Arthur Brooks was a professional musician and spent his twenties touring all over the world. Until one day, he stopped being able to hit the notes. He had to reinvent himself entirely, and wonder… what does happiness look like after I lose the career I had worked so hard for?
Now, Arthur writes about high achievers and how they might find meaning and purpose as they experience decline in their bodies or minds or in careers through his bestselling book, Strength to Strength.
In this episode, Kate and Arthur discuss:
Not everyone in this community is #winning at life. For those of us who have been forced off the productivity train, fallen down the success ladder, and now find ourselves wondering if we could be more than the sum of our jobs, this conversation is for you.
If you want to learn more about Arthur Brooks and how to Live a Better, Happier Life, click here.
Arthur is a regular columnist at The Atlantic, where he writes a popular column called “How to Build a Life”.
To learn more about “The Striver’s Curse”, you can read Arthur’s interview with Oprah, here.
The quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that Arthur mentions about dreaming of Naples can be found here.
I loved talking with Arthur about reverse bucket lists. Click here to read why I DON’T plan to make a bucket list before I die.
Here is my conversation with the delightful Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy about why loneliness is a public health crisis.
Kate Bowler: Oh, hello. Before we get started, I just thought you might like to know that my book, No Cure for Being Human and Other truths I need to Hear is coming out in paperback. It will be available anywhere books are sold beginning in October. So yeah, thanks for all your support for that. If you haven’t read it now, it is the lighter its less hardcover. Okay. Thanks for letting me celebrate that. Well, now on to the task for today.
Kate: I used to imagine that life with a series of choices, that life was something you picked. It was a kind of checklist somehow that adds up the experience of meaning. Now, I might not have said that to you across the dinner table. But if you looked at my life or my bucket list, you might have noticed I married my high school sweetheart. Check. Had that baby after a lot of uncertainty. Check. Finish my dissertation. Check. Got my dream job. Check. Diagnosed with stage four cancer. Oh, yeah. Wait. That wasn’t on the list. I’m Kate Bowler and this is everything happens. A community of people who really understand that lives don’t always turn out like you planned. It’s a strange form of, I don’t know, arrogance maybe? To imagine that we can choose our lives. Or maybe it’s just being influenced by so much American television as a teenager. My understanding of American high school came straight out of the Saturday morning programing called “Saved by the Bell.” But I did hope that all these choices would add up to something. I think that’s often how we imagine it. The job that should bring you purpose, the family you’ll work hard to keep together, the marriage you fight for, the friends you’ve managed to keep up with, the success of your kids or grandkids, how comfortable your bank account is, the stamps in your passport, the hours you spend volunteering, the way you’ve gutted it out starting that business, or caring for your aging parents. Or maybe it’s how well-known you are, which maybe is nowadays measured by a TikTok follower account or some exciting abomination. Life really feels like it should add up, doesn’t it? Until it doesn’t. Until we experience a gradual change or maybe an abrupt one. Bodies that stop working like they did before, our failing memory, loved ones who move away, grief we can’t fully get over. Before we know it life isn’t the one that we recognize, but it’s the one we have. Today’s guest studies high achievers and how they might not feel as fulfilled later in life as they might have hoped. So maybe you’re a super achiever, or maybe you never got the chance. But my guest nudges those who will eventually experience this kind of decline, which is to say, all of us, by reminding us that there can still be good here. Beauty. Meaning. But maybe, best of all, love. Arthur Brocks is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School in the Harvard Business School, where he teaches courses on leadership and happiness. He is also a regular columnist at The Atlantic, where he writes the popular How to Build a Life column. He is the author of a dozen books, including the number one New York Times bestseller “From Strength to Strength Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose In the Second Half of Life” and I am so excited to be talking about that with him today. Arthur, thank you so much for being here.
Arthur Brooks: Thank you, Kate. I’ve been looking forward to talking to you, too.
Kate Bowler: When people feel like they’re having a kind of trajectory of success, maybe they’ve they’re hard workers, they sacrifice. And maybe there is a whole lot of luck. But when those people experience a change, either gradually or dramatically, that can be a really difficult thing to kind of acclimate your new sense of life around. Why are transitions like that so difficult to just kind of wrap our arms around?
Arthur Brooks: Well, people don’t like change. It’s the weirdest thing. Life is all about change. Why is it that the state of nature in our lives has changed, but we don’t like it? The answer is because we have an we have a negativity bias about any change in our life, and that’s perfect evolution. I mean, if you didn’t have a bias toward being afraid or sad or angry about change, you’d get eaten by a saber tooth tiger, you know, in a place to scene, you wouldn’t have passed on your genes. You need to be. You hear a twig snap behind you. Your first reaction should be, that’s bad. I got to run right now. The truth is that change, however, in retrospect, tends to be pretty positive. This is a thing that we call in my social scientists. We call this fading affect bias. And the reason is because all the unpleasantness of change that tends to fade into the background, but the things that you learn in the ways that you grow, you get those benefits later. And so therefore you remember the change as being more positive than it was. So here’s the deal. You don’t like it, but once you can actually wrap your mind around this, once you can actually become become metacognitive about this, you can say, you know, this is happening. I don’t like it, but I know the data show that probably in the future, if I don’t resist it too much, I’m going to get a lot out of this and look back on this a lot more fondly than I’m seeing it right now. So let’s get a head start on actually not being so bummed out about it in the present. But, you know, this is a really important to keep in mind that that wishing for something is not enough. You’ve got to do the work and you have to do the work by understanding yourself. And there’s a lot, lot, lot that we can all do. And your question about transitions is a perfect example of that.
Kate Bowler: I think one of the barriers, at least for me, around accepting some of the benefits of hindsight has been American culture’s exhausting reframing work that is sort of everybody’s mom’s bathroom art, or there’s a lot of like just look on the bright side or you should be thankful you had that much, or the area of philosophical and religious expertise I have is in the everything happens for a reason sledgehammer that people receive, like the burden of wanting to even start to get traction around my own circumstance when I feel how weary. The rush to, I guess, cause I won’t say it’s wisdom. I just feel like people want to push us so quickly into positivity, maybe before we can even get at the wisdom that you’re describing.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, for sure. And you know, one of the things that I, you know, I see a bumper sticker that says, choose happiness. I want to I want to slam my car into that car. You know, and part of the reason is because I’m a scientist. You know, it’s not I’m not I’m not a self-improvement guy. I actually study the science, the neuroscience and social science of happiness. You can’t decide to be happy. You can decide to actually have good hygiene. You can decide to make better decisions. You can decide to understand yourself. So what I want ultimately is, is not to rush into some sort of positivity, to reframe it in an artificial way. I want to be fully alive, you know, that’s what I want. And what I what I don’t want to do is anesthetize myself against the experiences that I’m having because I won’t get the fading effect bias. I’m not a naturally very happy person. Happiness is a really hard thing for me. The reason I write about happiness is because I don’t have it at all and because I want it and I want more of it. Look, I mean, I’m not afraid of unhappiness, you know, and unhappiness is part of life. And a lot of I’m not even against unhappiness, but I do want to do the most that I can that’s like. Well, I feel so at home.
Kate Bowler: I think I always have this feeling, though, like I am wanting to be awake to the world makes me sort of more susceptible to a different kind of like lie, I suppose. So if I if I want to be awake to all the possibilities of the world, sometimes I can fall into what I think of as kind of like a hyper agency. Like I want to get back the feeling of control then that helps me navigate the world around me and make it predictable again. But that, you write about this so clearly. I wondered if we could talk a little bit about the downsides to this kind of hyper agency where people want to take really seriously their own happiness, but they then resort to things that they can control again, like goals, ambition, success. Like you’re talking to somebody who had like a really elaborate sticker chart to celebrate word counts that I finished for the day. Every day I might still have. I have many sick charts. But it’s a feeling, right, of like the feeling of accomplishment that can be so satisfying. But there’s a downside, right, to that ambition. And it isn’t just failure. Sometimes you can sort of like lose by continuing to win, right? It’s something you call the strivers curse. I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about that.
Arthur Brooks: The world tells us and by the way, the limbic system of our brain tells us Mother Nature, who lies, tells us that if we’re successful in worldly terms, will become happy. That if you get to a certain level of power, of pleasure, of fame, of money, that you’re going to find this happiness. And it’s just not true. You’ll create a lot of value around you, or you can create a lot of misery around you too, with these great worldly rewards. But the truth is, that is your grandmother told you that’s not the secret of happiness. And I’ve got the data that your grandmother was right. But the world and your the limbic system of your brain and the marketing colossus around us tells us that that’s the way we’re going to get it. And, you know, I deal all the time with, you know, wealthy people with successful people, and they’re just they’re bad marriages and they’re getting to the point in their lives where they realize that they don’t have any real friends, and they don’t know what they’re going to do as they get older and they see themselves fading in relevance and they’re in a huge panic. So you find that people who are identified before 20 as high achievers are the people who are most likely after 80 to say that they’re disappointed with their lives. That is a empirical regularity. That’s number one. Second is that the strivers who have a ton of early success later, they know when the party’s over and the party’s got to end sooner or later. Look, if you ever do anything with your life, you will know when it’s over. But if you do a lot, you’re going to know when you’re on the down slope of your success curve. And so those two things, your own personal expectations and the end of your party are the reason that strivers, as they’re getting into their forties and fifties and sixties, they tend to be they’re more prone to anxiety, they’re more prone to depression, they’re more prone to suicide, they’re more prone to alcohol abuse. That’s why. So a lot of people have concluded that striving and happiness are incompatible, but that’s wrong. You have to become skillful at the serious business of your own happiness, not just your money. And that’s what I wind up talking a lot about.
Kate Bowler: Right? That must be so disorienting when our jobs or our goals or our work or even our best attempts at like caring for other people. Like all the trying doesn’t add up the way that we hoped that it would. So what if what you’re describing reminds me of maybe a moment I had in my childhood where I saw my parents careers go in two very different directions. My parents are both Ph.Ds, and one is a musician, an incredible singer, beautiful mezzo soprano. And so I got to spend a lot of my childhood sort of in like a.
Arthur Brooks: That was your father, right? The mezzo soprano?
Kate Bowler: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It was weirdly high.
Arthur Brooks: It was weird. It’s like a countertenor was like this thing. I don’t know.
Kate Bowler: I Know. It’s very well known for it. Exactly. So my my mom was always accompanied by this really grouchy lute player. And this I have most of my which is not a common instrument, so I don’t have a lot of childhood friends.
Arthur Brooks: I’ve never met a cheerful lutenist. I actually, I don’t know what the deal is.
Kate Bowler: He had like flowing hair in a very like a seventies mustache and it’s just really like a morose delight. And they did a lot of touring and then there was a moment where she just like, she couldn’t quite hit the notes the way she used to. Yeah. You had a moment like that, didn’t you?
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, I was a classical musician, so that’s the world I know best. And that’s the world I know. That’s what I dreamed about. From the time I was about ten years old. Yeah. So when I was ten years old, I had a lot of musical talent and I was good at it, and I practiced really hard. I wanted to be the world’s greatest French horn player. So that’s all I did was practice. And I was unmotivated, my studies. And I left college after one year, a little bit less than one year, you know, dropped out, kicked out, splitting hairs. And I went on the road for my entire twenties as a professional French horn player. And my parents called it my gap decade. Oh.
Kate Bowler: Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.
Arthur Brooks: And I played chamber music for a long time on the road, barely making my rent, but having a pretty darn good time. And then I wound up going to Barcelona and playing the Barcelona Symphony for a bunch of seasons as the associate principal, principal French horn. And when I was there, starting kind of in my early to mid twenties, I noticed that I was getting worse. It was the weirdest thing. So it was almost certainly a torn muscle and there’s a lot of musculature studies that we’ve that people have done subsequently. I’m in my late fifties now, so it was a long time ago, but now they can do surgeries. But and then it was just a big mystery. And so I practiced more and I went to all the best teachers and I was in decline. And, you know, people like I was I was good. I was a pro. You know, it’s not it’s not like people are going, yeah, well, what’s wrong with him? He can’t hit the notes anymore. And I was but it was I’m telling you, all of happiness is progress. And I was not making progress. On the contrary, is going in the wrong direction. And it was just awful.
Kate Bowler: Yeah. And you. You seem like someone. I mean, we’ve just met, but I feel like I got a good read on the ampedness of your personality, in which a little bit. Oh, I’m going for it. There would not be a fugue, I do not master.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, yeah, but. Yeah, no, that’s right. And I went actually moved to Barcelona because I was chasing a girl and the music career and why it didn’t work out. But this is our 31st wedding anniversary this year and she helped me to have the courage to look at other things and to consider myself as more than as some of my of my abilities of, like, my career abilities. You know, this is the key thing. I meet a lot of people who are high performers. And I talked to, you know, they are homo economicus. They consider themselves their identity to be what they do. And what I needed was somebody who loved me as Arthur Brooks, not that French horn player, to help me do that, to see that there was other things that I could do. And and I went on and I went to college at 30 and then went on to graduate school and did some new things. And for a long time I couldn’t talk about it. Actually, for a couple of decades I couldn’t really talk about it because I felt like. A little bit of a loser. You know, I see a guy with a Ph.D. it’s like, yeah, I’m such a loser. It’s like you teach at Harvard. Yeah, but I’m not playing the French horn with the Barcelona symphony, so everybody’s got their hang ups. Is what I am saying here.
Kate Bowler: What did she. What did your wife say to you in particular? Do you remember that moved you into that new place?
Arthur Brooks: She said, you’re not the sum of your French horn playing capacity. She said, You’re a beloved son of God. She said that you’re and you’re my husband. And that’s what really matters. And you’re going to be the father of our children. You know, that’s what really matters. And it’s true. You know, at the end of the day, at the end of the day, everything will be forgotten except for the some of the love in your life. What do I invest in for my happiness is very clear. There’s only four things. Your happiness for 401k plan has four parts to it. Your faith or life philosophy, your family relationships, your friendships, and your work in service of other people. In other words, love of the divine. Love of your family. Love of your friends, real friends and ideal friends and love of everybody in the way that you serve with your work, love, love, love and more love. There’s nothing in there about, you know, having five LP’s as a French horn player. I mean who cares.
Kate Bowler: I think I do kind of like I think I, I think I like that person too though, but I really get that. Yeah, well, I guess I was always a little self-conscious about, it might sound stupid, but I was always a bit self-conscious about whether, as a historian, that was as smart as other disciplines. Because in A Beautiful Mind, Russ Russell Crowe’s character goes historians, trivia keepers. Oh, no. I think I had a very long view of what a good life can look like, because the other career in my family home was my dad being a historian who really never achieved a lot of sort of official success, but had a lot of deep vocational success because.
Arthur Brooks: And satisfaction probably, right?
Kate Bowler: Yeah. He wrote just and especially kind of once he gave up on the shiny feeling, he started doing his best work and he became a historian of Christmas. He used to be a Tudor historian. And then I realized he kind of talked me into the kind of work where which is sort of what I see in my lovely colleagues is like, no, I’m not going to get a new office because everyone plans on dying in those offices. And and I was sort of into that model of greater and greater vocational clarity. If we move from maybe some of our synthetic work to our Yeah. Into our like deeper synthetic work.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. For sure. You know, that’s from original to synthetic is, is, is the way to think about it, an original, original composition, original invention, original innovation in the synthesizing other people’s work and your own into a coherent story is really interesting. You know, I write now a column for 500,000 readers a week or something, not based on my own experiments. On the contrary, I’m harvesting academic research and linking it together and talking about what it actually means for people’s lives who are working on their own happiness. In the end, you know that for me. I telling you, Kate, I’ve never been happier as a result of the fact that I finally am on the right curve. I’m not fighting against the past and fighting for the future. And I’m I’ve been able to I mean, I do need to work a little bit less, but I’ve been able to relax onto the right curve, you know, into what I’m supposed to do and writing, speaking and teaching, doing creative work. It’s highly synthetic. It’s great.
Kate Bowler: Mm hmm. Explain that second curve again.
Arthur Brooks: So the second curve of crystallized intelligence is the intelligence that back fills what you’re losing, using the accumulation of the knowledge that you’ve gained. So you learn a lot in your twenties and thirties over the course of your inventive work, whether you’re doing data science or you’re an electrician or whatever you happen to be doing your learning and learning and learning and new things. And that’s like building up this library. That library actually starts to come in really, really handy as you’re increasing in your forties and fifties, your ability to use the library. And so what that means is that you’re much better at matching people up into teams, you’re better at supervising people if you’re willing to be generous, you’re much better at teaching almost every subject. And the reason is because everything reminds you of everything else. And you talk to an old person who’s really on point and they’ll be like, Yeah, this reminds me of this other thing. And so they’re very good at metaphor. They’re very good at pattern recognition that’s crystallized intelligence that goes through your forties and fifties. It stays high in your sixties and seventies and eighties and even in your nineties if you keep your marbles.
Kate Bowler: Wow. I wonder if we could give the same answer or response to people who don’t get to feel that peak feeling. Because a lot of people who I meet either have these like really emotionally expensive jobs where they they don’t really feel, there’s not always the feeling of getting somewhere or there’s a lot of people who deferred dreams in order to care for other people, parents, kids, etc. But they still need to make that switch into a different kind of of measuring the second half of their life.
Arthur Brooks: So you find that women my age and older that that come from pretty conventional family backgrounds where they raised kids all the way through their fluid intelligence curve. They tend to flourish on their crystallized intelligence curve because they’re not fighting against, you know, moving away from that. And what they find is in their kids, grow up and move away. A lot of them, they just boom because they just walk right on to that second curve and have a great old time. Whereas their husbands, who are often, you know, still fighting against their their their skills changing, are suffering a lot. Their husbands get more alienated. They have these totally few friends that we get very anxious and depressed, and they’re wondering why their wives are so happy. Well, that’s why it’s because their wives did the transition a lot better. This is also can be the case for a lot of caregivers. It’s very, very difficult to develop and enjoy your fluid intelligence curve when you’re constantly taking care of other people that need you. And I mean, you can get better at it. You can get more acute at it. You can come up with new and better ways to do it. But what you’re really, really good at, especially in later in life, is thinking of yourself as a teacher, a sharer. You’re thinking of somebody who’s a server which is ideally suited to crystallized intelligence. So, if you reframe what you’re doing in a serving profession as teaching other people to be happier, to be better, to be, to be something higher than they were, what am I doing to lift other people up with my knowledge and my skills? With the love that I have in my life, you’ll be ideally using your crystallized intelligence so everybody can be a professor in their own way.
Kate Bowler: And you say that because that’s all I’ve really ever. I used to. I mean, before before my diagnosis, I think I absolutely would have fallen into the definition of the intense striver that you’re describing. I just was like I mean, I wasn’t even trying to imagine life as a ladder, but I was climbing until I mean, I was climbing until all the rungs just weren’t available anymore. But I had the feeling of accumulation. And I had really sort of, I think, without knowing it, adopted a kind of bucket list attitude toward my life. And I wondered if we could talk a little bit about like bucket list mentalities and maybe like reverse bucket lists that we might adopt instead.
Arthur Brooks: So that’s the satisfaction problem that you’re talking about. And a lot of people who are hard working and relatively ambitious and high performing or just distracting themselves from life. You know, and there’s a lot of ways you can distract yourself. You can drink a lot of alcohol, you can take some drugs, you can gamble, you can look at pornography. There’s a lot of ways that you can distract yourself from the hard business of life. And what you’re doing is you’re basically you’re becoming a dopamine fiend because behind all of those behaviors and activities and substances that I just mentioned is this super charging dopamine machine. And another way to do that is by by being really ambitious and having a bucket list of things you’re trying to accomplishments you’re trying to walk through. So, you know, workaholism, success addiction, self objectification, be successful, hit the lever, get the cookie and the dopamine of the next thing, the next thing, more and more and more will distract you from the I mean, life is life is tough, man. How can we actually learn to be comfortable being at home with ourselves? That’s the skill that we actually have to cultivate. You’re never going to find it by running on the treadmill and running on the treadmill. You’re never going to find some other place where you can stay because the minute you stop, the treadmill is going to carry you right back into Kate. And it’s like, there you are, there you are. It’s like Ralph Waldo Emerson one time talked about. He says, you know, I always imagine that in Rome or in Naples, that that’s that, you know, it’s like I was talking about Roman Naples that everything will be okay. And I packed my trunk and I go to Naples and I open up my trunk and there I am.
Kate Bowler: Exactly, That’s right.
Arthur Brooks: That’s the key thing to keep in mind. And that’s the big problem and that’s the satisfaction problem. So a bucket list is basically saying, when I achieve these things and then I’m going to be okay when I achieve when I experience these things, then I’m going to be happy. No, you’re not. You need to detach yourself from from from those particular cravings and desires, from those delusions. You need to learn, actually what it means to be with yourself right now, today and tomorrow and every day. And that’s a really hard thing to do. For some, for me, that’s really hard thing for me.
Kate Bowler: When I was researching the history of bucket lists, I started following all kinds of like bucket list social media accounts to see this sort of like endless hunger that these created. And then, of course, during the pandemic, it’s like, how many painted staircases can Angela do? You know? And the answer is when the world constrains us, we don’t so much love learning the lesson you’re describing. Then we’re just up.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, then you just like. So you got no choice. You’re stuck. Your stuff got stuck. And some people, by the way, 7% of Americans were really happy during the lockdowns. This is like the cats of cats are like, this is awesome. This is great, right? You know, so I get this. I’m going to sleep on the windowsill all day long. I’m not going to move for the winter, so don’t bother me, golden retriever. Then it’s a problem. Good luck. I know it’s a problem if you’re a neurotic golden retriever. All the. All the worst.
Kate Bowler: One of the things we talk about a lot is trying to move past American mythologies of being self-made, being sort of exhausting, endless individualism and bootstrapping that you just can’t sustain when life comes apart. And you have to have some strong hopes for when we unravel that you’re imagining maybe we could learn to need each other and be a little more useful to one another.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, that’s for sure. The problem for a lot of people who’ve been excessively individualistic over the course of their lives is that they have desiccated relationships. And this is one of the things that I find for the unhappiest people my age and older, very, very ambitious people, the high achievers, the strivers. They they have substituted their own success for love. And it’s been a really bad bargain. It’s really important, though, that what you find is is coming to understand that anybody can develop better love and better relationships and better networks of healthy relationships at any point in life. But you got to treat it like any other serious task. You can’t just hope, you it’s like I have all these friends and you know, you got to do it. You got to take it seriously, you know?
Kate Bowler: Oh you have a whole chapter on like, please make a friend. Here’s how.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, totally. It’s like and it sounds so pathetic because people who have tons of close friends, like you need a chapter on how to make friends.
Kate Bowler: Oh no, it’s so real, we had a lovely Dr. Vivek Murthy is such wonderful person
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, Surgeon General he’s phenomenal.
Kate Bowler: We both thinks he’s a total delight and the soulfulness with which he talks about loneliness, I mean, does make it so real that for a lot of a lot of people like and certain especially kind of like demographic pockets, like men. Period.
Arthur Brooks: A lot of guys, they’re really, really incompetent at it. Women tend to get better at friendship as they get older, men get worse as they get older. So of the 60 year old men who’ve had a lot of material success in their work, they tend to be very, very lonely people. Not always, but boy, do I ever see it a lot and do ever see in the data as well, because they’re incompetent, they don’t know how to. The last time they had really close friends was like college. Yeah. And then in their twenties they got married and then they wouldn’t hang out after work because that would be cheating your family. And so the result is that their only friend is their wife and their wife is like, I need more friends than this.
Kate Bowler: Walking away from your book, I felt like I’d sort of had a pep talk for decline. I mean, I think I was especially nervous about decline because I’ve already I’ve had a lot of setbacks, like I, I mean, cancer, like took me out for a lot of my thirties. And then I think I wasn’t really ready to hear people complain about, like, fading vision or like I wasn’t ready to accept small decline because I think it just it made me worried. Like, I like, thank you so much. I’ve already lost so much. But I there’s there’s a deep hopefulness and and learning to accept ourselves as we change. The other thing you did, too, is you talked me into the endlessness of my career as a historian. And for that and for so many things.
Arthur Brooks: You’re going to be 95 and still working. That’s the bad news. Sorry.
Kate Bowler: I can’t wait. All right. Thank you so much for doing this with me today. What a treat.
Arthur Brooks: Thank you, Kate. Thank you for what you’re doing and for the gift that you’re bringing to so many people around the world.
Kate Bowler: Hey, if you thought that things were going to add up differently, you know, retirement was supposed to feel like a reward. But it doesn’t. Exactly. Or maybe you missed too many big moments with your kids or friends, and it felt like it was going to be worth it. But now everyone lives so far away. You spent so much time training for a career. But circumstances or other needs or health kept you from reaching the finish line. Maybe you thought you’d be married by now. Or had that baby you prayed for or that community you could rely on. Or maybe you just thought you’d get more time. Maybe this place is strangely unfulfilled. Unchecked, off place can be ripe for a blessing too. So blessed are you who say this did not add up. I had hoped these choices I made. The life I tried so hard to pick would add up to something meaningful. But now I’m left without many choices at all. Left wondering, did I pick? Right. Did I waste my days? What should I have done differently? This limited life is what it means to be human in our failures and bad, bad math, in our best intentions and hardest work, in our waylaid hopes and far off dreams. In the love that is never, ever too late to give or receive. Maybe success and happiness can mean something different now. On the other side of a life changed when minutes become moments and there will never be enough sunsets or handholds or jokes shared. But there is never, ever too much love. Bless you, my dears.
Barbara from Virginia: Hi. This is Barbara calling from Fairfax County, Virginia. After a pandemic and losing my mom and taking care of her happiness looks like getting an email saying what is happiness look like for you now? And you can reflect on that. And I can say happiness for me right now. In September 2022 is getting everything that I need to get done during the day and then being able to watch an episode of Queer Eye at Night. Happiness also looks like being able to go for a run and be thankful for my health. And happiness looks like being able to cut herbs from my community herb garden that I planted this year that I wanted to do for years. But I couldn’t because I was taking care, helping take care of my mom. And I did it this year. And my herbs are gorgeous and beautiful and I’ve donated 12lbs of them already to the community foodbank. So, that’s everything that I can think of right now.
Christina from Oregon: Hi, my name is Christina and I am 34 years old and living in Portland, Oregon. And my definition of success has changed radically. At 22, that looked like having a Roth IRA for one day starting to save for a down payment on a condo. Dating. How many networking groups I was a part of. The list goes on forever. Now, at 34, after a decade of chronic illness, success for me looks like changing into something other than my pajamas, brushing my teeth in the morning, washing my face, eating three meals a day, staying hydrated and trying to hold on to hope.
Carol from Georgia: Hi, my name is Carol and I’m from Atlanta. And I would say that success for me these days has changed because I’m in a season of taking care of my mom, who is 96. So success used to be doing all the things and checking all the boxes and completing tasks and running around and. Whether it was at work or at home. And now success looks like sitting quietly with her for an hour or two and just being present and being still. That’s always been a challenge for me. So when I am able to really be in the moment with her, it’s incredibly fulfilling. And I walk out of there feeling like it was a good day.
Kate Bowler: A really special thank you to our generous partners who make this work possible. Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And to my wonderful team Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Keith Weston, Jeb and Sammi, thank you. And I’d really love to hear what you loved about this episode. Would you do me a favor and leave a review on Apple Podcasts? It really, really means a lot to us when we get to hear what we do well and also even what we can do better. You can also leave us a voicemail and who knows? We might even be able to use your voice on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731. All right. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online at Kate C Bowler. This is Everything Happens with Me. Kate Bowler.
3 thoughts on “When Success Isn’t Success”
I am not alone! I am staring age 70 in the face, and have been evaluating a life that went off the tracks with a Parkinson’s diagnosis at age 55. I was doing my dream jobs as an organist at a wonderful ecumenical church and as a Music Specialist at an elementary school. High achiever? Yep, that was me! In fact, the year I was diagnosed, I became Teacher of the Year and earned National Board Certification. It wasn’t too many months, however, before it all started to unravel. Too soon, I could no longer play a hymn cleanly on the. organ. Basic keyboard techniques like scale runs and trills became impossible. I couldn’t stay awake in my classroom! I could no longer get organized enough to write grants for the music program at school. So, at age 63, I found myself on disability with long hours of unscheduled time each day. My church did finally agree to ordain me … but it felt like an afterthought after a long career in the church! And now, as my 70th birthday looms, I am left with no musical abilities, no students, no church to serve. I had imagined this time of my life to be relaxing and traveling with my husband, carefree, foot loose and fancy free! Au contraire! We are beset with bodies that are gradually falling apart (well, sometimes more rapidly than gradually!) Our beloved church has fallen apart, so we have lost that anchor. Our children have settled into new homes and businesses, so they don’t need us as much anymore. This is a weird time of life! Very different from what we had imagined. We need guideposts along this new path. We need ministers to help us keep from stumbling! You are becoming that for us. Thanks.
I, too, have found life “unrecognizable” as I near 70. My expectations and dreams for nearing retirement have been swept away as covid, politics, and all the national upheavals descended upon our world. My husband and I have been pastoring for 30+ years, getting close to handing the leadership over to the next generation. As has happened to many churches, 3/4 of our community did not return after we began meeting in person again after a year of only online services. There are too many changes and too deep of pain wrought by these pandemic years to mention, but Kate’s voice has become my solace. I literally do not know what I’d do without you, Kate. And all those you talk with on your podcasts. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Kate, your podcasts are a salve for my soul. I lost my mom in December after we both endured her decline from dementia, on the heels of my dad’s decline and death from Alzheimer’s. I am a reformed striver, and while I will always want to do well, these experiences (also having a child with Down syndrome) have taken me off that path that was really defined more by the idea of what “success” looked like rather than something that was driven by something within me. While caregiving derailed my career, the experiences of such profound loss have also stripped away the layers that made me think that success could only look one way. And in these losses, I have been returned to myself. Your ability to connect with both your interviewees and your listeners is such a gift to the world. I first heard you in an interview with Krista Tippett along with Wajahat Ali and knew immediately that you were someone that I wanted to “know”–even thought you don’t know us. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.