My guest today is author and Harvard Professor Arthur C. Brooks. Arthur’s latest book ‘From Strength to Strength’ is a beautiful look at how we can move graciously to the different phases in our life. We discussed ways to not only find something we are passionate about but also the way to approach investing in our long-term happiness. Rather than focusing on success addiction, make sure to create balance with family, friendship, and faith.
Believe me, I love the idea of the pursuit of excellence but we just have to keep in mind and pay attention to at what cost. Everything that the world tells us will make us feel good and happy is typically not working in our favor. Arthur’s book gives poignant and easy-to-follow ways to implement these important concepts into our day-to-day lives. It doesn’t matter which curve you are on, it is never too late to pay attention to where we are investing our time and energy. Enjoy
Listen to the episode here:
- The Different Lenses of Self-Care [00:03:20]
- The Dark Side of Success [00:05:17]
- Avoiding Objectification in Parenting [00:09:29]
- Falling Off the Stage [00:15:38]
- Career Transitions [00:19:50]
- The Right Partner [00:24:24]
- Fluid-and-Crystallized-Intelligence [00:30:00]
- Exploring the Next Curve [00:40:13]
- Happiness Is 50% Genetic [00:48:12]
- India and Spirituality: A Case Study [00:50:27]
- True Love [00:54:03]
- Eulogy and Resume Virtues [00:59:08]
How to Find Happiness, Success & Deep Purpose in Life | With Harvard Professor Arthur C. Brooks
“Your life is your startup. You’re a startup entrepreneur but your life and the currency of that is the love in your life, which should be explosive and magical.”
“The right partner for somebody who’s a life entrepreneur is somebody who helps you understand that nothing matters. It’s all just fluff. It’s all just the world. If you fall on your head, it doesn’t matter. If you fail, it doesn’t matter. If you go bankrupt, it doesn’t matter. What matters, at the end of the day, is love. Love is going to be there.”
“What we’re talking about is the fine line between excellence and obsession. You find any professional athlete, any professional musician, any profession, anybody who’s great at what they do, they’re going to be just walking that line, and sometimes they’re going to be on the wrong side of it. The happiest ones are excellent and not obsessed. The unhappiest ones are way over the obsession side. Why is that?”
My guest is Arthur C. Brooks. I was excited to talk to Arthur because his latest book, From Strength to Strength, felt special to me and something that I was excited to share with you. Arthur has penned twelve other books. He is a New York Times bestseller. You might know some of his other books like Love Your Enemies and The Conservative Heart. His passion right now is how to live a better and happier life.
From Strength to Strength puts out in such a beautiful and clear way these arcs in our life and how we jump from our younger years and maybe prior to our midlife into the next to give us long-lasting purpose, sense of satisfaction, connection, and where should we be investing our time. He talks about eulogy virtues and résumé virtues. It’s important to keep talking about these things.
We live in a world that’s very loud and it says, “When we talked about success and addiction, the more successful and driven you are, the more money you make, the more shiny things are, the more attention you get, then you’ll be happy.” We know it’s not the case but we need those healthy and scientific reminders with a million examples from history whether it’s Darwin. You would have thought that Darwin felt pretty good about his work at the end of his life but it’s not the case.
I was glad that we got to sit down and talk about some of the other things. Arthur’s had a lot of jobs. He was a professional French horn player. He ran a Think Tank in DC, the American Enterprise Institute. He is a professor at Harvard. His ability to communicate, his intelligence, his curiosity, and his heart and compassion, we need more of it. I hope you enjoy the show.
Arthur, thank you for joining me. I want to tell you that I loved your book.
Thank you, Gabby. What a great honor to be with you. What a delight to talk to your audience probably about something different than what they hear about ordinarily.
It’s all connected. I have to be honest, the longer I get into the space of self-care, whatever people want to label it, health and fitness, wellness, or whatever they want to say, when you start drilling down on things, one of the things feeling good is your spirit and your ability to continue to expand and grow. That doesn’t necessarily mean for me that you get more or you have more accomplishments but the notion of real expansion. Your book, From Strength to Strength, is right in our wheelhouse if you will.
You want people to live better and happier lives. The wellness and fitness part of it should be complimentary to it. Unfortunately, for too many people, one of the things I’ve done a lot of research on, wellness and fitness is antagonistic to a lifestyle full of prosperity and happiness.
Six-pack abs can often be against functional movement, physically and metaphorically. It’s this idea, “I should look like that. I’m shredded.” You go, “Yes.” For a lot of people, it’s completely non-functional to look like that in a resting position. It’s true because our whole thing is how do we train the organism to be better and more effective? It’s ideas that you have in Strength to Strength. Let’s dive in. I appreciate you’re personal story and maybe we can start there. Who knows that they’re a prodigy in a musical instrument? How old do you have to be? Are you 7 or 8 and people are going, “Arthur is very talented at the French horn.” How does that show up?
It’s such a weird thing. America is a great country. You can be a prodigy in the French horn. I started the violin when I was 4 and the piano when I was 5. I got involved in the French horn because I liked it and I was good at it when I was about 8. It was clear from the beginning, from the first days playing it, that I had an unusual ability to play the French horn.
There are so many things you can do and the key thing is finding something you’re good at and then focusing your passion on it in a healthy way. I wasn’t entirely healthy about it and there are lots of things in the book about that. The whole point is I learned how to get good at something. I learned how to master something.
It’s very much like athletics, which is your world. You’re a professional athlete. Except that it’s more fine motor skills as opposed to gross motor skills. All of the disciplines turn out to be the same. The result is my entire childhood was all about discipline and practice. It was all about dominating my own passions and subjugating them to something bigger and better. I’m still getting the benefits of that. I haven’t played a concert in almost 30 years. I’m still a French horn player.
I’m going to push back on that. One of the things you have done very well is to play the French horn and all of those lessons and that ability to hyper-focus and learn. You talk about this whole notion of identity all the time. I’ve gone through it, like, “You’re that volleyball player.” “No. I’m Gabby.” I know what you mean, all of the schooling. You’re 19, you’re kicking ass, you’re traveling around, doing 100 concerts a year, and things like that. You start to notice that it’s different. Your whole thing was like, “I’m going to be the best French horn player in the world.”
That was what I was going to do. A lot of what you said shows this complicated relationship that people have with excellence. There’s the good side. There’s the light side, which is the discipline, which is the ability to focus, which is the ability to dominate anything. How do you get a popular podcast? First, you become a professional volleyball player. The truth is all of those things are fungible. There’s the dark side and the dark side is the unbelievable self-objectification that comes from saying, “I’m going to be number one in something.”
[bctt tweet=”Your passion is about living. It’s about loving. It’s not about what makes your paycheck.”]
Ordinarily, by the way, that comes from the objectification of your parents who say, “Gabby, you’re so good. You get such good grades. You’re so good at what you do. You’re number one.” Of course, you start to see yourself as a success machine where people are going to love you if you succeed or you’re going to feel good if you succeed.
The result of that is that you become a success addict, a self-objectifying person. That’s the dark side. We got to recognize that everybody who’s listening to this and want to be great at what they do, good for you. There are wonderful parts to that. You’re going to get what you want. Your dreams are going to come true. You just got to have the right dreams and that’s the tricky part.
Personally, I fell into everything. Along the way, it was a discovery, which protected me. It was never an expectation. When I got a scholarship to college, it was like, “Really?” I was like, “I know.” I was late. When I went to play professionally, it was weird. That protected me. You have three children. I want to use that for a moment. I have three daughters. We use these languages as parents all the time, “You’re really smart. You’re funny.” It’s that fine pocket of loving our children and supporting them with belief. Have you figured out ways to encourage them without these big and fat labels that they go, “That feels good so I’ll keep repeating that.”
I thought about that a lot. Part of the reason is that I went through this as one of these kids who’s ultra good at something and completely objectified by that and going through a career and having a career bull blow up and all that kind of stuff. I’m a PhD social scientist. I should be able to turn my microscope on myself. My laboratory is life. If I hear you explaining to somebody in a Starbucks line behind me that your heart has been broken by somebody, keep your voice down. I might write a book about it because that’s my laboratory. My test study subjects are often my own children.
I thought about this an awful lot. You want them to have confidence. You want them to feel special. You want them to feel they can achieve excellence. You don’t want to make them into something such that they’re objectified in this particular way. Each one of my kids is different. Your life is your startup. You’re a startup entrepreneur. Your life and the currency of that is the love in your life, which should be explosive and magical. That’s the whole idea. The only way we’re going to do that is by having an original startup.
I treated my kids like startup entrepreneurs with their lives and I’m VC. I’m like, “I got to invest. Therefore, I need a business plan.” I asked my kids when they were in high school to put together a business plan for what they were going to do with their lives. They were all very different people. My first son was academically gifted. He went to Princeton. He came out and he’s a middle school math teacher. He’s the one who’s getting married. That’s his life and he built it.
My middle was an unbelievable athlete. He was a semi-pro cyclist in high school. He got a scholarship to be a cyclist. In his business plan, he said, “I don’t want it.” He went and worked as a farmer and then he joined the Marine Corps. He’s a Special Ops Marine. He’s a Scout Sniper in the Marine Corps. My little girl said, “I want to see the world.” She made a run for the border after COVID and enrolled in the University in Spain. She goes to a university in Pamplona, Spain. She’s a Spanish citizen because my wife is Spanish. She’s doing her own thing, too. It’s unbelievable.
Each one of them has done that. The result is they’re finding their own path without my manipulation. That’s the whole idea. I can cheer them on and I can invest. A good venture capitalist doesn’t say, “Here’s what you have to do.” A good venture capitalist says, “Figure out what you’re going to do and make it original, beautiful, it good, and then I’ll invest.” That’s how I’m trying to do it as a parent.
Do you know how weirdly we have things that worked for us? You, for example. Let’s say you started in the route of music in the beginning. You’ve done many things since then. Sometimes our filter gets so influenced by what worked for us that the temptation to try to slap it on our kids is so powerful. I have a daughter who’s very tall and athletic. She’s good at school. I have to check myself and be like, “That’s good too.”
Athletics is what got me out of one life and into another life. To your point, they’re building their life and trying to find a way to honor that. I appreciate that. Sometimes, privately, you have to really look at yourself and go, “I’m putting all my stuff on them and projecting what has worked for me on them over and over instead of letting them do it their unique way.”
There are a couple of different things in that. One is that there’s a natural tendency. We see this in a lot of data. We see this in my world of social science. Parents project their autobiography onto the blank screen of their kids. It’s like a Super 8 film onto the kid. The screen doesn’t behave the way the screen is supposed to behave. You’re like, “Hold still. I’m trying to project my life onto you for Pete’s sake. You have so much more going for you than I ever had for me. Finally, you can become the person that I wanted to be.”
By the way, I’m not immune from this. I remember, at one point, my oldest son was having problems in college as everybody has in college. I remember I was frustrated with him. It was his junior year in college. I’m supposed to be an expert in this but we all have feet of clay. At this very weak moment, I said, “Do you realize how much we’ve worked for this?” I thought, “What came out of my mouth?”
Of course, I worked hard but I didn’t work hard for him to go to Princeton University. I made a living and paid for his tuition. Are you kidding me? That’s ridiculous that I should put it this way. What I was doing was projecting my own insecurities. I didn’t get into a good college. I got tossed out of college when I was 19. The reason why I became a professional French horn player is that I wasn’t doing the work in college. I didn’t do my required classes.
I was taking North Indian classical drumming and Indonesian dance instead of my required classes. They’re like, “Maybe you should pursue your excellence elsewhere, young man.” I come from an academic family. My dad was a professor. My grandfather was a professor. My son was doing all the stuff that I always wanted to do. What it means to be a parent is being super self-aware.
It’s never-ending. Let’s go back to when you were 21 and pieces that are normal or easy for you to play all of the sudden start becoming a little bit more challenging. You start having an experience that redirected your path.
That’s for sure. I fell off the stage at Carnegie Hall in the middle of a concert. That’s an experience. Anytime anybody says that they have a bad day at work, I’m like, “A little respect here.” I fell off the stage in my Carnegie Hall debut into the audience. It was so horrible. It was this crazy thing.
What happened was I was a very nervous public speaker. Now, I do 175 speeches a year. The reason is that everything is easy in life when you’re not holding a French horn. Back then, I was so nervous about speaking in public. I was giving this concert and it was going well but I had to speak and I was so nervous when it came my time to speak. I was walking unsteadily toward the audience and holding my French horn and I wasn’t watching my feet.
I got too close to the edge of the stage and one foot hit the lip of the stage and down I went six feet onto the instrument. It was embarrassing. The New York Times was there. It was a bad day. It was emblematic because, at the time, it was this weird thing. Since I have a lot of friends, professional athletes, that I’ve talked to because of the work that I do in human performance, a lot of them will say this too that a lot of professional athletes get better and better through their teams.
For example, I’ve met a lot of cyclists. Cyclists are supposed to get better through their 20s and they’re supposed to start peaking in their late 20s, even early 30s. What happens to a lot of them that they don’t quite know why is because of the mechanics or whatever, some of them peak way early and go into decline in their early 20s. They’re just not going to make it. They don’t know until they get there. It happens in classical music and it happens in a lot of different fields but mostly in physically demanding fields where you have to play an instrument or you have to do a sport. That was happening to me.
I went to the best teachers in the world. Things were getting harder. I was getting worst. I practiced all the time. I couldn’t figure it out. I got married when I was in my mid-20s like a lot of people do. We got married in Barcelona. I was in the Barcelona Symphony by this time. My wife, who’s always been my guru, says, “Why don’t you do something else?” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” That’s like I belong to a cult and you’re asking me to not be in the cult. You’re saying, “Be a different person.” It didn’t mean anything to me.
I couldn’t even understand the context of the question. Who was Arthur Brooks? Arthur Brooks, the famous French horn player. That was the problem. She got to the root of the problem by saying, “Why don’t you just be Arthur Brooks?” I’m like, “I don’t get it. It’s like cutting off my arm.” The more I thought about it, I thought, “Why not? What would happen?” Secretly, I went to college by correspondence to see what else there was. I got a bachelor’s degree a month before my 30th birthday. It changed my life. College changed my life. I never set a foot in the classroom.
You have been a Harvard professor. Let’s jump ahead for a second. You do talk about in Strength to Strength that you were secretly or maybe a little more quiet about having an unconventional education. It’s interesting. You work with a prestigious institution and yet you still have this thing of like, “I had it unconventional.”
I’m only bringing that up because most people have what they perceive as unconventional paths. To remind everyone, we don’t know. After going to school, what does it look like for you? You’ve had a lot of careers. You’re part of the Think Tank, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, and things like that. How does it go along for you? How does that transition go from professional musician and then all these other careers?
That was a hard transition. The way it worked was I’ve always had this philosophy that you get to invent your life. I’ve always been very much of the view. Anybody who follows your show is going to agree with this. You get to invent your life. Everybody’s nodding their heads. They wouldn’t be following this show if they didn’t want to invent their lives, if they didn’t want to improve their lives, or if they didn’t want to be the captain of their own ship.
It’s hard to do it. It’s especially hard to go from not traditionally educated, classical musician, to going into academia. What I did was I finished my bachelor’s degree and I was interested in social science, behavioral stuff, and how human beings tick. I did a Master’s degree at night without telling anybody. I’m like, “I got to make a decision here.” I left music. My wife was supporting me. At this point, I’m 31 and I started my PhD.
I started my PhD in policy analysis, which is a multifaceted social science, a mathematical thing. It was so hard because I have never taken any math courses before. I was getting tutoring all over the place and doing the absolute best that I could. I was convinced that if I figured out how the system worked, I could make it work for me.
After a couple of years, it started to get easier. By the time I finished my PhD, I became a professor at that point. I had made this switch, as big as you can get, from classical French horn player to PhD social scientist college professor. I was like, “It’s not the last change. I’m going to do this every ten years.” I decided that I’m going to have ten-year cycles. I’m going to take my career down to the studs and do it again and again.
It’s interesting to have two lives. All of the good parts about being a French horn player, I ported over into becoming a public speaker, writer, and professor. After ten years of that, I became the CEO of a Think Tank in Washington DC. For people who aren’t nerds and don’t know what a Think Tank is, a Think Tank is a university without students. It’s a research institution that does work to improve public policy, economic policy, foreign defense policy, education, health, you name it. Washington DC has one of the oldest Think Tanks in the world. We have over 300 employees.
Here’s the big challenge with that, I had to go from teaching university students to becoming a chief executive with a big workforce. I had to raise $50 million a year in philanthropy. Going and asking people for money, I’d never done that before. I never asked for $1 before. That was the big thing I had to figure out. I did that for ten years. It went well. When I was in my early to mid-50s, I was thinking, “What’s next?” I thought about it. I discerned about it. I meditated and I was in prayer about this for a long time. I’m a Catholic. That’s an important part of my life. I spent a lot of time in prayer.
I thought, “What’s next?” I decided I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to lifting people up and bringing them together in bonds of happiness and love using my intellect and ideas. I retired as a CEO and I took a senior professorship at Harvard University at the business school and the policy school, the Harvard Kennedy School. Now, I teach happiness to students and I write about it in the Atlantic. Gabby, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
Also, I do feel that if we have these opportunities to move into things. I don’t want to say gracefully because I don’t mean it in a passive way but there is something when we start getting into a rhythm of our own essence. You’re trying to connect with people and make them happy. I want to ask a couple of questions before we move on to how did you get to these two big curves in your life. First of all, Ester, you couldn’t have done this without the right partner.
What is it that she was able to provide to allow this room for you to land? It’s already scary enough to try to do it. What does she do? What environment is created that encourages someone to be able to do that?
[bctt tweet=”The happiest ones are excellent and not obsessed and the unhappiest ones are way over the obsession side.”]
Gabby, you’re the first person who’s ever asked me that question before. There’s an actual answer to it. The right partner for somebody who’s a life entrepreneur is somebody who helps you understand that nothing matters. It’s all just fluff. It’s all just the world. If you fall on your head, it doesn’t matter. If you fail, it doesn’t matter. If you go bankrupt, it doesn’t matter. What matters, at the end of the day, is love. Love is going to be there.
That’s the safety net. I have this perfect safety net. It’s not money, security, or a home. I have love. That was what it was. I knew that no matter how much of a failure I was ever going to be, which some days it was certainly going to feel that way, my wife is going to love me exactly the same. No matter how good it was, she wouldn’t care.
I remember when we were preparing From Strength to Strength, she said, “What do you hope happens?” I said, “I hope it’s the number one New York Times bestseller.” She said, “You shouldn’t care about that. I don’t care about that.” I said, “Let’s just see.” It was and she didn’t. She didn’t care about it. She didn’t ask about it. I had to bring it up.
The part that you were in charge of was done. You wrote the book. You did the book. The other thing is when you do it because you want to and you set it out there, how people respond, you’re not going to control that anyway. You did the part. Do you think Ester was born this way? That’s something that, a lot of times, takes us a lot of work to get to. It’s very unusual to have someone who is there that early in life.
She loves me unconditionally from the very beginning. We had a weird beginning. That was an unusual beginning. It was an entrepreneurial beginning. We met at a concert that I was playing in France. I was on tour in the burgundy region of France. I saw this girl who was smiling at me. I’m like, “That’s awesome.”
I’m a red-blooded, 24-year-old man, and I go talk to her. She’s so beautiful. It turns out that she speaks zero words of English. I can only figure out through an interpreter that she’s not French. She’s from Barcelona. She’s Spanish. I figured out how to convince her to go to dinner with me, which was unbelievably awkward. No words in common. I spoke nothing but English and she didn’t speak English at all.
I called my dad after a week. I’d gone out with her three times that week. I went home and I called my dad and said, “Dad, I met the girl I’m going to marry.” He’s like, “Great. When can I meet her?” I said, “I got a problem. She’s not in the United States. She doesn’t speak English. She has no idea we’re going to get married. I don’t want a restraining order put on me.” What I did was I put a plan together to move to Spain, get a job in an orchestra in Spain, and learn the language so that I could propose to her.
I studied Spanish and Catalan. I made a living in the whole thing. It took me a year and a half to close that deal, by the way. This 2022, we celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary. She’s the kind of person who’s like, “Whatever. Good. Let’s do that, get married. Foreigner, yeah. He seems nice.” Sometimes there’s a cosmic convergence. This is not soulmates. Intuition is what it comes down to.
She didn’t have the criteria to love me conditionally from the very beginning because we didn’t even speak the same language for years. Our communication is marginally improved in the past several years. It’s the thing where it’s like, “How could she put conditions? She couldn’t understand me. I couldn’t understand her.” We’re just going to love each other. That’s what is going to be.
I have to say, when I hear that, there’s something beautiful when you overcomplicate everything sometimes. Maybe when you’re learning to communicate the essential way, there’s a connection and chemistry between the two of you that’s natural. There’s something so powerful about the big chunks. Sometimes, it’s the noise. It‘s like, “I don’t like the way you said that to me.” It’s like, “Really?”
If you’ve been in a long relationship after a while, you try to stay focused on, “Is this important? Is this what we need to focus on?” That struck me in the book. It was very loud and clear. I was like, “This woman is an interesting partner to be able to navigate this with somebody.”Strength to Strength, you read something, and you see something. I don’t know if I jumped the gun. It was some report about these natural arcs in our life. Taking on books is no joke and saying, “I’m going to dive in and write about this.” What prompted that?
You’ve talked about these arcs of different things, going through stages, going from different jobs and careers, pretty radical shifts. One of the things that I noticed is that what used to be easy for me wasn’t. For example, when I first came out of graduate school with my doctorate, I was writing these technical mathematical articles. It’s so mathematically technical that I can’t read them today. I don’t know what I was writing about when I was 35. I could probably get the groove back a little bit but not entirely.
I noticed that there was something different going on. However, I noticed that by the time I was in my early 50s, I was much better at explaining complex concepts than ever before. I had much better pattern recognition. I was exhibiting a lot more wisdom. I started looking at what social psych literature had to say about that. It turns out there was a guy named Raymond Cattell. He was a British social psychologist from the mid-20th century who noticed that there are two types of geniuses out there.
There are geniuses who peak early. They show natural gifts in their teens. In their 20s, they get better and better through 10,000 hours. At what they’re good at, they become unbelievably good at. They peak usually in their late 30s and then start to decline. These are the people that have focus, innovative capacity, working memory, and high levels of creativity, especially in sciences but not exclusively in the sciences.
They find that they start burning out on what they do in their early 40s because they’re not making progress anymore. This is the key thing. Your dentist who’s a good dentist, weirdly, starts taking Fridays off when he’s 43 and you’re like, “I thought he loved being a dentist?” The answer is he doesn’t like it as much anymore and he can’t quite put his finger on it. It’s because he’s no longer making progress in his skill. You can’t tell. He’s not drilling the wrong tooth in Gabby’s mouth. He notices and he’s the one who’s the person who has to please. That’s the first kind of genius.
The second type of genius blooms much later. You’ll find geniuses that are unbelievable at teaching. For example, they’re good at putting ideas together that already exist. These are the historians. These are the professors. These are the team leaders. These are the CEOs that are real coaches. What you find is that the early kind of genius is the startup entrepreneur. The later kind of genius is the venture capitalist. The early kind of genius is the academic researcher. The later kind of genius is the master teacher. The early genius is the star litigator. The later genius is the managing partner of a law firm that makes the law firm unbelievably rich.
Cattell called it fluid intelligence in the first curve and crystallized intelligence in the second curve. It’s your brain’s curve and your wisdom curve. Your wisdom curve increases through your 30s and 40s. It gets high in your 50s and 60s and stays high in your 70s and 80s. Here’s the trick, Gabby. You need to be on your fluid intelligence curve and in your 40s, walk across to your crystallized intelligence curve, and that’s what your career, job, or life transition should be.
You give a lot of examples in the book. You talk about Darwin having his own frustration at the end of his life or feeling dissatisfied because he couldn’t continue this hyper-achieving mentality. This is important, too. If you’ve been identified with something good early in your life, there is a bigger chance at the end of your life’s arc that you will be more disappointed or unhappy than somebody who lives “a regular life” or never was overly celebrated, like, “You’re extra smart, talented, and athletic.”
It’s those relationships and that jump that you’re talking about that can help us avoid that. When I was reading it, I thought that most of us get bogged down. We’re on a track, we’re rolling. Do you think inside somebody knows that it might be time? You said specifically in your 40s. Let’s say we didn’t know about fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence and these curves. Don’t you think if we paid attention inside that most of us would go, “I’ve done this.”
One of the reasons that people start burning out is because they’ve done it and it’s not getting easier, it’s not getting more innovative, and it’s not getting better. When you start feeling burnout in something you’re unbelievably good at, that’s the first sign you’re on the wrong side of the fluid intelligence curve. It’s time to start thinking about getting on the second curve.
It doesn’t mean you got to change jobs radically like me. That’s insanity. It might mean you need to change the focus of what you do. It might mean that you need to change going from being the hotshot cowboy in your company to being the person who coaches and forms teams in your company. There are lots of ways to do this.
As we say in my business, your results may differ but the one way they’re not going to differ is that you’re not going to be on your fluid intelligence curve when you’re 70. You’re going to be on it but you’re going to be in the basement on it. You’re going to feel chained to it and it’s going to feel like it’s too late. I’ve got case after case in this book about people who did it wrong.
You’re talking about Darwin. Darwin was the king of the mambo for science when he was in his late 20s. He presented the Theory of Evolution when he was 27 years old, the beginnings of it at least. He dined out on that for the next 30 years. After that, he was not able to come up with new ideas and he couldn’t figure out why.
He didn’t have the mathematical capacity. He didn’t have the innovation in his bones. He started doing derivative work for the rest of his life and he died considering himself to be a disappointment, one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. The key thing is that the people who have gotten older and they’re happy and continue to feel successful have migrated from that 1st curve to that 2nd curve, from the innovation curve to the instruction curve. They go from being poets to becoming historians. That’s what I’m talking about.
I want to look at this in a couple of different ways. When you’re young, unless you’re someone like you who you knew early you have this passion, it’s already hard enough to jump on our first curve for most people. It’s that question, what do you want to do with your life? I always think people are more fortunate when they’re either raised in a way to ask that question all along and invited to do that. For a lot of people, it’s hard to find their thing.
Let’s say they’re on their thing, they finally put it together, and now we’re saying to them, “By the way, you got to find another thing or a different version of it.” What would you say to people that are like, “Arthur, I finally put it together. Now you’re saying I should look ahead in all the other ways I’d like to contribute.” I thought about that a lot.
A lot of people struggle with that. I find in my students that they think the world is supposed to tell them what their passion is. They’re envious of people like you. In college, you found that you were a superstar athlete and then you were recruited to be a professional athlete, which is everybody’s dream. It turns out, it’s not that great in a lot of ways. It’s not that fun all the time. Professional athletes are not the happiest people. If you make something fun into your job, it’s going to become a job. There’s a lot of complicated stuff that goes into that, for sure.
A lot of people think the world is going to roll around at their feet. They say, “I’m going to go to the fanciest college I can get into. In college, I’m going to figure out what I like. I’m going to take a bunch of classes. I’m going to get jazzed by something and I’ll make it my major. I can do that for a living.” They take a bunch of classes but they’re still not passionate when they come out. They take a job after college. After a couple of years, they’re like, “Maybe I’ll get a Master’s degree, and then the world will tell me what I’m supposed to like.”
I get MBA students at the Harvard Business School and the last semester of their last year in my happiness class and they’re like, “I’m still not completely sure.” Of course, you’re not. There are a whole bunch of reasons for that. The idea of finding this abiding passion that the world is going to reveal itself to you, that’s not right. Part of the reason is that your passion is about living and loving. It’s not about what makes your paycheck. There are details.
For example, figuring out that you’re interested in science, that’s a lot more important than your passion is would be working at a bioengineering firm in Boston. That’s the expression of a particular passion. It’s learning about things that make you interested, that can make it possible for you to serve other people, that makes you feel more alive than you were when you weren’t doing it, these are the ways that I work through my students to find the things. These give you categories and things.
Everybody can do a bunch of things. There’s a huge number. You got to find the right category. You don’t have to find exactly the right thing. Once you’ve got that category, have some fun. Do some different things. Your first job shouldn’t last you more than about eighteen months anyway, knock yourself out. Go live in a couple of different places. Live a little. When you’re in your late 30s, early 40s, and mid-40s start thinking about migrating the way that you do it to get from that 1st curve and the 2nd curve. This lowers the stakes.
[bctt tweet=”A lot of people struggle and think that the world is supposed to tell them what their passion is.”]
Forgive me for not remembering the group in New Mexico, the mentor group.
The Modern Elder Academy. That’s Chip Conley’s group.
If someone is declining off their fluid intelligence and they’re looking, what could we invite them to look as ways now to, “How would I explore then this next curve?”
There are a couple of ways to do that. Here’s one of the exercises that I give when I’m coaching executives, for example. I talk to a lot of people in their early 40s that are thinking about this and some who are a little bit late to the game like I was. Here’s how I think about it. One of the things that we know from the literature is that you’re going to get your heart’s desire. I know that sounds crazy. It sounds like only Gabby Reece gets her heart’s desire by being a professional volleyball player.
The truth is that wasn’t your heart’s desire probably. The truth is that, with your husband and your children, you are getting your heart’s desire. We get our heart’s desire. If you want to make more money than your friends, you probably will. If you want to have better relationships than other people, you probably will. If you put where your heart is, that’s where your treasure is stored up. This is the biblical principle but it’s a principle of philosophy and life.
What I do with my students is I say, imagine yourself in five years. For some people who are reading this and are 25 years old, imagine you’re 30. Imagine yourself in five years and you’re happy. You know what that means. You know how that feels, at least. It takes a little while. Write down the five things that are the big reasons that you are happy in your own estimation, in your future self. What are the five things that would need to be going on in your life that are going to lead you to say, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
After you’ve done that, ask yourself this question, “What am I most actively managing to?” The answer is probably number 4 and 5. You’re probably not actively managing numbers 1 and 2 because that has to do with stuff that you’re hoping that the world will do to you. “I’ll meet the love of my life.” “Suddenly, I’ll have a better relationship with my parents.” “I’ll be a better friend than I was before.” Manage that actively and you will find your vocation and then magic will happen because of these other things about your passion around your worldly vocation and it will find you. It’s not going to find you when you’re not doing what you need to do for the enterprise of your own life optimally.
It’s funny how it’s in conflict though. When we can tune everything out and get in touch with what we want and like, it always seems not enough or, in the world’s view, too small or too quiet. It doesn’t have big sexy around it. You talked about the Harvard study, the oldest study there is about this group of men, some from the university but also other high-risk groups. This study is they’d be in their 80s and 90s and they’re studying their grandchildren.
We could have told you when they were 50, based on their connections, who was going to work out and feel pretty good by the time they were 80 based on relationships. I don’t know where it goes. When I thought about this book, I think about culture, communities, civilization, and humanity. It would make perfect sense that people of my age and your age would be there to be of service, to be mentors, to coach, to uplift, and to share because it would seem that that’s how it would work well.
It wouldn’t be like, “You got to knock me off the mountain.” It would be like, “I’ve done this. I know some stuff. I can help you and elevate you.” When you talk about Strength to Strength, it also seems like the way a real community and civilization would work. It seems like it’s the way it’s supposed to be but somehow we don’t teach it, celebrate it, and cultivate it.
Part of it is that there’s a conspiracy. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but there’s a conspiracy. The conspiracy is Mother Nature. What happens is that Mother Nature is conspiring against our happiness. Back in the day, the hippies used to say, “If it feels good, do it.” That is the stupidest advice ever. That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. That is life-ruining advice. Mother Nature wants one thing. Everybody is supposed to pass on their genes, that’s what mother nature wants. That’s it. It turns out, that’s insanity.
To begin with, I don’t want 75 children. That’s not even what I want. My biological imperative is to pass on my genes. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy. To pass on your genes, what your natural tendency is to want is four things, money, power, pleasure, and prestige. Those are the big four. Those are idols in life. Your intuition, the limbic system of your brain, which is the ancient part of your brain that evolved over a 40 million-year period, is always saying, “Money, power, pleasure, and fame. If you get that, you’ll be happy.” No, you won’t.
Your limbic system is amplified by social media, the entertainment complex, marketing, the economy, etc. All that stuff is an extension of our brains. Mother Nature is at fault here. You got to stand up to Mother Nature. That’s what we have to do. It turns out that we need to go from four of those idols. St. Thomas Aquinas in 1265 called those the Idols of Life. You got to turn from those four that are your happiness 401(k) plan. That’s faith, family, friends, and work that does two things, you serve others and you earn your success.
I don’t care if you’re an electrician, a college professor, a volleyball player, or a podcaster, you have to earn your success and you have to serve other people. You got to make enough money to support your family, obviously. High levels of money and low lows of money are indistinguishable when it comes to the joy that comes from that. You can’t over-index on work. You also have to have in your portfolio the faith part.
By the way, I don’t mean my faith. I mean a transcendent view of life, something bigger and more spiritual. Also, family life is critically important. Don’t walk away from your family, especially because of politics. That’s stepping over $100 bills to get the nickels. Also, friendship. For all you strivers out there, real friends and not deal friends. You all know the difference.
I love that you said that you were on the phone call and your son is the one who was like, “Is that a real friend or a deal friend?” Women congregate and have friendships more easily and maintain them and you talk about that. Especially for men, encouraging them. I don’t mean getting hammered at the golf course but real friends that you can talk to and say, “I’m going through this. What do you think about that?” Especially as we get older.
You talked about your grandfather naturally going from one curve to the next. That was an interesting observation. I’m curious about something in your pursuit. You mentioned that you’re driving a car with your father and he says that he’s got half a tank of gas and you’re going somewhere. He’s like, “We’re going to run out of gas.” All your work and all of this, was any of this a reaction to something about that?
The one thing that we know where the answer is yes is that 50% of your happiness is genetic. Between 40 and 80% of almost every part of your personality is genetic. We know this from identical twins that were adopted as separate families and reunited as adults and given personality tests. That’s incredibly empowering news because all genetics is both proclivities and switches. Here’s what I mean. We find from the literature that 60% of the tendency toward alcohol abuse is genetic.
I have a behavioral switch that can turn that to zero. It’s like magic. It’s called, “Don’t drink.” By the way, why I don’t drink is because I’ve got tons of alcoholism in my family so I don’t drink alcohol. The reason that I spend an hour a day in the gym is that I know exactly what my genetic proclivities are and they’re not to be healthy. I have to work my switches. If you have gloomy genetics, you need better habits. That’s the empowerment on this. That’s the key thing on this.
My dad was very gloomy. He struggled a lot. He saw the dark clouds and everything. He died young. What does that mean? I need better happiness hygiene. Guess what? I’m a social scientist. I specialize in this. One of the reasons I do this is it’s not research. Gabby, it’s me-search. I’m using my switches to supersede my genetics.
I see a lot of my dad in me. I see a lot of my mom in me. My mom was a professional artist in the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in Seattle. I’m a combination for good and for ill but I’ve got the data and I know my habits of faith, family, friendship, and work that serves other people. These are the switches that render the bad parts of genetics unimportant.
It’s a great point. You talked about your relationship with India. I know you’ve gone there many times. Maybe you could share what is your experience and why it’s important.
One of the things that’s important for a broad perspective and also greater happiness is getting input on parts of life that are not native to you, maybe even a little bit foreign to you. You need to have your world rocked a little bit and you need to do that substantially and regularly. For me, part of that was trying to broaden my intellectual and spiritual horizons by going to India. I went to India for the first time when I was 19 on a concert tour.
It was wild because this was 1983. The poverty, I’ve never seen anything like it. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at as a matter of fact. I started going back when I was in my 40s and it was a very different country. India has been a case study in successfully bringing people into the middle class through market dynamics. The free enterprise system has pulled maybe 400 million people out of poverty in India. It’s incredible what has happened. It’s still poor but it’s not poor the way it was before.
When I started going back to India professionally in my mid-40s, I started seeking out spiritual teachers that could expand my horizons. I went to Dharamsala a bunch of times. I’ve been working with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, very closely for the past several years. We’ve written together. I’ve interviewed him in public many times. He guest-lectured in my class at Harvard from Zoom during the Coronavirus epidemic. He’s been incredibly helpful to me. I’ve studied meditation with his Tibetan Buddhist monks at his monastery.
In Southern India, I’ve also sought out Hindu masters that can bring me ideas that I never would have found. They’re still relatively by Western standards inaccessible. They’re not on the internet. Part of that is because a lot of this stuff has never been translated from Sanskrit or Hindi even. It exists in the minds of these deep religious believers. I go there a lot because I want my world rocked. I want to find out where I’m wrong. I want to find out where I can expand. I want to have more love for more ideas. I want a bigger heart.
You can relate to this. When we’re younger, we’re supposed to be good at something. Somewhere, this got shoved on us. You go through that and you realize that it’s the exact thing that can crush you if you don’t get away from it quick enough. I wanted to bring up this delicate teeter-totter seesaw between striving and not neglecting your entire life but then also being prepared to completely downshift and live differently. They’re almost in contrast. I understand it pretty intimately myself when you have a family and you’re of service.
I have people that come here and train and they’re in the NFL or the NBA and it’s like, “It’s about helping them.” I’m saying not even a monetary exchange, a real exchange. It’s like, “I’ll show you what I know.” Also, this other memory, “I was the sharp end of a stick, finely tuned, and dialed in.” Maybe I can ask you about that transition and always balancing those two. Also, it’s when you’re trying to be honest with yourself.
What we’re talking about is the fine line between excellence and obsession. You find any professional athlete, any professional musician, and anybody who’s great at what they do, they’re going to be walking that line, and sometimes they’re going to be on the wrong side of it. The happiest ones are excellent and not obsessed. The unhappiest ones are way over the obsession side. Why is that? It has to do with a neurotransmitter, a neural modulator in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is behind all addictions. All addictions all work the same way.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives you desire and anticipation. It doesn’t give you a reward. It gives you anticipation of a reward. When you get addicted to something, it’s like, “I got to do it. It’s going to be so good what I did.” It doesn’t matter if it’s good when you do it. You have to think it’s going to be good when you do it because dopamine lies. Dopamine is a liar. It’s whispering in your ear how great it’s going to be.
This is what lies behind gambling addiction, which is bad. Methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes, and pornography, all these really bad addictive things have dopamine behind them. We get incredibly adept at producing dopamine. We become dopamine monkeys. This is what we’re good at. Now let’s get to Gabby, Arthur, and all of the success-obsessed dopamine monkeys out there. You have an addiction. It’s called success addiction. That comes from the self-objectification usually early on. Get the success, get the cookie, get the reward, and start again. Run. That’s the obsession part of it.
Here’s the reason that it’s a real problem. To begin with, you’ll never be successful enough. That’s why you find these people. I’ve met Elon Musk but I don’t know him or Arnold Schwarzenegger or people who are like, “The next thing. I want bigger.” That’s dopamine. They do great things for our society but do you want to be married to that? This gets to the main part of your question, the reason that’s a problem is all addictions are relationships. What you find with people who are obsessed with their success is that that’s their main love relationship. It’s not with themselves but with their own success and the vision of their success.
What they’re chasing is true love, “When I’m totally successful, then I’m finally going to have true love. I want true love. I’m finally going to have true love. When I make a book, number one New York Times bestseller. I got an Oscar. I have a million downloads a month on my podcast then I’ll find true love.” That’s the dopamine lying to you and that’s the success addiction, which is substituting for true human relationships.
What you need to do is to recognize it. It’s what we call metacognition where you’re aware so that you can manage this yourself. You can open up the relationship that you’re occupying with the success addiction and you can occupy it with real human love, with your friends, with your romantic love, with your family relationships. You cannot do this without actual love.
Arthur, I can talk to you all day but I want to end this interview with something that I also feel was important where you talked about resume virtues and eulogy virtues because that was very clear. I want to say this as somebody who, at times, has gotten attention and has not. I have to be honest, I met my husband when I was 25. Besides being with him, having a family with him, and adoring him, the other great thing was that, in real-time, there would be a lot of situations where I got more attention and he got more attention. Sometimes I’m just his wife. I’m there to make his dinner.
There’s something when you can see in real-time how unsustainable getting attention is, that you can take your teeth out of it a little bit. That not only helped me but humbled me. Also, I don’t think it was my end goal. I enjoyed being on a team. I enjoyed working hard. My point is that I thought that was also important. This thing that you’re talking about, family, friendship, and faith., it’s very quiet. It takes work. When we get off here, you have all your family coming there. Your son is getting married. Someone’s going to have to take the garbage out. It’s not sexy all the time. When you talked about eulogy virtues and resume virtues, I thought that was something that people would understand so clearly.
We talked about the exercise where you put the five things that are going to be making you happy. Nobody’s dumb. They know what they are. Number 1 and 2 are your eulogy virtues. What is that? That’s the stuff that people say about you in your eulogy. If they got nothing to say about your family life, “She was a good mother. She was a beloved friend. She was a wonderful daughter.” All they can say is, “She was a good athlete.” It’s like, “What a bummer.” That’s depressing.
I hate bucket lists. I’ve talked about that in the book. Maybe being successful professionally was on there but it was 4 or 5. If you’re thinking 1, 2, and 3 are all these eulogy virtues, your resume virtues are the things that you’re always chasing because we care about social comparison and we care about prestige. Remember, the idols are money, power, pleasure, and fame. That all leads to eulogy virtues. What do we want in life to be happy? Faith, family, friends, and work that serves. Those are eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are the first and eulogy virtues are the stuff they talked about.
I often think about this. I think about how am I spending my day today. There are certain things I need to do. I got to make a copy for my column or the Atlantic is going to be knocking on my door saying, “You got to contract here.” I got to show up for my classes or get on the plane and go in speeches and all the stuff that I do. At the end of the day, I’m thinking about what they all want to say at my funeral, “He had a million frequent flyer miles.” Not so much as it turns out. I want them to say, “He was a great grandfather. He was a friend I could count on.” I want my wife to be saying, “He was the love of my life,” and not, “He wrote some good books.”
What I’ll end on this is that you talk about that no matter who, it’s going to be forgotten. It’s not going to matter. You talk about highly powerful CEOs and then within six weeks, their programs are out after they retire and barely anyone notices that they’re gone. I thought that was such an essential part of the book besides that opportunity to learn, “I have a whole other curve I can jump on and it’s different than the first.” It is rewarding. I don’t want to say it carries me through my life.
The whole thing is I’d like to finish strong. When I say that, I mean, a sense of well-being, peace, and connection. Laird and I joke about it. Sometimes, it’d be like having this incredible seven-course meal. Right at the end, for a lot of people, they serve a tiny piece of crap for dessert. You go through your whole life and then if you haven’t dialed in some of this other stuff, you’re there on your own. Who’s coming to visit you? How do you feel?
The second curve is the other focus curve. The second curve is the service curve. The second curve is the love curve. It’s the way that you can express the values that are truly important to you. It’s your root system. Your roots are intermingling and holding up the roots of other trees underneath you. Stop thinking about your leaves. Start thinking about your roots. That’s what your second curve is all about. You can do that professionally or personally.
The bottom line is this. You referred to that famous 84-year study of Harvard graduates but also people who didn’t go to Harvard and then their spouses and their kids. It was men and women and people of different races and different social classes. In the end, the guy who ran it, a guy named George Vaillant, taught at Harvard Medical School for a long time. They said, “How do you sum up 84 years of data?” He’s like, “Five words, happiness is love, full stop.”
The book is From Strength to Strength. Arthur C. Brooks, thanks for your time. I appreciate that you put this together for us to read. Thank you.
Thank you, Gabby. Wonderful to be with you and your readers.
Thank you so much for reading this episode. If you want to learn more, there is a ton of valuable information on my website.
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- Arthur C. Brooks
- From Strength to Strength
- Love Your Enemies
- The Conservative Heart
- American Enterprise Institute
- Modern Elder Academy
About Arthur C. Brooks
Arthur C. Brooks 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. Before joining the Harvard faculty in July of 2019, he served for ten years as president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the world’s leading think tanks. Brooks is the author of 12 books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller “From Strength to Strength,” and national bestsellers “Love Your Enemies” (2019) and “The Conservative Heart” (2015). He is also a columnist for The Atlantic, host of the podcast “How to Build a Happy Life with Arthur Brooks,” and subject of the 2019 documentary film “The Pursuit,” which Variety named as one of the “Best Documentaries on Netflix” in August 2019. He gives more than 100 speeches per year around the U.S., Europe, and Asia.