The Atlas

Choosing our Choices

On our podcast last week, Lawrence and I discussed Arthur C. Brook's latest book, "From Strength to Strength." And while we touched on a whole bunch of interesting facets of the book during that conversation, the one I want to focus on here is something that has been a particular struggle for me -- and for a lot of people I know.

As we age, while we might be upset by it, we fully understand that our bodies change. Whether it's our eyesight, our muscle mass, our running speed or just how much sleep we need, most of us are pragmatic enough to recognize that we have different bodies at 50 than we had at 20.

So why do we struggle so much to acknowledge and accept that our brains change during that time, too?

After laying out some great examples and supporting research, Brooks dubs the rapid-fire, high-velocity, raw intellectual power that fuels many high performers careers in our 20's and 30's "fluid intelligence." And the natural and inevitable decline that most of us see in our 40's and 50's shifts our strengths to what he calls "crystalized intelligence" -- which is more about breadth, context, relationships and the type of pattern recognition that comes from lived experience.

How many of us have experienced this, but struggled to explain how or why it happened?

The roles I get hired to fill today are very different than the ones I had in the early days of my career -- even when working in precisely the same business model. And as those changes have unfolded, I clung very desperately to the idea that was just a function of growing and moving in new directions. But there was a very important and often unspoken reality that I struggled to come to terms: a lot of things that used to come very easily to me are actually really difficult for me to do anymore.

What I find so mystifying is why I had so much trouble acknowledging that? I need reading glasses these days. I would rather go to get up at 6:00 a.m. than stay up until 6:00 a.m. I wouldn't think of trying to move the couch all by myself anymore. Yet the idea that I can't keep a thousand details in my head anymore seemed... different. And much, much harder to admit.

Of course, another important aspect of Brooks' book is that, as long as our identities are based on what we do for a living, when we can no longer do it as well as we used to, our struggle becomes much bigger than just figuring out our next best job choice. The question becomes, Who am I if I'm no longer special in the way I used to be?

Middle age comes with some really shitty questions sometimes. A lot of them require picking between the lesser-of-two-evils. Can we afford to put mom in a home, or should we bring her to live with us? How do we help our kids pay for college that is way more expensive than we could save for? Do we have a full family Thanksgiving, or do we do a trimmed down version to avoid fights with the family MAGA crowd?

But what I have been appreciating about the insights in "From Strength to Strength" (as well as in Brooks' great column in The Atlantic) is that, actually, I have far more agency in how I frame my options for myself than I do in other areas.

Once upon a time, without being entirely conscious of it, I made choices that defined much of my life. And they don't fit anymore. But now that I see what I did more clearly, it feels much easier to choose differently now. I made those choices. And now it's time for me to make different ones.

Happy choosing!

Alora's Signature