The Striver’s Curse

 

Do you find that after years of striving for success, you’re becoming less happy over time? Are the skills and talents you relied on at the beginning degrading as you age? Do you secretly wonder how to be happy even though you’re successful?

Arthur C. Brooks has written an intriguing book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, based on scientific studies and his own personal experiences about the transitions we must make to live a happy and rewarding life. He describes those who have a zealous commitment to work as suffering from the “striver’s curse”; these are the people who work extremely hard to be successful, ultimately finding that they are not happy, and discovering that they have limited connections to others outside of work.

He explains the reasons why we find ourselves in this dilemma, based on Cattell’s Theory of Intelligence:

The first is fluid intelligence, which Cattell defined as the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems. It is what we commonly think of as raw smarts . . . Cattell, who specialized in intelligence testing, observed that it was highest relatively early in adulthood and diminished rapidly starting in one’s thirties and forties.

Crystallized intelligence, relying as it does on a stock of knowledge, tends to increase with age through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties—and does not diminish until quite late in life, if at all.

For a more in-depth explanation of this theory, you can go here.

How does this loss manifest in our lives? Our pre-frontal cortex begins to decline in performance: rapid analysis declines; we forget names; skills that were once easy become harder; our descent can be noticed by others, as they watch us struggle to be as vibrant as we used to be.

Brooks tries to show us how we can make the leap from relying on a declining fluid intelligence to engaging with our crystallized intelligence. It requires hard work and commitment from those who have always believed that they should be able to perform at the same high level as they did in their twenties. One of the largest barriers to the transition is our insistence that we continue to be successful in the same ways we’ve always thrived. Being successful has always meant being special. And being willing to abandon the old commitments to success can be very difficult. He described the process in this way:

The carrot dangled in front of you is the fleeting feeling that you’ve made it, despite the fact that you are emotionally running in place on the hedonic treadmill. And it is that much worse when your abilities are starting to decline—the carrot is gradually getting further away, despite the fact that you are running faster than ever. Thus, the dissatisfaction problem compounds the decline problem.

I found myself studying this information, wondering how the model fit into my own life, and I was fascinated, relieved but also disappointed. I realized that in my own haphazard, fits-and-starts manner, I had begun to make this journey without any clear intention. The journey began about 20 years ago.

What happened then?

First, my husband and I made a trip to Nepal. It was a life-changing experience in so many ways. I turned 50 that year and I learned a great deal about my own resilience, fears and determination. To survive a trek of the Himalayas was amazing, and I believe it started my transition to acknowledging my crystallized intelligence.

A few years after that trip, we made the decision to move to Florida: another major adjustment to our lives and lifestyle. I had to decide whether I was willing to re-start my consulting and training business. Although I made a half-hearted effort, I discovered that the need to market and make sales calls was simply intolerable. So, after about one year, I retired.

During the next part of my transition, I was presented with opportunities to live my life differently, and I grabbed several of them. I had become disenchanted with my Buddhist practice and the Buddhist community itself, and the only remnant I retained of that practice was meditation. I encountered Ricochet, and became acquainted with @iwe at that time, and when I felt adrift and wasn’t sure how to return to Judaism (for which I still had a fondness), he provided me with wisdom and suggestions. That connection led eventually to our writing books together and to studying Torah, which we do to this day.

There are other activities that have provided me with rewarding and deepening experiences:

  • I formed a meditation group which met for ten years, and I eventually disbanded it because it didn’t appeal to members of my community.
  • I became a hospice volunteer and visited patients, but eventually moved to calling the bereaved to check on them and provide some comfort.
  • I formed a Zoom group which meets once per month to discuss an essay from the archives of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
  • Although I don’t have many friends, those I have are loving, supportive people. I know the importance of nurturing those relationships.
  • I write regularly on Ricochet.
  • I am now writing one of the blogs for Convention of States, which is focused on limiting the power of the federal government, returning power to the people and the states.
  • Although limited, I have a satisfying Jewish practice which includes prayer, meditation and limited observances.

All of these point to a major shift in my view of my purpose in life. I serve, whether I’m writing or studying with others. My most importance service is to G-d and my dear husband.

I’m still struggling in some ways, though. I don’t know how to measure success in a joyful and sustaining way. I’m honored to be a writer for Ricochet, but I can’t stop focusing on whether my posts get promoted (because sometimes they don’t). I look at the number of likes I receive on my posts, and who likes what I write. And I can’t get past the disappointment when people are not responsive, either through likes or comments. Unfortunately, that “lack of success” at times is hard for me to take in stride, and I’m embarrassed by that reaction but more determined than ever to remind myself that my successes show up in so many other ways.

But relationships, in some ways, are the most important part of moving to this new life. I especially liked Arthur Brooks’ observations:

  • You need strong human connections to help you get on the second curve and flourish.

  • No matter how introverted you are, you cannot expect to thrive into old age without healthy, intimate relationships.

  • For married people, a loving, companionate spousal relationship is key to thriving.

  • Marriage and family are not an adequate substitute for close friendships, which should not be left up to chance.

  • Friendship is a skill that requires practice, time, and commitment.

  • Work friendships are not a substitute for real friendships, although they can also be satisfying, if designed purposively.

I believe I’ve arrived and am appreciating the “second curve,” but I do think that I need to find new ways of measuring success and celebrating those times. I also want to stay open to additional opportunities to learn and grow.

The journey is well-worth the effort.

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There are 10 comments.

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  1. MikeMcCarthy Coolidge
    MikeMcCarthy
    @MikeMcCarthy

    I suspect that striving is itself a problem, when we are carried up on a tide of enthusiasm both success and happiness can come without a struggle.

    As you state, good relationships are important although I would also include grandchildren and dogs ;-)

     

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    MikeMcCarthy (View Comment):
    As you state, good relationships are important although I would also include grandchildren and dogs ;-)

    Absolutely! I love to see people indulging both!

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Susan Quinn: I write regularly on Ricochet.

    The whole post is good, but that’s my favorite part.

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Percival (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: I write regularly on Ricochet.

    The whole post is good, but that’s my favorite part.

    Thank so much, Percival .

    • #4
  5. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Percival (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: I write regularly on Ricochet.

    The whole post is good, but that’s my favorite part.

    I hope Ricochet 5.0 has an “Auto-like” button.  We have several people I’d use it for, and Susan is one . . .

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: I write regularly on Ricochet.

    The whole post is good, but that’s my favorite part.

    I hope Ricochet 5.0 has an “Auto-like” button. We have several people I’d use it for, and Susan is one . . .

    Thanks so much, Stad. I always look forward to your comments!

    • #6
  7. Samuel Block Staff
    Samuel Block
    @SamuelBlock

    Susan Quinn: Cattell, who specialized in intelligence testing, observed that it was highest relatively early in adulthood and diminished rapidly starting in one’s thirties and forties.

    Oh, great! Something else to look forward to. 

    Glad to hear one can make the best of the situation, though. 

    • #7
  8. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    It’s amazing how we have come to deconstruct what we used to simply call “aging”. No doubt it is a Boomer phenomena since so many of us (quite a marketplace) have arrived in the middle of it and are now seeing what our grandparents, then parents, went through. It is the blessing and curse that there are limits on empathy so that we never really anticipate the feelings and concerns of those that go before. It is always a fresh discovery to us. The most fundamental truth of humanity that we must always come back to “you are not alone”. Your stories resonate with us all.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Rodin (View Comment):
    The most fundamental truth of humanity that we must always come back to “you are not alone”

    This is so important. We are all in some stage of these transitions. I say that we embrace them and enjoy what our lives have to offer!

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Samuel Block (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: Cattell, who specialized in intelligence testing, observed that it was highest relatively early in adulthood and diminished rapidly starting in one’s thirties and forties.

    Oh, great! Something else to look forward to.

    Glad to hear one can make the best of the situation, though.

    Yeah, at first glance it sounds like one more trial to deal with. But I’ve found that once I’ve figured out what is going on, it can be exciting and rewarding. You’ll do great, Samuel, and you have lots of time to figure out new directions!

    • #10
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