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The Good News about “Crystallized Intelligence” for Those Over 50

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In my last post, I referred to a book that really encouraged me about aging: Arthur Brooks’ From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in Second Half of Life. Today I will share his findings regarding new strengths that come with age.

Arthur Brooks Book

Decline is unavoidable. Period. But aging isn’t all bad news. In fact, there are some specific ways in which we naturally get smarter and more skillful. The trick to improving as we age is to understand, develop, and practice these new strengths.

(Brooks, From Strength to Strength, 23)

Brooks refers to two kinds of intelligence: “fluid” intelligence and “crystallized” intelligence. He defines fluid intelligence as “the ability to reason, think flexibly, solve novel problems, and is associated with reading and mathematical ability.”   Fluid intelligence tends to peak early in adulthood and “diminishes rapidly starting in one’s thirties and forties.”

On the other hand, crystallized intelligence is “the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned in the past.” 

Crystallized intelligence tends to increase with age through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties—and does not diminish until quite late in life, if at all.
Crystallized intelligence represents a person’s knowledge gained during life by acculturation and learning. When you are young, you have raw smarts; when you are old, you have wisdom. When you are young, you can generate lots of facts; when you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them.

(Brooks, 27)

This came as encouraging news for me, as I’ve been in a career transition at sixty-two. I was either unaware or in denial regarding my decline in fluid intelligence. I noticed I was becoming overwhelmed much easier when it came to acquiring new knowledge and multitasking. This, of course, scared me about my future.  

At the same time, I find writing and editing relatively easy. Not that I do it fast or without several drafts. Reading Brooks made sense of that. When I write, I’m synthesizing what I’ve learned and I’m making connections between different topics I read. When I propose ideas to other people, I can access all kinds of additional resources I’ve researched and my experiences.

I now see that I once had a very rigid way of applying the knowledge I acquired. I gave people theoretical advice as if all they needed was more facts and logic. Yes, I even gave my wife logical advice to help fix her “emotional overreactions.”

I was a pastor for a lot of years, I applied the Bible in this terribly cold way. I did not see people’s uniqueness or my own. I lived abstractly, which is to say, not in the real world.

For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about the power of stories, and have written about them in this blog. Stories are concrete and engage the sense. They involve not so much the information you’ve accumulated as what you know through experience and suffering.

Now that I’ve discovered crystallized intelligence and have been using some in my writing, I’m gaining the confidence to share my story more vulnerably—my honest experience, mistakes, and discoveries. And yet not to cast my story as a prescription as much as a conversation starter, an attempt to “story partner” and build a sense of community.

I also realize what’s held me back from using my crystalized intelligence to a great degree: fear. I’m afraid of not being able to “prove” or “justify” my values and beliefs drawn from life experience. But I don’t have a position to defend, just one life to share.

What moves me the most about older people’s wisdom is when they couple it with honest stories about failure and weakness. I recently read filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s confession that his work had been rejected many times:

“ I think I’ve learned more from failure, rejection, and outright hostility than I have from success.”

Martin Scorsese

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