True Intelligence in the Second Half of Life

True Intelligence in the Second Half of Life

I’m not the only baby-boomer on the planet leaning into retirement, obviously. Besides pragmatic permission from Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, I found a deep and reassuring resonance, about letting go of the stressing and striving and “selfing” that can lead a recovering workaholic like me into burnout, in From Strength to Strengthby NY Times best-selling author Arthur C. Brooks.

Brooks, a social scientist who studies human happiness and had quite a successful career in his own right, began research for this book when he overheard a conversation on a long plane flight, the husband quite despondent and the wife chiding him, “Oh, stop saying it would be better if you were dead.”

When the plane landed, he was shocked to realize he recognized the man. “He was well-known, famous even. Then in his mid-eighties, 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. …Standing the door of the cockpit, the pilot also recognized him and said, “Sir, I have admired you since I was a little boy.”  The old 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?”

It was the cognitive dissonance of those two realities that launched Brooks on his research into how people can transition skillfully from a life full of meaning, productivity, and genuine admiration from others in the first most active phases of their lives into the inevitable slowing down and diminishment of the second half. 

He cites the description of British psychologist Raymond Cattell’s two forms of intelligence: fluid intelligence, the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems, highest relatively early in adulthood, diminishing in one’s thirties and forties. Hence the many discoveries in science and technology when innovators and explorers are young. 

And crystallized intelligence: the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned in the past. Crystallized intelligence is most prominent in the second half of life, increasing through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties, and does not diminish until quite late in life, if at all.

Brooks’ metaphors: 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. As the saying goes, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”  

Relevant to my own transition from retirement to Renaissance, and reassuring that I had made many of the right choices, skillfully and gracefully. Teaching and mentoring are among the ways those of us in the second half of life can find meaning and joy as sweet as the rush of success when we were younger. I experience this every time I mentor teacher-trainees in James Baraz’s Awakening Joy program. I experienced this just a few weeks ago, guiding Rick Hanson’s Wednesday evening meditation group in Portals to Awe and Inter-Connectedness.

What I enjoyed most about From Strength to Strength was the guidance in easing the shift into crystalized intelligence through the deepening a spiritual practice that guides us in letting go of the stressing and striving and “selfing” so dominant in a regular personal life. Whether from a Buddhist (me) or Hindu (Brooks) point of view, that includes facing the letting go of life itself as a practice for experiencing the self-less-ness of the self as one inter-connected part of the flow of all of life. The wave in the ocean, precious, yet inseparable from the ocean itself.

There are many, many practices in both traditions to encourage this letting go and treasuring life in the experience of that letting go. My participation in A Year to Live group 25 years ago was key in facing my own mortality to better appreciate the preciousness of the life I had unfolding before me. 

 Here I include Brooks’ own meditation for contemplating the end of the self to help with letting go of the “self” that similarly helps us appreciate being alive in this very moment, here and now. Sobering, but powerful.

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 accomplished 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 wo

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 am no longer remembered at all for my accomplishments.

This awareness is a strength, and we go from strength to strength as we age and retire.