The Upside of Decline
Recently I began reading a book about decline.
I know, that sounds ominous. But it’s better than you think. Yes, intellectual decline is occurring as we age, but another kind of intelligence is just beginning to find its footing in us. If recognized, and utilized, we can find success that rivals anything we accomplished in our younger years.
In his book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, author Arthur Brooks references two types of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. The terms, which were actually coined by British psychologist Raymond Cattell, describe two different types of intelligence that Cattell believed people possessed at greater abundance at different points in life. Fluid intelligence is defined as “the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems.” Cattell observed that it is highest early in adulthood and begins to diminish rapidly in one’s thirties and forties. Hence, he believed younger people are the best innovators in raw, new ideas. Crystallized intelligence is “defined as the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned in the past.” As you may have guessed, crystallized intelligence is said to “increase with age through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties—and does not diminish until quite late in life—if at all.”
Brooks gives numerous examples throughout history of two kinds of people. All of them start with great career success using their fluid intelligence. Some of them are able to effectively transition from that career to their “second curve,” which is a reframed or altogether new career based on their crystallized intelligence. Some of them are not able to make that transition and end up profoundly disappointed later in life as they see only what they can no longer achieve, they see only the decline of their fluid intelligence.
Why am I thinking about this? Am I pondering my own second curve? Perhaps. But there’s more to it than that. I believe that as leaders we have a responsibility to build out the future of our industry. We have to think about what risk looks like in the future. We have to think about what our clients look like in the future, and we have to think about who is going to lead.
Recently I heard that ChatGPT—an artificial intelligence chatbot, so say the fluid thinkers in my organization—reached one million users in five days. It’s being called the fastest-growing app of all time. Last month Leader’s Edge covered the development of quantum computing, which is progressing rapidly. All of these things will transform industries across our global economy, transform our clients’ business.
So I ask you, do you have the fluid and crystallized thinkers in place to not only truly understand these risks but also to create the solutions—the ones that don’t yet exist but will most certainly need to? The ones that will combine technology and market innovation?
Is it possible that the best way to develop these solutions is to apply both the fluid and crystallized intelligence in your organization? Among the many examples Brooks offers of people who transitioned to their second curve is the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven. He is an interesting one because at first when he started to decline (Beethoven began to go deaf in his late twenties), “Beethoven raged. For a long time after he could barely hear, he insisted on performing on the piano, with worse and worse results.”
But instead of wasting away, banging on pianos he couldn’t hear, Beethoven finally accepted his decline and stopped playing the piano. Instead, he focused on composing. As his hearing continued to decline, he used the feel of the soundboard on the piano to gauge notes and avoided those in frequencies out of his range. When he went completely deaf, “his compositions were only in his imagination.” It was during this time that “Beethoven wrote the music that would define his unique style, change music permanently, and give him a legacy as one of the greatest composers of all time.”
We need brilliant pianists, in the prime of their fluid intelligence, to give life to the composition. But we also need the composers, creating music imagined through a lifetime of brilliance yet only discovered in the crystallized stage of life.
Many of us in this industry, myself included, are reaching the crystallized stage, and we have lifetimes of insurance knowledge to build on. But we need the talent to bring our imaginings to life. Together we can create our own Ninth Symphony.