Living & Leading with New Kinds of Intelligence as We Age

Reflections on growing older with grace

woman and man chatting happily

We’re keenly and rather painfully aware of mental decline as a natural byproduct of aging, but far less aware of the new forms of intelligence available to us in the second half of life.  Both neuroscience and scripture speak to unique and important opportunities as we age—to grow in both emotional and developmental intelligence, and to contribute from a new kind of freedom and fruitfulness.

The good news: New forms of wisdom and intelligence as we age

Dr. Gene D. Cohen, psychologist, gerontologist, and founder of the National Institute on Aging, did extensive and groundbreaking scientific research which identified a new kind of “developmental intelligence” as we age, reflected in three specific forms of thinking that actually improve with age:

  • Relativistic thinking – Our earlier orientation toward absolute and often rigid truth transitions to a new kind of understanding based on a new ability to synthesize disparate views, and recognize more realistic, relative truths. As we age we can better understand facts and perspectives in context rather than simply as absolutes.
  • Dualistic thinking – Where earlier in life we are prone to more black-and-white, either/or thinking, at later stages contradictions and opposing views can more easily be held simultaneously without judgment. We can see validity in opposing views or options and doing so allows the opportunity for creative, integrative “third way” options or thinking to emerge. 
  • Systematic thinking – Older minds can see a bigger, broader, more systemized picture–in other words, we’re better able to see both the forest and the trees. Younger minds are more prone to first-person perspective.

Research has also shown that we’re all born with two specific types of intelligence—fluid and crystallized intelligence—which peak at two very different points in life. Arthur C. Brooks, in his newly released book entitled From Strength to Strength, describes them as two distinct intelligence curves:

  • Fluid intelligence is a faster-thinking, analytical, creative problem-solving form that we readily see in innovators and entrepreneurs; fluid intelligence increases through one’s twenties and thirties and begins declining in one’s late thirties and forties.
  • Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, is a more integrative wisdom born from our cumulative life experiences, which increases through one’s forties and fifties and stays strong through the sixties, seventies, and even eighties.

Brooks characterizes fluid intelligence as Elon Musk and crystallized intelligence as the Dalai Lama, and encourages us to embrace these shifts in intelligence and “surf the curve”—making the leap to recognize, embrace, and ride the wave of this shift in intelligence.

The inherent challenges and emotional intelligence required in letting go

And this, of course, brings up the accompanying need to let go of certain things that likely have undergirded and even fueled our life to date. If we’re committed to aging well, there are many things with which we must create new relationships as we age—ambition, achievement, role, and contribution as some prime examples.

The strivers’ challenge: Arthur Brooks is a social scientist who studies and teaches on human happiness at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, and his research encourages us to accept and work with the realities of aging rather than holding onto outdated scripts and striving. In fact, his research confirms that at around age 65, about half the population gets happier for the rest of their lives and the other half gets less happy for the rest of their lives. And interestingly, the happier half are not the high-performing achievers; in fact, strivers tend to struggle at this stage of life. What does it mean to redefine ourselves, our goals and our accomplishments as we age?

Judicious use of voice and influence: I partner in a podcast and cohort experience that advocates for a third phase of leadership. Turn 1 (Artisan) we’re learning about how to lead ourselves; Turn 2 (Artist) we’re learning to lead others, teams, perhaps even an organization; and Turn 3 (Maestro) is learning to lead with a greater good and, as we would say, our grandchildren’s grandchildren in mind.  As I co-facilitate cohort experiences for Third Turn leaders who are intentionally and proactively planning and paving the way for succession, legacy, and organizations that endure beyond themselves, we continually hear leaders recognizing the need to stay engaged in new ways but simultaneously dial back their presence in others. A more judicious voice and influence allows others around them to stretch, grow, and prepare in their own way for the future unfolding for them all. Where are you in the three leadership turns and what does this indicate for what you’re still accountable for and/or called to dial back or let go?

The murky truth of ambiguous loss: The concept of ambiguous loss has been recognized and validated in recent years. Whereas some of the losses we need to grieve are tangible—like the loss of a friend or family member or the loss of a job—other losses are more intangible but no less real and significant. As we age, changes and shifts in energy level, interests, and some abilities or capacities can mean saying goodbye to things that have given our lives a certain meaning or value. Honestly recognizing these new realities and the losses inherent in them is an important step in developing a new kind of resilience. What are some ambiguous losses that are no less real and that would benefit from recognition as a first step to our acceptance and embracing a new reality?

A new kind of freedom and fruitfulness: In keeping with much of what I have shared here, Gordon T. Smith, in his book Courage & Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential, identifies the essence of three phases of vocation: 

  • Young adults: take responsibility for your own life
  • Midlife adults: accept yourself for who you are, for better or worse
  • Older/senior adults: let go so that you can bless and offer wisdom.

And Cohen lays out four developmental stages of our mid to later years:

  • Re-evaluation (age mid-30s to mid-60s) – realize our mortality and reconsider our lives
  • Liberation (mid-fifties to mid-70s) – consider “If not now, when?” and experiment with a new focus and approaches
  • Summing up (late 60s through 80s) –  seek to complete unfinished business, share and give back
  • Encore (late 70s on) – restate and reaffirm our major life themes

As I find myself in my early 60s, these themes have proven real and true in my own life. The idea of “sharing wisdom and giving blessing” has become a rallying point for me and provides a helpful means around which to order my life in this third third chapter. It’s required that I let go of things with which I’ve certainly wrestled, but frankly, that have also served me well throughout my previous chapters—like the achiever approach to life that has helped me navigate career transitions, single parenthood, and solo-preneurship. But now, I’ve been experiencing a call to replace principles like drivenness and traction with peace and impact; a not-so-subtle shift that represents a much more meaningful metric and new kind of focus and sense of freedom.

The third turn in scripture

I believe that a reading of scripture supports this third-third idea as well. How many biblical characters experience a new kind of freedom and fruitfulness in their later years? Hannah, like other biblical women, at long last has a child after struggling for years with barrenness. Naomi becomes nurse to her grandson and the sacred future and Christ lineage after the pain and heartache of losing her own sons. Jacob returns to his homeland and estranged brother relationship with a new sense of identity and courage.

I had the opportunity to study scripture with a gifted rabbi friend who actually explained that “the third” anything (third day, third phase) is actually symbolic of our ability to look up and see more. Think of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day—a day to look up from earlier earthly realities and see a bigger, life-giving story. Doesn’t this sound like a lovely spiritual invitation to accompany the developmental intelligence and brain science realities we experience in aging?

Observing the final life stage of my dear, deceased friend

Some years ago a dear friend was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). As we gathered as friends to listen to his needs and pray on a weekly basis, we actually walked out an 18-month journey of watching Chuck become physically weaker and increasingly disabled day by day, but ever more spiritually alive and increasingly dialed into a more transcendent perspective. Physical decline and spiritual/emotional aliveness in commensurate, off-setting measure.  

Chuck’s powerful and poignant example, I believe, invites us all to both let go and look up–to more transcendent wisdom and perspective that we’re uniquely wired for, by God’s grace, as we age. May we commit ourselves to this important work as we live and lead and grow ever more each day into our role and unique contributions as community elders.  

Resources to support you in the commitment to live and lead well as we age 


  • From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in The Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks
  • Aging Faithfully: The Holy Invitation of Growing Older by Alice Fryling
  • Elders Rising: The Promise and Peril of Aging by Roland Martinson
  • Praying Our Goodbyes: A Spiritual Companion Through Life’s Losses and Sorrows by Joyce Rupp

Organizations that provide resources and cohort experiences:

  • Halftime Institute ( – a leading authority with a variety of resources to help people discern and create a next season defined by joy, impact, and balance. For more than 20 years, Halftime has served and supported thousands of men and women in navigating to a new season of fruitfulness and impact. 
  • Maestro-level leaders ( – providing thought-leadership (Third Turn Podcast) and cohort experiences for organizational leaders who want to proactively and intentionally start planning for succession strategy, preparing their successors and the organization for continued thriving, and defining their own purpose and legacy–all with a greater good and our grandchildren’s grandchildren in mind.
  • Third Third Initiative ( an initiative of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership, with the goal of helping people in the third third of life live faithfully and fruitfully.

  • Kristin Evenson

    Kristin Evenson is a consultant, facilitator, and coach. Believing that transitions are both the best and worst of times, Kristin helps individuals, teams, and organizations navigate critical life, career, and strategic junctures, identify the way forward, and live into new chapters with clarity and conviction. She has a deep desire to help others discern and do what is often the counterintuitive, countercultural call of God, with credentials at the intersection of neuroscience, Christ-centered mindfulness, and fresh prayer practices--having trained in both spiritual direction and brain-based coaching.

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