You Need to Do What You Love

Many students are involved in summer internships right now, so it’s worth taking a moment to learn this lesson from our elders: focus on work for its intrinsic value more than for external rewards.

Marty, 71, had a very satisfying work life as an engineer and entrepreneur. But he exhorts younger people to think about success not in terms of money, and gives you some important questions to ask yourself about your career.

Earning money seemed to be how they measured a success when we were young. Some people went to college but most people went to work, they got a job and went to work so everything revolved around: What are you earning?  What are you making? And so the more money you made the more successful you were.

And that became more important than: What should I do with my life? What do you want to develop? What do you want to learn?’  But by learning and experiencing that part of your life, you’re going to be doing something you like doing,  that you want to do, and money follows. Money follows. That’s the way it works.

And if money doesn’t follow, you’re doing something you like anyway. So it was like when I was a kid, down the street we had a shoemaker, a father with his kids and they did the shoes, leather soles and stuff. They were a pretty cool family. They loved working there and they loved making shoes and fixing shoes. So there’s ways to be happy without having to be this big-shot corporate guy.

The Values I’ve Learned, Old-Fashioned But True

Some of the elders shared their core values, summing up wisdom gained over a lifetime. One of these responses came from Maureen, who is nearing her hundredth birthday.

I am 97 and 5/6 so I have had a long learning time! (I was at my university in June for my 75th reunion.) These are some of the values I’ve learned over my life; old fashioned but true.

1. Integrity. Without honesty, dependability, truthfulness, and self-respect life isn’t worth living.

2. Commitment. To marriage and sexual fidelity. To good family life, for without it, even though one inherits a good “nature” it is difficult through “nurture” to learn patience, respect for others, cooperation, and love anywhere else.

3. Healthy living. Best learned in family.

4. Respect for racial, cultural, and religious differences. Not only tolerated but understood if possible.

5. Hard work. Setting attainable goals and persistence in attaining them. One doesn’t have to be a wealthy big shot to be a successful person or have a “good life”.

6. Immersion in a “cause” bigger than oneself.

7. Expansion of one’s interests through reading, study of arts and sciences. Keep up to date.

8. Deep but unfanatical faith in a higher being. It is basic to a caring, generous, whole human being who can maintain equilibrium in a turbulent world.

By trying to learn these “lessons” I find that one is bound to be respected, loved, happy, even considered a role model.

Graham’s List for Living (including dessert)

Graham, 82, offered a list of principles for living a good life, with an insight about – dessert.

Although what I’ve learned is probably no different from what life has taught other people, here are a few of the principles I’ve acquired so far.

  •  Marriage.  Romance and love are not the same, a lesson probably learned only by experience.  Romantic love, from what I’ve seen, is an insufficient condition for a successful marriage.  What is thought to be love at the outset of a marriage is generally a mirage, for love develops slowly in marriage and continues to do so throughout its life.  For a successful marriage, perhaps the two most important components are similar values and a sense of humor.
  • Work.   There will always be many who are richer or more distinguished than I am, so if my purpose in working is to attain these extrinsic rewards, I will be disappointed, for I will always compare myself to those whose attainments are greater.  But if I work principally for the pleasure or the fulfillment it gives me, my success is assured.  This assumes, of course, that such work can be found.  There are few blessings greater than finding and keeping it.
  • Listening.  Most people like to talk about themselves and need only a little encouragement to do so. (Witness this essay.)
  • Advice.  There are few who do not like to give advice, and even fewer who are prepared to take it.
  • Humiliation.  Next to murder, the greatest crime is the deliberate humiliation of another.  If murder kills the body, humiliation mutilates the soul.  It is generally never forgotten or forgiven.
  • Kindness.  I cannot know what troubles plague those with whom I come into casual contact.  Even those with the most cheerful countenance may harbor great sorrow.  So if I can avoid needlessly adding to their burdens, I try to do so.  If I cannot make their life better, at least I try not to make it worse.
  • Planning.  Planning is more useful for giving the illusion of control than for managing the actual course of events.  Chance plays an important role in life, for better and for worse.
  • Worry.  We generally worry about the wrong things.  The calamities we lose sleep about usually don’t materialize, whereas the calamities that befall us are usually unanticipated.
  • Dessert.  The second bite is never as good as the first.

A Conversation with the Grandkids – Great Advice!

As you might expect, some of the Legacy Project elders took a  light-hearted approach. These were among our favorites, because the elders who used humor also managed to convey very deeply felt life lessons. Take this one from 67-year old Irving, addressed playfully to his grandchildren:

 Gather round, you fantastic five. I have something to say to you. Now, don’t push, Sammy. Why are you crying, Andy? Because Natalie isn’t here? But here she is, under this cushion! Jake, put down that car for a minute. You can finish the book later, Joey.

Kids, don’t be afraid to appear different. Everyone is “different.” Look at Joey’s red hair or Andy’s dimples. But many kids, and big people too, pretend to be the same as everybody else. They dress the same and talk the same and do the same as everybody else. They just don’t want to cause trouble or stand out.

But if you have a really good idea, and you know it’s good, tell people and make them see that it’s good, too. You’ll stick out, sure–or as Joey would say, shooah–but stick out in a good way. People will say, listen to Jake, he knows what he’s talking about, or wow, that kid Sammy has the best ideas. So don’t let other people make you afraid to do or say what you think is right.

It’s one of the hardest things to do when you’re young, but you should take some time now and then to think about the future. Yes, Andy, you need to know when’s dinner. But I mean the future when you’re bigger. Joey, you say you want to be a vet and a daddy. As far as becoming a vet, you’ll have to think about what you’ll need to do to become one. Eventually you’ll have to think about what kind of life you’ll have as a vet and as a daddy. So, as soon as you can, be a man with a plan.

Right now, you kids have fun, as much fun as you can. In fact, your whole lives should be fun. But, watch out, your idea of fun will change. Later, you might begin to think school is more like work than fun. I hope you don’t, because what you’ll learn at school is important. A lot of people will say that to you. Believe them.

 Most people use the word “work” to mean “whatever isn’t fun.” Usually, work is what we have to do so we can have fun later. Sometimes, though, work itself is fun, especially when you think about how good you feel after you’ve done a good job. At your age, almost everything you guys do is exciting. Keep it that way!

I don’t have to tell you guys now that the most important thing in life is loving your family. You already love your family. And your family loves you back, even when you’re elbowing Jake in the ribs, Sammy. Later on, though, it’ll get harder to show your family that you love them. And you might not think they love you any more. That won’t be true–they will love you, forever. Don’t ever forget that.

That’s what life’s all about–returning the love of those close to you and gaining the respect of everyone else. In that sense, we live our lives for others. We’re lucky not to have to worry very much about the food we eat or the roof over our heads, but don’t forget that others do have those worries. When you’re older, spare some time to help them.

No matter how happy your lives are, you’ll never be satisfied. That’s normal. You’ll always feel you can do more, feel more, get more. That’s human. Having something to look forward to is a great feeling, and I hope you always feel it. Just for starters, I bet grandma cooked a great dinner. I’m really looking forward to it, aren’t you?

The View from 102: Lessons from a Century of Life Experience

Is there anything more amazing than at long talk with a 102-year old? There is a time-machine feeling as you listen to a century of memories. So it was talking with Wanda, age 102. Living comfortably in a senior community in upstate New York, Wanda is physically active and mentally sharp – indeed, we spent some time discussing books she was reading. Her lessons are grounded both in a childhood remarkably different from today, as well as her over a century of life experience.

She reflected on her childhood:

Well, the changes since I was a child! We had a horse and buggy. We had a telephone on the wall. Things were a lot different than they are today. I mean, we didn’t have any frozen vegetables. We didn’t have anything like that. We lived on a farm, we had chickens, if you were going to the grocery store you’d take your eggs and you’d get so much money for the eggs and then you’d buy sugar and stuff with the money. My grandmother and my mom did that.

There weren’t washing machines. We had washboards, as they called them. Hang the clothes out on the line. In the wintertime you take them down when you split the wood, you’d have to take them inside to let them thaw, a lot of the times they would just freeze. And if the sun wasn’t out then they wouldn’t defrost very well. And I used to wear long underwear. And if they didn’t defrost then it was frozen underwear!

I was eager to see what a 102-year old would offer as her lessons for living. Here are some pieces of advice Wanda wanted to pass on to younger people.

You just have to take one day at a time. And just be thankful for what you have, and try to do the best you can. Get up in the morning and thank the Lord you’re up. Hopefully you’ll have a good day. I don’t do anything special; just depend on the Lord because if the Lord’s going to take me, He’s going to take me.

If you have a big problem, try to figure it out. Talk to somebody that you think could help you.

Don’t do drugs. I just heard somebody on television this morning who shot somebody; he did it because he was on drugs. I think if you get hooked on it, it’s a bad situation. And don’t get drunk. I don’t think you should get drunk.

Try to be as truthful as you can. Honesty, and trying to help as much as you can. Look at what’s happening in Washington, every time you turn around somebody’s greedy, getting into somebody’s pocket.

I think you should do things that are naturally good for you, eat healthy food, and try to do things that will keep you healthy. And have a good time – don’t forget that!

What You Do When You’re Young Will Hunt You Up When You Get Old

Manuel, 79, has stayed healthy for nearly 80 years. His lesson? Start thinking about the consequences of your health behaviors while you are young:

What you do when you’re young, it will hunt you up when you get old.  If you’re young,  take care of your body and live right and go to the doctor and keep your self in good shape. And don’t abuse your body in any way, shape, or form and everything.

Like the good book says, too much of anything will hurt you.  Too much smoking will hurt you, too much drinking, too much drugs will hurt you, too much medicine will hurt you.  So you can’t overdo any of those things, that’s what it takes to keep your body in shape so that when you get old your body is not hurt.  Now if you don’t do that, a lot of things might come out later on in life.

The Key to Success? Say Yes!

What is one major key to success at work? The elders in the Legacy Project have a strong recommendation: Say “yes” when opportunities come up. When I think of this lesson for living, one particular elder comes to mind: Father John Wilson.

The benefits “saying yes” at work are crucial for younger people in the early stages of their careers. They have time to start over again if something doesn’t pan out, and the possible gain by taking an uncertain step forward can be enormous. But the rewards of saying yes are not limited to the young, as Fr. John taught me.

On a hot August day, I pulled up to a dignified stone building with a row of gothic windows – very fitting for the residence of this Catholic university’s priests. I was met at the door by Father John. After he ushered me into the cool interior and we began our meeting in its quiet sitting room, I found myself in the presence of one of the happiest people I have ever met. Fr. John embodies a kind of peaceful enjoyment of life that seems a rarity today.

To the uninitiated it may seem odd to ask someone for career advice who tells you: “I entered the religious life when I was twenty, and I’ve been in for fifty-seven years.” What could happen during that time to a priest? It’s pretty much weddings, baptisms, and funerals, right?

Not in Fr. John’s case. He spent a career involved in secondary education, moving from being  the rector of a theological seminary to stints as president and rector of Jesuit schools, and as a translator at high-level conferences at the Vatican and for some of the century’s leading theologians. Despite some worries and self-doubt, when asked, he said yes to new opportunities.

For example, at one point in his career, Fr. John was asked to be the head of a large urban high school.

And I told them, “I think you’re making a mistake because the only thing that I know about a high school is that I once went to one and I know nothing else.” But I got the job anyway, okay. So you get the job and what you have to do is you have to take over. You have to make sure that it functions. You have decisions to be made each day and so forth and so on. And as long as you don’t take yourself seriously, you’re fine. It turned out to be wonderful.

But it was when he reached the age of our Legacy Project elders that Fr. John had to decide about a new opportunity – Would it be “yes” or “no?”

I was still working at age 69 when we got word that one of our men was murdered in Jamaica. He was a young Canadian priest, a man of great promise, in his late thirties. Of course our manpower situation isn’t rich, and they were looking for someone to go down to take his place, but people weren’t rushing to go. And so I said to my superior who was making the decision, “”Well, I’d be very tempted to go. And he said, “Absolutely not, I wouldn’t think of it. You’re much too old.”

So I said, “All right.” But other people kept asking for me and finally he said, “If you really want to go, then you can go.” But he said “What if they shoot you? What am I supposed to say to people?” And I said, “What you say to them, Father, is this. Better they shoot a man that is seventy than they shoot a man who is thirty-seven. Because we’re hoping that the man who is thirty-seven will do a lifetime of work. This man is pretty much finished here. So I spent six years there serving in the mission and I loved it. I was basically in Kingston but also on the north coast in the parishes. And I loved it, but then I had a heart attack so I had to come back and the doctors were convinced that the heat and the humidity were too much for me. I went back again, but they kept calling me back up to the States to do one thing or another. And so they finally said “That’s it,” but I’ll be going down there in a couple of weeks just to turn the dirt over for the new library at our school.

I loved the people, the people are marvelous. And you’d be out there in the country and you’d hear two masses on a Sunday and each mass would last three hours. Because before you preach the people have an hour to share their week with one another. And I’d have congregations of eighteen or twenty and I’d think to myself “If you were back in Boston you’d be preaching to five hundred or eight hundred people. What are you doing down here? You’re wasting your time.” And then I thought to myself “No, because see God isn’t a mathematician. And these people are changing me. I don’t know how much good I’m doing them, but they’re doing me a world of good.”

Like most other elders, Fr. John’s message is clear: Think carefully about saying “yes” when opportunity knocks – it can change your life.

With Children, It’s the Time that Counts

Many of the elders in the Legacy Project believe that when it comes to child-rearing, there’s one thing your kids want more than anything else: your time. Paul, 80, when asked about the key to successful child-rearing fully endorsed the idea that time spent together is the most important thing. Ultimately, the lesson came from his daughter:

Pay attention to your kids and read to them and be with them and help them grow up and I don’t think you do that from afar. I always read to my daughter when she was growing up and my parents always read to me. It’s a marvelous way to interact with them because they really appreciate it and they’ll tell you years later. That’s one of the things you do.

 Tragically, Paul’s daughter became ill with cancer in her fifties, and after a long battle, died. She let him know how important the time spent together was:

 The other thing I remember, when my daughter was so ill, she said, “You know, the one thing I always appreciated from you and mom was that you attended my events, my high school games, my band performances, all those kinds of things.” You don’t get that when they’re in their teens. When they get to be about 30, they say that was good, that was good for me to have you there. She was in the marching band and we always went to those things. Well I’ll say this, following a marching band and a football team around – I think that’s what you do with your kids, you have to be with them. They’re a project you have to do. Hopefully you teach them some of the principles you believe in.

“Cozy up to Life”: Aurelia’s List for Living

Aurelia, 76, provided a set of lessons that look at living from a somewhat different angle. She’s honest, suggesting, for example, that life won’t turn out the way we expect it. But by honing in on our attitude toward what happens to us, we stand a much greater chance for happiness.

Be kind to people. Most of them deserve it. Give every member of your family your undying loyalty.

Be flexible. Your life probably won’t turn out the way you thought it would.

You have no choice but to play the hand that’s dealt you. But you and only you make the choice to be happy or unhappy. Make a conscious decision to be happy. A Jewish survivor of a Nazi death camp said during his time there he discovered the most important lesson of his life: they could take away his wealth, destroy his family, they could beat him, starve him, work him to death. But there was one thing they couldn’t touch or control, and that was his attitude.

Learn all you can about everything you can. Life is beautiful. Cozy up to it and share its confidences.

You are made up of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. If one of those areas is in need, give it your time and attention until your life is back in balance.

Remember what your mother and father taught you. Use those lessons as your guiding stars.

A Remarkable Woman’s Philosophy of Life

Gladys, 89, was a truly remarkable woman, graduating from college in the 1930s and serving as one of the first female commissioned officers in the Navy in World War II, as part of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She offered her lessons in a letter to the Legacy Project, and we were saddened to learn that she passed away less than a year later.

Over her long life, she developed a clearly articulated philosophy of life, one that bears reading and re-reading.

Do not waste energy on wishing things were different. Just look at the problem and ask, “What am I going to do about it?”

When you face a decision really think it through, then don’t look back. Make good decisions, handle social impasses well, and you won’t carry around psychological garbage-regrets.

Realize that no one can give you offense no matter how bad the comment or act may be. You can choose whether you will take offense or not. This knowledge gives you poise when entering totally unknown situations. If you feel you are a decent person because of the way you regularly handle things, you can learn by negative comment but it won’t hurt.

God is real. Prayer, trust, then tackling any situation facing you, regardless of your feeling of competence, gives you a feeling of peace as you face the task. I have tackled a number of situations others would not attempt.

When you share your faith, friendships become deeper and more permanent. Sharing means exactly that, and you listen thoroughly to the other person’s viewpoint to gain understanding. I have prayed with Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Roman Catholic friends. There is one God; we just have different ways of understanding. Our prayers were answered.

“He” or “She” in referring to God is a non-issue. Plants and animals have to reproduce to continue life. God is from everlasting to everlasting. The problem is with the English language. “It” does not mean a living being. The problem is not the nature of God, but the language we have available to express ourselves.

Let you imagination reach out – be creative in the areas that feel good to you. The weight of all that’s wrong with this country and the world is not on your shoulders. Be concerned and take action in the areas that you can reach; responsibility for the rest belongs to God, and to people nearer the problem.

Worry is not effective. Creative action and an upbeat attitude are.

Material things are useful, but good relationships with God and the people around you make life worth living. I taught in the depth of the 1930’s depression. Poverty is not a lack of money. It is a lack of skills.

When my daughter read this, she said that there was something that should be added, “You seem so young, so mentally awake, that no one can guess your age.” That was a kind comment – I’ll be 90 in September!