If Arthur Brooks is right, we’re screwed. And we have been for a while.
And Brooks isn’t some whackjob Chicken Little screaming that the sky is falling. He’s a former president of the American Enterprise Institute and currently is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School. So if he says we’re screwed, well…
Of course, he doesn’t literally say we’re screwed. But the dots are there for anyone to connect. And the reason is two-fold.
On the one hand, we’re screwed because, as he catalogues early in From Strength to Strength, by and large people peak in their professions way earlier than we think they do. Musicians in their thirties. Tech startup founders earlier than that. Financial professionals between thirty-six and forty. Doctors around the same time. Nobel laureates in chemistry and medicine – mid forties. Writers, by fifty-five. (Wait, WHAT?) And so on.
And the problem with this becomes obvious when you look at people in positions of authority in America today. Baby Boomers, by and large, decades past that peak that Brooks describes. Which, of course, is consistent with what Bruce Cannon Gibney documents in his book; Baby Boomers aren’t there because they have game; they’re there because they’ve had a stranglehold on our culture since 1946 and they’ve worked the system every step of the way to keep themselves there.
So the first reason we’re screwed is that, according to the science that Brooks cites, we have people well past their prime in most positions of authority.
And the second reason we’re screwed is the flipside of the first reason. According to the science, innovation is being held back.
To understand why, one has to dig into some thinking about the nature of intelligence – especially intelligence as we age. Brooks cites Raymond Cattell’s 1971 idea that there are actually two kinds of intelligence – fluid and crystallized. Describing them in broad strokes – “fluid intelligence” is the kind that comes up with shit out of nowhere. Like when an utterly unknown patent office clerk publishes four papers on physics that changes everything. This intelligence is a hallmark of youth – and, fun fact: Einstein was 26 when he wrote E=MC2. Prime fluid intelligence age.
“Crystallized intelligence” on the other hand, has to do with the mixing and matching of existing ideas; it is an intelligence that draws on things you’ve already learned. That combines existing ideas and evaluates and analyzes them based on experience and learning. And this is the intelligence of older age. Which makes sense, right? You’ve lived a life, you’ve experienced and learned things; you have the ability to combine ideas in ways that you couldn’t when you were in your 20s and literally didn’t know them.
Or, as Brooks writes “when you are young, you have raw smarts; when you are old, you have wisdom.”
Now, what’s so great about this, and what we can be indebted to Brooks for, is that the book could actually be a recipe for how cross-generational organizations (which, let’s face it, is every organization) could work more effectively. Again, in broad strokes, use youth to come up with the new raw ideas; let age evaluate and apply them to the problems of the day. Two skill sets with defined goals and guardrails. Neither is better or more important than the other – indeed, neither can really function without the other. Think of this in terms of an advertising agency, where one group is free to blue-sky a lot of ideas against a brief, while another group – equally invested and informed – is free to evaluate them against what’s feasible by the agency, by the budget and by the client’s inclination. (Ah, if it only worked this way).
But if this is already how we fundamentally think – raw smarts and wisdom as it were – why don’t we work like that now? Because society places far more value on the mythology of the raw idea than an on the evaluation and application of it. Take even Steve Jobs. His genius wasn’t as a creator – he didn’t invent the computer, mobile phone, mp3 player. Nor did he make any significant technological contribution to them. But as an evaluator, as someone who could look at what others had figured out and see how to connect it to something that they could not? That was what made him one of a kind. But he’s not celebrated for that, really, is he?
And because we don’t mythologize that, Baby Boomers have held on to those glamorous “fluid intelligence” positions – to the detriment of themselves, others, and culture generally.
A book that helped them see this would have been almost unbelievably useful. It might have unlocked an intellectual and innovative engine that the world had not seen since the Renaissance – and which America could really use right now.
Unfortunately, Brooks uses this insight as an opportunity to help Baby Boomers – and a very select group of extremely successful Baby Boomers at that – find pathways to more enjoyable golden years by embracing some form of worship.
And look, I’m just a simple copywriter. It is waaaaaay above my paygrade to discuss anything anyone uses to find meaning here or in the hereafter. Neither do I criticize those who do. Do I think it plausible that Baby Boomers – especially the ones that Brooks has written From Strength to Strength for – are finding that the material goods they have accumulated are not much comfort as they face eternity? Certainly. Do I think that embracing a different kind of intelligence could help them come to terms with what the hell they were doing during their time here? Absolutely.
But do I think that using the insights in this book for that end, and not to heal the culture they are leaving the rest of us is about the most Baby Boomer thing they could do?
Yes, I’m afraid I do.
Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks was published by Portfolio on 02/15/2022 – order it from Amazon here, or order from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).