An Interview with Arthur Brooks.

May 15, 2020

An Interview with Arthur Brooks.

May 29, 2023

CC: Instead of our typical Friday Book Club, this week we welcome one of my favorite writers and thought leaders. Good morning, Arthur. Honored to have you join us. No article went more viral in our MEA alum community in the past year than your June 2019 “The Atlantic” magazine piece entitled “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.” Why do you think the article drew such attention globally?

AB: Hey Chip! Thanks for having me--I’m delighted to talk to you and the MEA alum community. I never thought the Atlantic piece would be read so widely--something like three million times in the first couple of months. I wrote it to chronicle my personal quest to build my post-50 life (it came out right after my 55th birthday), after seeing so many people in similar positions do poorly as they aged. What I learned was that a LOT of people my age and older are anxious about the future and there’s a big hole in the literature about success and happiness later in life.

CC: While the article scared many people, your subtitle (“Here’s How to Make the Most of It”) hinted that the last one-third of the piece expressed some optimism for “modern elders.” Tell us a little bit about that as well as your four active verbs that might define our future: Jump, Serve, Worship, and Connect.

AB: I started the article with the facts: unless you keel over in the prime of your professional life, you are going to see decline in your abilities. And the higher your abilities, the more you will notice when they slip. That’s the “winner’s curse”--the reason that people who do really well in life often suffer the most as they age. Trying to hang on forever is an exercise in frustration and futility.

But there’s good news, too. If we can detach ourselves from our self-concept as “success machines”--a self-concept that is nothing more than self-objectification--it opens up time and energy for new avenues of personal growth and excellence. The guide for this is, as you note, is: Jump, Serve, Worship, Connect. Walk away from the old life on your terms; turn toward serving others; lean into your spiritual life; build your root system with family and friends. Obviously it’s not easy or simple, which is why I wrote the article--and why MEA is so successful, of course.

CC: You’re now working on a new book that dives deeper into the premise of your article and maybe could be summed up with this sentence, “The biggest mistake professionally successful people make is attempting to sustain peak accomplishment indefinitely.” Tell us more about this new book and why MEA intrigues you in this context.

AB: The response to the article was so overwhelming that it led to a bunch of new projects: A regular column (“How to Build a Life”) in The Atlantic, a podcast (“The Art of Happiness”) and a full book on the subject which I’m writing for Penguin. The book allows me to dig in much more deeply on the how-to of aging well. This led me to profile some of the most interesting and creative enterprises in helping people build the second half of their lives--among them, of course, MEA!

CC: Soon after your June 2019 article came out, you walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain and wrote about it in the Washington Post. Now, you’re teaching at Harvard University and have a column in The Atlantic about how to find what matters and how to hold onto it—at any age. What do you know now that you didn’t know a year ago when you wrote your Professional Decline article?

AB: The article was intended as a kind of “goodbye letter” to that part of my professional life. I had been the president of a big Washington, DC think tank for about 11 years, which had gone really well, but which I knew I had to leave before I lost my edge.

The day I left, I flew directly to Spain (my wife’s home country, where I have also lived) and spent a month with my wife and youngest daughter (who was 16) on religious pilgrimage. That included time in Loyola, Garabandal, and of course, walking the famous Camino de Santiago. We will never be the same after that incredible month. We returned directly to Boston, where I took up a new job teaching at Harvard. It was a clean break to a completely new professional life.

All this took my research from theory to practice in my own life. It hasn’t been exactly easy--no surprise--but I am completely convinced I did the right thing. Teaching, speaking, and writing play to my natural strengths for the coming decades. I am happy and excited.

CC: When do we see you teaching a Mastery Week at MEA in Baja? :)

AB: I can’t wait!

Arthur Brooks is a professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and senior fellow at Harvard Business School. He is the bestselling author of 11 books, including most recently, Love Your Enemies, and is subject of the 2019 documentary “The Pursuit,” currently streaming on Netflix.

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