Building a Better Life in the Second Half

We all desire to age well, and that motivates us to search for tips and techniques to ensure our later years are truly golden.

Scan the shelves of your favorite independent bookstore, and you’ll see rows and rows of titles promising to give us the advice we crave.

One recent book that garnered a lot of attention was the New York Times bestseller, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks. The book is most useful if you’re:

  • Ready to get on the path to planning for a second act. You’ll encounter a wealth of insights and information.
  • Wanting some validation before you act. You’ll see advice you’ve likely read before, backed up with real-life anecdotes and academic research citations.
  • Especially spiritual or religious. You’ll be gratified by the book’s grounding in familiar principles and tenets.
  • A successful white man of means. You’ll relate to Brooks’ story and find his examples particularly relevant.

But for a lot of us, the book may feel like a collection of advice we already know. That said, it’s an easy read (just 272 pages), so you can quickly mine it for tidbits that apply to you. Here are some of the takeaways.

10 Ways To Make The Most Of Your Second Act

1. Expect a Decline

Brooks invests considerable verbiage explaining that we’re all going to experience a noticeable age-related decline in our abilities – with the research to back it up (if that makes you feel better). He presents it as a kind of equalizer, perhaps to remind us we’re not alone in the experience. The sooner we accept this inevitability, the better we’ll be able to make decisions about the rest of our life.

2. Prepare for the Future

As we age, Brooks asserts, our fluid intelligence (a/k/a “smarts”) ebbs, but our crystalized intelligence abounds. This kind of intellect – domain expertise and applying what we already know — is like compound interest, building as the years go by. We can leverage this shift by taking the “second curve” and moving into jobs like teaching, coaching, and mentoring. This was Brooks’ path, moving from the presidency of the American Enterprise Institute to a teaching position at Harvard – not a path all of us could take. Find income inspiration for your next chapter.

3. Eschew Your Need for Success

As we all know by now, constant striving doesn’t always lead to the satisfaction we’re looking for. Brooks asserts that the desire to achieve more when we’re in our decline is a losing proposition that not only leads to disappointment but harms our relationships.

4. Prune Judiciously

Even if you’ve already Marie Kondo’d your life, Brooks suggests continuing to chip away at habits and things that don’t support your happiness. He suggests replacing something you strive for with something that actually makes you happy. Similarly, don’t add to your plate without taking something off of it.

5. Ponder Your Death

If you’ve done the “write your own obituary” exercise, you’ve got this chapter largely covered. Brooks’ take on this tactic is to imagine the virtues and traits you wish people will eulogize – and start living them right now. He also introduces the idea of “professional death” – a slightly overdramatic realization that the work you’ve spent your life doing may be over. No matter which death you’re contemplating, Brooks encourages us to get comfortable with the fact of death so we can stop fearing it.

6. Cultivate Community

Rafts of research now show that many tree species are actually communities rather than individual specimens (read more about this in Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest). Brooks uses this concept, illustrated with aspen trees, to remind us that happiness stems from our relationship to and with others. Building and maintaining strong relationships of all kinds is the key here. Get advice for 50+ dating.

7. Focus on Higher Powers

Brooks, himself a man of deep conviction, recommends a purposeful and daily effort to practice some form of faith or spirituality, such as prayer or meditation. The term he uses is vānaprastha, a stage of Hinduism that involves retiring to the forest. Step away, he suggests, to gain a different perspective. Learn how to use mindfulness to change the way you eat. 

8. Be like Beethoven.

Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, Brooks uses the example of the German composer to encourage us to leverage weaknesses into strengths. Ludwig, you may know, wrote some of his most heralded works after he lost his hearing. His deafness enabled him to arrange the notes exactly as he heard them in his head, uninfluenced by tastes and trends of the day.

9. Face the Truth

Because change is constant, inevitable, and a normal part of life, we should stop fighting it and instead embrace our evolution. He employs a surf-casting metaphor, inviting us to throw our lines not into the incoming water but into the ebbing flow. When we “cast into the falling tide,” we lean into the transitions we experience as we age and reap benefits from them.

10. Keep It Simple

The book’s final chapter, 7 Words to Remember, is, ironically, based on 7 words you’re unlikely to have forgotten (because they’ve been drilled into you for decades): Use things. Love people. Worship the divine.

About the Author

Margot Lester
Margot Lester is an award-winning journalist and writer who’s covered business, aging, and dating in her more than 30-year career. She’s the author of two acclaimed reference books and is an in-demand writing coach and trainer.

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