Advice from our elders about careers, choices and life’s unending uncertainty.
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When you’re young, taking advice from older people can be difficult. The short explanation of why is simple – it’s annoying. But however much your mother or grandfather may drive you crazy with unsolicited tips and suggestions, most of us know deep down that those with vastly more life experience than us have valuable insights to offer.
It’s been a bumper year for online posts and columns offering to pass on the wisdom of age to the young and curious, with The New York Times columnist David Brooks leading the way.
Over the past few months, Brooks has asked elderly readers to send in their life stories, as well as the lessons they’re learned over the decades for the benefit of his readers, with Brooks summarizing the results in a series of thought-provoking columns. Among the many insights from the project:
Divide your life into chapters. The unhappiest of my correspondents saw time as an unbroken flow, with themselves as corks bobbing on top of it…. The happier ones divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases. They wrote things like: There were six crucial decisions in my life. Then they organized their lives around those pivot points. By seeing time as something divisible into chunks, they could more easily stop and self-appraise. They had more control over their fate.
Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives…. Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.
In the same vein, hospice nurse Bronnie Ware made waves online with a somewhat wrenching post on the most common regrets of the dying (not all of whom may have been seniors, but all of whom presumably were forced by short time horizons into hard reflection). The post is worth a read in full, but one regret from the list might be of special interest to young careerists. She wrote:
I wish I didn’t work so hard. This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
Of course, not all the wisdom of senior citizens is reserved for weighty matters and the most fundamental values decisions of life. Less somber advice is on offer too. For example, a recent post on Wise Bread provides a 94-year-old’s tips on making good decisions. Among the ideas:
Be grateful that you have choice. It’s natural to dread having to make a tough choice — I know I often do. But what if you thought of that choice as a privilege? My grandmother grew up at a time in which women just weren’t given much say; she was raised to listen to her parents and then later, all the big decisions went to her husband. Now that she’s all on her own, she relishes doing what she wants, even at the cost of sometimes making choices she regrets. So next time you’re struggling with a decision, remember that you’re actually indulging in a luxury that has not always been available to everyone — and that in some parts of the world still isn’t.
Do what you want. As an active and able 94-year-old, my grandmother relishes being able to do whatever she wants. Maybe some of that’s a luxury of old age, but she’s also learned that you just can’t make everyone happy, so it’s best not to try. Going with the flow can often be a way of taking the easy way out. Make the decisions that are right for you.
For those looking into the really deep dive, Stanford professor Tina Seelig (merely middle-aged but clearly onto some of the secrets of career success) has a whole book on subject entitled What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World.
When asked in an interview what single piece of advice she’d like to give her younger self, she replied:
I would tell myself that the uncertainty of life never goes away. There are always choices in front of you, challenges to overcome, and failures from which you need to recover. If you embrace the challenges and view them through the lens of possibilities, then you will not only be happier, but will be much more likely to turn the inevitable obstacles into opportunities. The world is always changing, and it is up to you to be flexible and optimistic.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from an elder?
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London and is the author of BNET’s Entry-Level Rebel column.