Don’t Hurry, Be Happy

If you are fortunate enough to have experienced successes in your career so far, how have those achievements made you feel? Satisfaction, fulfilment, and a sense of accomplishment, or quickly cast aside and replaced with a restless hunger for more?

If it’s the latter, you may find it hard to get happier as you age; you may in fact be suffering from the ‘striver’s curse’.

I first heard the phrase at the Timoney Leadership Institute masterclass in Kilkea Castle last June from a speaker, Arthur Brooks, who is known as the ‘happiness professor’. He coined the term to describe very successful people who tended to be very unhappy later in life.

Looking at this phenomenon through the lens of social science, he argued that this feeling does not need to be inevitable.

Brooks based the talk on his book “From Strength to Strength”, which is an insightful take on the inevitable decline in certain abilities in the second half of our lives.

Building on the work of the psychologist Raymond Cattell and others, Brooks spoke about two types of intelligence: one that blooms early and one that blooms late in life.

The different characteristics exist to varying degrees in everyone; many of us are good at something early and good at something else later. He distinguished these traits as fluid and crystallised intelligence.

Fluid intelligence is defined as being able to think quickly and apply reason to solve problems without relying on past experience.

As Brooks pointed out, your working memory, innovative capacity, speed and ability to solve problems all decline as you age.

Crystallised intelligence, on the other hand, is built on your wisdom, pattern recognition, vocabulary, and your teaching ability. The great news is that it improves over time, increasing through your 40s, 50s and even 60s, and staying high in your 70s and 80s.

Brooks spoke of the danger that strivers hang on to the first curve of fluid intelligence too long and get stuck there. Still trying to accumulate more experiences and skills, such people become unhappy. It’s a one-way ticket to frustration and misery.

From the outside, others might view strivers as successful – but in the workplace, this build-up of frustration can actually make some of them hard to work with.

If the first part of our lives is about starting with a blank piece of paper and building up the picture of our career by filling the page, then for prolonged happiness into later years, I believe the trick is to jump onto that second curve of crystallised intelligence.

In his talk, Brooks conjured a powerful image of a piece of jade. First, you need to chip away at the gemstone to reveal the art beneath. I took this metaphor to mean letting go some of what we’ve accumulated to uncover what will make us fulfilled in the second act of our lives.

Brooks’ message resonated with me because he articulated a feeling I had for some time but had been unable to put so clearly into words.

Because I had the striver’s curse, too.

In my career, I have been fortunate to have held C-level and board roles in a variety of industries including aviation, dairy, healthcare and franchising. My accountancy training means I tended to hold finance roles, but I’ve always made a point of working on the operational side of the business too.

I also have a great love of continual education. In 2017, I took the Advanced Leadership Programme with the Timoney Leadership Institute and loved it. Prior to that, I completed an Executive MBA in London Business School followed by studying international finance at INSEAD a year later.

As a self-described striver, now I have come to an inflection point. I find myself at that stage of life in between having built up a certain level of experience in what I do and questioning what comes next.

We’ve all heard the cliché of midlife crisis: having heard Brooks speak, I now believe that this is shorthand for the unnamed feeling of needing to change; to jump on to that second curve of life but not knowing how to do it.

I’m talking about that moment when the balance of your career tilts from accumulating skills, knowledge and experience, to imparting them and sharing them with others.

I’ve learned it takes a lot of courage to change the focus of our working lives. Striving proved to be successful for a certain period; at the initial stages, we need to accumulate certain knowledge or skills.

Ambition is useful to a point; you need it to be a striver. But it’s too easy to cling on to what we know and to the things that give us materialistic ways of living.

Nobody is ever going to say anything to you for continuing to do what you always did. But, as Brooks’ research has found, striving for more doesn’t give us satisfaction. In fact, it deprives us of it.

It’s about realising that the same approach is not going to work forever. As the second half of our working lives comes into view, we need to find the courage to say: ‘I’m on a different pathway and I need to find what that is’.

Speaking personally, I haven’t found mine, so I’m not saying I have all the answers. But I am acknowledging I need to look for them.

Brooks’ lecture referred to four key determinants of a meaningful life. Two of these pillars are family and friends. As my own circumstances would have it, I am currently working part time which has given me the invaluable space to spend with my elderly parents and with my brother who is ill, and also to reconnect with close college friends.

It has helped me to realise these other important aspects of life need time dedicated to them. At times, we need to step away from the ‘nose up against the glass’ aspect of life.

Another key pillar is purposeful work. To me, this is one of the key questions to grapple with as we navigate from striving to something new.

Everyone’s journey to find a new purpose will be different. For some, it might be working in a role that’s meaningful, for example working in the health sector, or helping people with illness. It might be aligned to ‘doing good’.

As for me, I sense my purpose is likely to involve mentoring people, helping them solve business problems and trying to impart what I know in a way that helps others, whether that might be challenges involved in growing or selling a company.

As I have reflected since Brooks’ lecture, I realise that accumulated knowledge and experience is something you still get to keep even after you share it with others.

If there is a thread that connects these choices, it is a sense that we are serving something outside of ourselves, and of ‘letting go’ rather than clinging on to what propelled us in the first act of our lives, whether that was accumulating money or prestigious roles.

This leads to the fourth pillar of a meaningful life. Brooks referred to this as faith, but as a man in his early fifties, I flinch at this term and all its connotations with the dogmas of institutional religion.

What I took from Brooks’ talk was the underlying search for some self-transcendence. For some, that vernacular will be religious and for some of us it is about moving beyond those concepts to experiencing consciousness of a larger reality other than ourselves.

The idea is found in many Western and Eastern philosophies: the connection between giving away what we have amassed, and how this makes us more contented and fulfilled.

When each of us reaches this tipping point, we face a choice: we can carry on accumulating, but what we are actually doing is diminishing our chance of happiness. Or we can take a different path by sharing our experience with others in whatever form that may take.

So if you are reaching a similar inflection point in your own career, I highly recommend taking some time to reflect whether you have been striving – and what would make you happy in the years ahead.

I had gone to Kilkea Castle last June with a double motivation: to catch up with my alumni colleagues after a few years of non-contact and to listen with an open mind to Arthur Brooks. I came away energised, renewed and keen to jump onto that second curve.