend to fight or ignore the decline instead of accepting reality. The result is general dissatisfaction, a longing for the past, and hopelessness toward the future.

But Brooks assures us it doesn’t have to be this way. We can find deep purpose with age if we embrace our “Second Curve.” He explains that we have two kinds of intelligence:

  1. Fluid intelligence gives us access rapid access to facts, aids in problem-solving, allows us to learn quickly, and helps us come up with new, innovative solutions. Fluid intelligence serves us in youth but declines as we age.

  2. Crystallized intelligence gives us access to a vast amount of past knowledge, enables the synthesis of ideas, allows us to teach more easily, and, ultimately, gives us what we call “wisdom.” Crystalized intelligence begins to rise as we age.

And that, Brooks argues, is the key to happiness and success in the second half of our lives. We must accept that professional decline (in our fluid intelligence) is inevitable and build new strengths that foster our crystallized intelligence. Accepting this fact and building new strengths right now will help us jump from our descending first curve of intelligence to our ascending second curve.

Of course, this is easier said than done, and Brooks spends considerable time exploring the myths, misconceptions, and self-delusions that keep us from accepting the inevitability of our professional decline.

Sound interesting? Pick up a copy of From Strength to Strength and let me know what you think.