The Kind of Smarts You Don’t Find in Young People

America needs more than innovation; it needs wisdom.

An illustration of an older person looking at an owl sitting on their shoulder
Jan Buchczik
A smiley face

How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

Silicon Valley has a famously youth-dominated culture and economy. According to Business Insider, most employees in the tech industry are in their late 20s. At eBay, for example, the median employee age was 32 in 2017—and eBay is in the older half of the top tech companies.

This is a problem for these businesses. Fairly or unfairly, many tech companies with disproportionately young employees and leaders have gone from a shining example of how entrepreneurial capitalism can improve our lives to something that seems unhealthy and even sinister over the past several years. As one tech writer put it, “the world fell out of love with Silicon Valley.”

With each controversy about harmful products, anticompetitive practices, and “bro culture,” my older friends in business look on in amazement at errors they find obvious. And therein lies a solution to the problem: As I argue in my book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, companies need to hire more older people into the ranks of their leadership. To foster innovation and success that lasts, America needs more than innovation; it needs wisdom.

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In the mid-20th century, psychologists set about finding an explanation for a great mystery. Researchers had long noted that some skills—analysis and innovation, for example—tend to rise quickly very early in life and then fall through one’s 30s and 40s. Meanwhile, one’s knack for combining complex ideas, understanding what they mean, and relating them to others rises throughout middle age and can stay high well into old age.

An explanation that emerged—which has generally been accepted in research during the intervening decades—was that the two groups of skills originate in two basic types of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. The first, according to the British-American psychologist Raymond Cattell in his 1971 book Abilities: Their Structure, Growth, and Action, is essentially the ability to solve abstract problems; the second represents a person’s knowledge gained during a lifetime of learning. In other words, as a young adult, you can solve problems quickly; as you get older, you know which problems are worth solving. Crystallized intelligence can be the difference between an enterprise with no memory that makes lots of rookie errors and one that has deep experience—even if the company is brand new.

In the first decades of your career, whether you’re a lawyer or an electrician, you’ll probably get ahead faster by focusing on work that involves ingenuity and quick thinking, which is a function of fluid intelligence. You might call it your Forbes 30 Under 30 Brain.

People who successfully navigate their professional lives into their 50s, 60s, and 70s tend to rely more and more on their abilities to synthesize knowledge, compare current facts with past patterns, and teach others. This is crystallized intelligence, a.k.a. your Dalai Lama Brain. Used right, these abilities can be even more professionally valuable than their fluid counterparts.

In a youth-dominated culture and economy, companies and individuals tend to overweight the importance of fluid intelligence and underweight crystallized intelligence. We demand new products and amazing inventions but disregard what experience would tell us are their implications for our companies, culture, and well-being. This bias lies behind the ageism in tech and many other parts of the economy. But even worse, it explains why we are so good at creating new things that overpromise and underdeliver when it comes to happiness.

The research on fluid and crystallized intelligence suggests that workers should hold different roles throughout their lives that complement each type of smarts. Go be successful, then pivot if you can from work that rewards fluid intelligence to that which rewards crystallized intelligence. For example, you might go from a more autonomous role to one in which you mentor and supervise others. Perhaps you can do this in the context of your current job or career; if not, you may need (or may prefer) to change professions midlife. (And in fact, doing so can be a boon for happiness.) The key is to start looking for an opportunity that plays to your changing strengths around middle age: one with a greater emphasis on explaining, teaching, and generally cultivating others.

You don’t have to muddle your way through your shifting intelligence styles alone. For example, Chip Conley, who left his career as a hotel entrepreneur at age 52 to serve as a strategic adviser to the founders of Airbnb, developed what he calls his Modern Elder Academy to cultivate crystallized intelligence in mature leaders and the skills to share it. “Our physical peak may be in our 20s, and our financial or salary peak may be at 50,” Conley told me in an email. But our deepest wisdom and widest perspective come only after that, “because we’ve developed pattern recognition about ourselves and others.” Other programs designed to move older people from their fluid to their crystallized intelligence curves have popped up across the country.

Individual workers aren’t the only ones who should take these lessons. Companies would do well to install master teachers throughout their business. Don’t target people who pine for the “old days” in their careers and abilities. Instead, look for elders who recognize that it is healthy and normal to see some of their capabilities decline with age, and that this presents an opportunity to foster those abilities in others. Older leaders should be enthusiastic about making great teams, developing others’ ideas, sharing knowledge openly and generously, and making prudent judgments based on their own deep experience.

One way to match older leaders who have demonstrated crystallized intelligence with the younger companies that need them would be an organized labor market, sort of like the one for middle-aged or older coaches and sports commentators who once were players. This would benefit everyone, obviate problems and errors that stem from a lack of experience, and could help bring generations together across common goals of creating new and interesting products and services.

This isn’t exactly an original idea; it was proposed in the first century B.C. by the Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. At age 62, he wrote De Officiis, in which he described how older people should serve others with their high crystallized intelligence: “The old … should, it seems, have their physical labors reduced; their mental activities should be actually increased. They should endeavor, too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state.”

A year later, Cicero found himself practicing what he preached. On the outs with Rome’s rulers for his political views (he opposed Mark Antony after the murder of Julius Caesar), he was captured by two Romans, including a centurion, who were ordered to put him to death. A younger man might have begged for his life. Cicero used his crystallized intelligence instead. “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier,” Cicero schooled the centurion. “But do try to kill me properly.”

By Cicero

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