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!

A “Top Ten” List of Lessons for Keeping a Positive Attitude

I’m often asked: What are some “quick tips” from the 2000 Legacy Project elders? Here’s a list of ten short, on-target lessons for keeping your attitude positive despite the inevitable setbacks life brings – from our oldest interviewees. Take a minute to peruse the view from age 80 and beyond.:

1. “Paste a smile on your face in the morning.”

2. “Don’t plan too much about the future. Live life day by day, and let it lead you to unexpected places.”

3. “Always stay optimistic, no matter what happens. Try to think of the good side of things, and not worry about the little details. You’ll be much happier and lead a much better life that way.”

4. “Enjoy life. Make use of what’s around you, and just let yourself have fun”

5. “Don’t be stuck in the past, learn to change with the times.”

6. “Keep on going. This is important with whatever you decide to do. Push yourself to continue and finish what you’ve already started.”

7. “Don’t second guess what you’ve done — be happy with life and with what you do. Don’t regret things too much.”

8. “Learn to live in the moment. It’s calming in a world that is not very peaceful.”

9. “I’d say letting go is probably the most important lesson. In my life I’ve moved around a lot and I’ve had to learn to not live in the past, and to just live in the moment.”

10. “To try to enjoy life as fully as possible; be good to others, try not to worry about the future as far as how long you are going to live; do the best you can everyday.”

A Different New Year’s Resolution: Doing Well for Others

For the New Year, we often make specific resolutions: Lose weight, get exercise, work harder (or work less), and so on. If we ask the oldest Americans, we might hear them endorse something more general: Resolving to be more compassionate.

Many elders thought of happiness in terms of compassion and service to others. Carmen, 80, has lived a very full life, and has thought deeply about the sources of  happy living. Her advice is to focus on others and to carefully consider the effects of our actions.

This is my response about the most important lessons I have learned in my life. I am an 80 year-old woman and have been married for 56 years. I graduated from law school, practiced law for five years, and then left the practice to raise a family.

The single most important lesson that I have learned is that personal happiness depends on doing the best you can for the people to whom you owe a duty. The best attitude with which to approach life is to recognize that what others do to you does not matter. What counts is what you do to others. The greatest enemy of one’s own happiness is guilt about one’s own actions. All of our life choices should be guided by the goal of avoiding decisions that will make us feel guilty.

The greatest waste of time is to worry about how others may have mistreated oneself. The actions of others are their problem alone. The best use of our lives is to discharge our duties with joy and to recognize that we can only be truly happy when we do as well as possible whatever we undertake to do. With the caveat that one is not engaging in activities that are harmful to others or to oneself, what counts in life is not what one does, but how well one does it. The lowliest job done properly is more gratifying than the most elevated activity done poorly, and when both activities are done well, they are of equal value.

The best guiding principle for achieving a guilt-free life is to adopt philosopher Immanuel Kant’s imperative to treat everyone as an end in themselves and never as a means to an end and to never take any action which you would not want all people in a similar situation to take. As I near the end of my own life, my only regrets are about the things I might have done better and those things all relate to the happiness of others. There is no such thing as personal happiness divorced from the happiness of others. We cannot be truly happy when we cause unhappiness to others.

John’s List of Life’s Lessons Learned – Pursue Questions, Not Answers

We welcome contributions of life lessons to the Legacy Project site. This wonderful list of lessons learned was list.2sent to us by John, age 77.

 There are no definitive answers to any of life’s questions, but quality joy-in-life can be had in the pursuit of those answers.

Loyalty to one’s own personal beliefs and respect for others’ is the path to a serene life.

Family, country (maybe God if you are religious) need to be honored if one is to survive in an intolerant, unjust world.

Little things do matter and must be tended to so they don’t pile up to become complex things and more difficult to cope with.

Health and marriage must be treated in the same way…daily maintenance with occasional spoons full of sugar to make bad times go down.

You should listen more than speak, which is hard for us to do, so that takes practice.

You should find work that you will be content with because 40 years is a long time doing the same thing.

Heed the advice of your elders. They may not have all the answers, but they have had much more experience than you.

Experience can be a cruel teacher; learn from it.

Being cautiously pessimistic about life will make the sporadic good things that actually do happen seem even better.

You should not fret very long; all things pass. One way or another they will no longer be experienced.

Whether or not you believe in heaven and hell (religion) should not prevent you from being a nice person.

Injustice exists. Get used to it.

Tne Secret about Aging You Need to Know

Looking for the best advice about aging? We asked over 1200 older Americans to offer their lessons on how toelder humor be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled. Some of the most interesting insights in the book from the project, 30 Lessons for Livingwere about aging itself. Of all these lessons (having hit 60 recently myself), there’s one I like the best.

Here is the elders’ secret: Being old is much better than you think it will be.

It’s a bit difficult to believe, perhaps, because of our negative stereotypes about aging as a period of loss and decline. But I found that the Legacy Project elders defied these stereotypes. Over and over, I got the message that being old (and sometimes really old) was much better than people ever expected. Let’s hear from three elders about their surprising experience of aging.

Ursula, 94, is surprised when people comment about her longevity. She told me:

Worry about aging? No. I wake up and I know where I am, I lead a very normal life. I eat, I drink, I like to talk, as you can see! I have an interest in what’s going on in the world. Flexibility, that is important. I don’t have to worry. I get very upset when people complain. You wouldn’t believe the complainers. I tell you, you have to think positively. And if you think positive, physically and mentally, things are all right. So one day I don’t feel so good, so what, you know? I think positive and that is my blessing. I have my mind and my wonderful memories. You need to do things, you see, or there’s no quality of life, sitting home and crying doesn’t help. I have been lucky to be healthy. I have everyday a glass of wine.

Davia,74, discovered her knack for business later in life and runs a successful bed-and-breakfast.

Well, when it comes to aging, it sure as heck not the way I would have thought old age or growing older would be like! I never thought it would be anything like this. I always thought: Oh, I don’t want to think about that or that sounds terrible. That was when I was young and I would be thinking about what old age might be like, if it somehow cam up as a topic of conversation.

But I still feel like I’m on the road of life to somewhere, and there’s so many things I still want to do, that I love to do. I don’t look at old age as something to be pitied or dismissed. Now very young people, they’re going to do that anyway I know, up to certain point in their lives anyway, they will.

But there are so many things I’d like to do. I’d like to do more traveling. I don’t have great funds to do it with, but I’m going to do some more. And I’m happy to have a bed and breakfast to run and it still excites me. It’s tiring when it’s busy, but I can sleep when I need to. I can manage to rest up. My health is pretty good and I make a point of eating healthy foods ands trying to go a little exercise on a regular basis. So I don’t feel like it’s the end of a life, not yet.

The most inspiring elder I spoke with was Edwina, 94: Whenever I worry about getting older, I take a look at her view of the later part of life:

My advice to people about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.  The world is a magical place in lots of ways.  To enjoy getting up in the morning and watching the sun come up.  And that’s something that you can do when you are growing older.  You can be grateful, happy for the things that have happened.  You should enjoy your life.  Grow a little.  Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need to stop growing. I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by.  Well that’s not for me and that’s not for a lot of people.  I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.

There’s no reason for anybody in this world to ever be bored.  That’s one thing I’ve always said.  Well if I died and went to heaven, I’d be bored to death with how they say heaven is.  There’s no need for you to be bored in this world.  There’s so much out there.

Our society is filled with negative attitudes about growing old. But what if they are all wrong? Based on the elder’s advice, many of us can all look forward to a happier old age than we expect!

Go Out and Make A Difference

Today, one of the Legacy Project elders tells us to get out there and take action. Jared, 80, has been a farmer and making a differencebusinessman for 60 years and he has lived through setbacks and tragedy. But he is actively engaged in making the world a better place – and he thinks we should be, too.

My lesson for people is to get involved. Many times, I could have sat back and grumbled and nothing would have gotten done. But I got out there and made myself an annoyance enough so that these laws did get passed. You get involved and you can make a difference.

Maybe that’s my major point. People feel insignificant. They feel overpowered by the world. It’s easier to come home at night and sit in front of the television set or read the paper and go to sleep. I tend, I guess, to have maybe gotten somewhat of a reputation of a rabble rouser. Trouble maker maybe. If there’s something that needs correcting, I’m quite apt to get out there. In fact I’ve got a project going right now. I’ve been told maybe I should sit down and shut up. We’ve got an unfair situation the county I live in. I think it can be changed and straightened around, but it’s going to take a lot of work. That type of thing. You can make a difference if you get out and get involved!

Vacation: Use It to Learn from Your Family’s Elders!

During the summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great opportunity for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Why not use this time to encourage your kids to have meaningful “elder wisdom” conversations with the elders in your family?

Older people are a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

So while we are visiting older relatives, why don’t we all  take an hour (okay, it can be before or after the trip to the beach) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on vacation (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.(and you can watch elders sharing their lessons on our YouTube channel).

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Add go ahead and add your own. I guarantee it will enrich your summer vacation this year!