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From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose

From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose PDF

Author: Arthur C. Brooks

Publisher: Portfolio


Publish Date: February 15, 2022

ISBN-10: 059319148X

Pages: 272

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

The Man on the Plane Who Changed My Life

“It’s not true that no one needs you anymore.”

These exasperated words came from an elderly woman sitting behind me on a late-night flight from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. The plane was dark and quiet, and most people were either sleeping or watching a movie. I was working on my laptop, feverishly trying to finish something now completely lost to memory but that at the time seemed to be of crucial importance to my life, happiness, and future.

A man I assumed to be her husband murmured almost inaudibly in response.

Again, his wife: “Oh, stop saying it would be better if you were dead.”

Now they had my full attention. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but couldn’t help it. I listened half with human empathy and half with the professional fascination of a social scientist. I formed an image of the husband in my head. I imagined someone who had worked hard all his life in relative obscurity; someone disappointed at his dreams unfulfilled—perhaps the career he never pursued, the schools he never attended, the company he never started. Now, I imagined, he was forced to retire, tossed aside like yesterday’s news.

As the lights switched on after touchdown, I finally got a look at the desolate man. I was shocked: I recognized him—he was well-known; famous, even. Then in his mideighties, he has been universally beloved as a hero for his courage, patriotism, and accomplishments of many decades ago. I have admired him since I was young.

As he passed up the aisle of the plane behind me, passengers recognized him and murmured with veneration. Standing at the door of the cockpit, the pilot recognized him and said, echoing my own thoughts, “Sir, I have admired you since I was a little boy.” The older man—apparently wishing for death just a few minutes earlier—beamed at the recognition of his past glories.

I wondered: Which more accurately describes the man—the one filled with joy and pride right now, or the one twenty minutes ago, telling his wife he might as well be dead?

I couldn’t get the cognitive dissonance of that scene out of my mind over the following weeks.

It was the summer of 2012, shortly after my forty-eighth birthday. I was not world-famous like the man on the plane, but my professional life was going pretty well. I was the president of a prominent Washington, DC, think tank that was prospering. I had written some bestselling books. People came to my speeches. My columns were published in The New York Times.

I had found a list written on my fortieth birthday, eight years earlier, of my professional goals—those that, if accomplished, would (I was sure) bring me satisfaction. I had met or exceeded all of them. And yet . . . I wasn’t particularly satisfied or happy. I had gotten my heart’s desire, at least as I imagined it, but it didn’t bring the joy I envisioned.

And even if it did deliver satisfaction, could I really keep this going? If I stayed at it seven days a week, twelve hours a day—which I basically did, with my eighty-hour workweeks—at some point my progress would slow and stop. Many days I was thinking this flowing had already started. And what then? Would I wind up looking back on my life and telling my long-suffering wife, Ester, that I might as well be dead? Was there any way to get off the hamster wheel of success and accept inevitable professional decline with grace? Maybe even turn it into opportunity?

Though these questions were personal, I decided to approach them as the social scientist I am, treating them as a research project. It felt unnatural—like a surgeon taking out his own appendix. I plunged ahead, however, and for the last nine years I have been on a personal quest to turn my future from a matter of dread to an opportunity for progress.

I delved into divergent literatures, from my own field in social science to adjacent work in brain science, philosophy, theology, and history. I dug into the biographies of some of the most successful people in history. I immersed myself in the research on people who strive for excellence and interviewed hundreds of leaders, from heads of state to hardware-store owners.

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 this the “striver’s curse”: people who strive to be excellent at what they do often wind up finding their inevitable decline terrifying, their successes increasingly unsatisfying, and their relationships lacking.

The good news is that I also discovered what I was looking for: a way to escape the curse. Methodically, I built a strategic plan for the rest of my life, giving me the chance to have a second half of adulthood that is not only not disappointing but happier and more meaningful than the first.

But I quickly realized that creating a private life plan wasn’t good enough. I had to share it. The secrets I found were available to anyone with a will to live a life of joy and purpose—and willing to do the work to achieve it. Unlike the world we have tried to conquer earlier in life, here there was no competition for the prizes. We can all succeed and all be happier. And that is why I have written this book for you, my fellow striver.

The fact that you picked up this book tells me you have most likely achieved success through hard work, huge sacrifice, and uncompromising excellence. (And let’s be honest—probably no small amount of good luck, too.) You deserve a lot of praise and admiration, and you’ve probably gotten it. But you know intellectually that you can’t keep this party going forever, and you might even already see the signs that it is coming to an end. Unfortunately, you never gave much thought to the party’s end, so you only really have one strategy: Try to keep it going. Deny change and work harder.

But that is a sure path to misery. In my field of economics, we have something called “Stein’s law,” named after the famous economist Herbert Stein from the 1970s: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”[1] Obvious, right? Well, when it comes to their own lives, people ignore it all the time. But you ignore this about your professional success at your peril. It will leave you falling further and further behind, shaking your fist at the heavens.

There is another path, though: Instead of denying change in your abilities, you can make the change itself a source of strength. Instead of trying to avoid decline, you can transcend it by finding a new kind of success, better than what the world promises and not a source of neurosis and addiction; a deeper form of happiness than what you had before; and, in the process, true meaning in life—maybe for the first time. The process is what I lay out in this book. It has changed my life, and it can change yours, too.

A word of caution, though: This path means going against many of your striverly instincts. I’m going to ask you not to deny your weaknesses but rather to embrace them defenselessly. To let go of some things in your life that you worked hard for—but that are now holding you back. To adopt parts of life that will make you happy, even if they don’t make you special. To face decline—and even death—with courage and confidence. To rebuild the relationships you neglected on the long road to worldly success. And to dive into the uncertainty of a transition you have worked so hard to evade.

None of this is easy—it’s hard to teach an old striver new tricks! It takes great effort to accept ideas that might have seemed crazy when you were doing everything under your power to be truly great at your worldly vocation. But I promise you the payoff will be worth it. I—and you—can get happier every year.

We can go from strength to strength.



The Man on the Plane Who Changed My Life

Chapter 1

Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think

Chapter 2

The Second Curve

Chapter 3

Kick Your Success Addiction

Chapter 4

Start Chipping Away

Chapter 5

Ponder Your Death

Chapter 6

Cultivate Your Aspen Grove

Chapter 7

Start Your Vanaprastha

Chapter 8

Make Your Weakness Your Strength

Chapter 9

Cast into the Falling Tide


Seven Words to Remember




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