A Teacher’s Advice to Young People

Arlene, 83, was raised in the segrated South, became a teacher, and helped many children throughout her life. Life wasn’t always easy for her, but she feels fulfilled and satisfied by what she accomplished. She worries, however, about young people today and shares her advice for them.

My most important life lessons? Well, my marriage life, I was married about thirty years, it was a good marriage. And I was a schoolteacher; I enjoyed that for thirty years. And my parents were good, we weren’t rich, but I had good parents and that’s more important than having a lot of money. We would sit down to the table and eat. And  we went to church; church has become important to me in my older years.

I was born in the South, and I had to sit in the back of the bus, but over the years I’ve become proud of my heritage. I think we’re special.

When I lost my husband, my children became the most important thing in my life. My kids were important, two went to college. One’s a teacher and one’s a chemist.

I’m not rich or anything, I’ve got a fair income, but the main thing is I thank God that I am living, and I do have aches and pains, but they come with growing old.

A big choice for me was becoming a schoolteacher instead of a lawyer or something. I found that it’s not making as much money, but it’s been more enjoyable. Sometimes in teaching you not only teach, but you’re a friend to those kids. It’s not just teaching, it’s listening to the kids. And most of my time, being a Black teacher, I spent quite a bit of time with the white students and I found out they didn’t care about color. If you were their teacher and on their side, that’s all that matters. And my decision to go to church rather than going to nightclubs was good. I never got into drugs; I found that was a good way of doing it. I’d rather be in church than going to the bar every week and doing this and that.

Being honest is the main thing. When it’s all said and done, you have to do things the right way. There’s no outdoors or backdoors to lying. Somewhere along the line, you have to be honest with yourself. And by being honest with yourself, doors are open. I’m not “religious-religious,” but I do believe that if I do the right thing and so forth, things will open up for me.

About advice for young people: I found out two things by being a teacher: one problem is drugs, and the second problem is they are having babies. They’re out there, they never go to school, they start out on the corner selling drugs, and they don’t know anything about education and so forth. And we’re paying more money to house them in prison than we are if we could get them in and teach them the right and wrong. I cry about it sometimes to see our young people out selling drugs and they think that’s important. But their parents never taught them the right way of doing things.

Now, about getting old. As you grow older, take it day by day. I know we cry about this and that but we know we’ve got to grow old, so we should try and do the best we can. I retired about five or six years earlier than I should of, but I couldn’t help it because health problems set in and I had to. I would say if you can, try to prepare for retirement. But take a day at a time and things will work out.

Don’t Worry about What Everyone Else Thinks

Winona, 72, tells younger people that they need to be true to themselves, rather than trying to please everyone else.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that when I was younger I paid much too much attention to what everybody else thought. I didn’t always do what I thought was best. Instead, I often did what everybody else thought I should be doing. And every time I stood my ground and did what I thought I ought to be doing, I did better and things went better. I cared too much about what other people thought about my profession and about me as a person. I think that’s the biggest lesson and it spills over into so many different things.

And that led me to another another life lesson: that following the rules doesn’t always get you where you want to go. There are ways of staying within the boundaries of legality without following every single rule that your mother laid down for you. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken and I think I paid a little too much attention to the rules. They got me quite far, but I think I would have gotten much farther had I not paid attention to the rules, not caring whether people like what you are doing.

Want to Avoid Regret? Stay Out of Debt!

The news tells us that Americans are finallly getting more cautious about getting into debt. Our elders, many of whom lived through the Great Depression, think it’s about time! One of their strongest lessons is to save up the money before you buy something – or your may regret it.

Here’s what some of the elders interviewed for 30 Lessons for Living told me:

What should young people avoid? Credit card debt. They’ve got to have the instant gratification thing. I struggle with my granddaughter about it all the time because she doesn’t have the patience. She’ll get way in debt for something she’s gotta have and I keep saying: “You’re not ready for this, you don’t have a good down payment.” And also, I want her to have a cushion because sometimes it takes a while in between jobs, and she’s just not prepared to do that. She’s just like; “Well I know I’m going to have this job always.” Well, my first husband; in ten years of marriage, he had thirteen different jobs. And we had three small children and it was very nerve-wracking. (Evette, 83)

One of the things that I would tell any young person was save a little money every week for yourself. Make sure those few dollars a week are put away because that compounds and at the end of fifty years you’re going to have a nice nest egg if you pay yourself first. We have granddaughters that are paying off student loans that are just out of sight. They both worked as waitresses and if they had put aside a few dollars a week for themselves, they might not be struggling so much. (Pru, 75)

Unfortunately, I never had the money to save when I was in my twenties. That’s what I say to my kids now. I say that I wish I could have started saving when I was their age, when they’re in their twenties and like that. If you’ve saved money, like I stress that younger people should do, and then you can really relax when you get older and retire and enjoy life and like that. And think about having your house all paid for, and sit back and enjoy your hobbies and do volunteer work when you get older, and enjoy your grandchildren and travel. But if you’ve saved money and like that, you can do that and not have to keep working. (Flora, 71).

Worth taking a look at before you pull out those credit cards!

Don’t Rush into Marriage

The elders have seen many people rush into marriage – and they believe that’s a big mistake. They exhort us to think twice, three times, or however many times it takes before you take the step into marriage. Investigate it more thoroughly than any other decision, weigh your options, and in particular examine your motives. If you are doing it for the wrong reasons, you have every reason to wait.

Henry, 82, told me:

I don’t know what set of rules or guidelines to use to ascertain who is the best life partner for you, but don’t be hasty, take your time. Let the partner know you’re taking your time. Invite the partner also to take his or her time. Don’t be hasty, try to avoid pitfalls down the road.

If you take your time you can at least be somewhat surer of selecting a life mate correctly and not capriciously. This can let you avoid the business of divorce or separation – divorce is a very unpleasant process. So try to be very selective in your life partner early on and avoid if possible the trauma and the unpleasantness associated with divorce.

Roxanne, 74, urges people to fight the urge to get married just because “everyone else is doing it”:

Of course, you have to pick the right person. When I married my husband he was – well I just felt there was nobody like him. And I wanted to feel that way the rest of my life. Because of the way I felt about him, I wanted to be a good wife, good mother, good grandmother, and so far God has allowed me to be that. I just think you have to have a lot of love, true love. But what a lot of young people don’t know these days is what true love is and what commitment is. And when they say, “I do,” what it is they are really saying? Younger people think they have to get married because somebody else got married, one of their friends got married, or whatever. That’s not what it’s all about. And that is a serious mistake.

Rushing to quickly into marriage was one of the major regrets expressed by the elders in 30 Lessons for Living. So it’s worth thinking twice (or more) before saying “I do!”

Top 10 List from the Wisest Americans: How to Be Happier

In contemporary society, we don’t often ask our elders for advice. We’re much more likely to talk to professionals, read books by pop psychologists or motivational speakers, or surf the internet for solutions to our problems. In general (and for the first time in human history), we no longer look to our society’s oldest members as a key source of wisdom for how to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.

 Over the past 6 years, I’ve conducted a research project designed to tap the practical wisdom of older Americans. Using several different social science methods, I’ve collected responses from over 1200 elders to the question: “Over the course of your life, what are the most important lessons you would like to pass on to younger people.” I then combed through the responses, and the result was a book on lessons for living from the people I have called “the wisest Americans.”

 As I look back over years of talking with America’s elders, 10 lessons stand out as those they would like to convey to young people. Read these “Top 10 Lessons for Living” and see how they apply to your own life.

1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones.  Although many grew up in poverty, the elders believe that the biggest career mistake people make is selecting a profession based only on potential earnings. A sense of purpose and passion for one’s work beats a bigger paycheck any day.

2. Act now like you will need your body for a hundred years: Stop using “I don’t care how long I live” as an excuse for bad health habits. Behaviors like smoking, poor eating habits and inactivity are less likely to kill you than to sentence you to years or decades of chronic disease. The elders have seen the devastation that a bad lifestyle causes in the last decades of life – act now to prevent it.

3.  Say “Yes” to Opportunities: When offered a new opportunity or challenge, you are much less likely to regret saying yes and more likely to regret turning it down. They suggest you take a risk and a leap of faith when opportunity knocks.

4. Choose a mate with extreme care: The key is not to rush the decision, taking all the time needed to get to know the prospective partner and to determine your compatibility with them. Said one respondent: “Don’t rush in without knowing each other deeply. That’s very dangerous, but people do it all the time.”

5. Travel More: Travel while you can, sacrificing other things if necessary to do so. Most people look back on their travel adventures (big and small) as highlights of their lives and regret not having traveled more. As one elder told me, “If you have to make a decision whether you want to remodel your kitchen or take a trip—well, I say, choose the trip!”

6. Say it now: People wind up saying the sad words “it might have been” by failing to express themselves before it’s too late. The only time you can share your deepest feelings is while people are still alive. According to an elder we spoke with: “If you have a grudge against someone, why not make it right, now? Make it right because there may not be another opportunity, who knows? So do what you can do now.

7. Time is of the essence: Live as though life is short—because it is. The point is not to be depressed by this knowledge but to act on it, making sure to do important things now. The older the respondent, the more likely they were to say that life goes by astonishingly quickly. Said one elder: “I wish I’d learned that in my thirties instead of in my sixties!”

8. Happiness is a choice, not a condition: Happiness isn’t a condition that occurs when circumstances are perfect or nearly so. Sooner or later you need to make a deliberate choice to be happy in spite of challenges and difficulties. One elder echoed almost all the others when she said: ““My single best piece of advice is to take responsibility for your own happiness throughout your life.”

9. Time spent worrying is time wasted: Stop worrying. Or at least cut down. It’s a colossal waste of your precious lifetime. Indeed, one of the major regrets expressed by the elders was time wasted worrying abou things that never happen

10. Think small: When it comes to making the most of your life, think small. Attune yourself to simple daily pleasures and learn to savor them now.

For me, that last lesson is a great one to think about. Because of their awareness that life is short, the elders have become attuned to the minute pleasures that younger people often are only aware of if they have been deprived of them: a morning cup of coffee, a warm bed on a winter night, a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio (all pleasures mentioned in my interviews). Paying special attention to these “microlevel” events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up on a daily basis. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well – and it’s well worth a try at any age!

Wisdom from the past – for the youngest generation

Verna, 91, wrote this “list for living” to her great-grandchildren. It’s a good one to pass on to the next generation in your family (be it children, grandchildren, or further down the line!


1. So many things in the world have changed since the time of my grandparents and parents and the earlier times of my own life, and I know that there will be lots of changes in your lifetime too.

2. I hope you will always take school seriously (I was a teacher) and become well-educated to be ready for whatever kind of work or service you will be doing; that you will respect your body- take good care of it and try to have good health.

3. I hope that the governments of the world will do a better job of getting along with each other so that you can experience peace among nations.

4. I hope you will be a positive thinker, not negative or cynical; look for the good in people and things, and fill your life with love, kindness, and thoughtfulness for others.

5. Most important is to know God as you go into the future. I would hope that you will know the peace and joy and courage that come from following a life of love and service- the peace that passes all understanding.

5. Your real success in life lies is the kind of person you become, not with how famous or wealthy you are, so my most sincere wish is for you to live the wholesome life that will lead you to make good choices along the way, to Reach That Star that you are striving to reach.


Your turn: Can you advise one of our readers?

In an earlier post, we shared Bertrille’s regrets about her work life. Jenny commented on the post, sharing her own struggles to find a place in the world of work. Although our elders in the Legacy Project can’t respond to individual questions – can you? Does anyone have some life wisdom to share? Please comment to share your thoughts. Below is the original post, and Jenny’s comment follows.

Sometimes the elder’s lessons come not from what they did right, but from what they felt they did wrong. They advise younger people not to do as they did. So it is in this lesson about finding work that has meaning for you.

Bertrille, 69, flirted with a number of careers over the course of her life, from graduate school in the humanities, to work in research , eventually training as a nurse and practicing in several different settings. Her main regret is never having taken the time and energy to learn  what type of work she would find meaningful and even love:

Work for me? Well, you know, some people have careers and they find what they love to do. For me, work was to make money to do the things I wanted. It didn’t really have much value to me. And I’m very sad to be in my sixties and to have to say that, but it’s really the truth. I worked to live, I didn’t find anything in it that held a lot of meaning to me. I drifted from one thing to another and never really found a purpose.

So I feel sad, I feel very sad about that. I wish I could’ve found something that I really enjoyed but I didn’t do that.

When I look back on my life, I have one area of regret and that is I listened too much to what other people told me to do. I think people have to follow their own instincts about who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what they have to offer. You should not listen too much to what other people tell you to do. I have to deal with that sense of lost purpose.

Here’s what Jenny wrote in her comment. Do you have any life lessons to offer her?

Dear Bertrille, thank you for sharing your life lessons.

I am currently 34 year old and I am one of those who has moved from job to job because I didn’t like the previous one. 3 Years ago, I realized I must stop wasting time and do something more meaningful in my life. I know I want to make a difference in other’s life, particular to those less privileged.

Determined and ambition as I always am, I got myself into a Tier 1 MBA program, aiming to build a more rounded skill-set and a strong network so I can have a good foundation to get started on my life ambition. I dream to establish an institution that teaches and builds people’s character through simulated activities, particularly for disadvantage children in various parts of the world. I see that many people in influential positions today do not exemplify good character such as integrity, courage and compassion. They often get to where they are because of their privileged background and network, without many tests and trials in their lives. It is very disappointing reality for me. I want the institution to raise the awareness that character building is first and foremost and through various activities to instill admirable characters to young children.

As I have no money to start, I tried leveraging on my network to find job opportunities in existing organizations of similar purpose/field and wait till the right moment to start. Maybe it’s the current state of the economy or just bad luck, I joined 4 organizations so far, none of them were able to offer a full-time role. Now, a year and a half after my graduation, I am penniless and with a huge school loan to pay back. The reality of life keeps haunting me and thank goodness I do not need to support a family. I am now applying to any job that I see fit to my previous banking background as I must deal with the reality of life. Yet nothing comes my ways, except a few small consulting projects here and there which is hardly predictable nor able to cover my basic expenses. In my most despair moment, I’d ask myself what’s wrong with me? How big is the price to pursue my dream? Why wouldn’t anyone wants to hire a motivated and highly-skilled with individual? And many more such questions…

I am not giving up my dream. But my question is, what would you do if you were me at this juncture of life?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Very gratefully,


The Guilt is Gone

Paul, 71, believes we’re too hard on ourselves when it comes to regrets:

What I know now is I made some mistakes in life, I have some regrets.  I think we all do.  But I’ve learned as I get older. I’ve identified things that I feel as though I did wrong.  I feel bad them, but I don’t hold myself responsible at this point in time.  I’m a different person now.  And to know that I erred in certain ways and I feel sad about it is enough for me.  The guilt is gone. 

Go Slow in Committing to Marriage

Although many people today delay getting marriage, all of us know young people who have rushed into relationships. Sometimes people fall head over heels in love; others feel that their “time clock” is running out. For anyone seeking a mate, the elders tell you to be very careful – and don’t rush in!

Fern, 71, suggests looking toward the future of the relationship:

Some of the things that I am telling you are some of the things that I have made mistakes with. I have been married a couple of times and very fortunately, I have a second husband who was a very wonderful husband who was a wonderful father to my children. And I think when you look for someone to marry you should sort of forget a little bit about the love connection and look ahead. Do we want a family, what do we want out of life, do we a career or how are we going to provide for this and that, how are we going to pay for a home. I think they need to take a step ahead and look at the future before they make that step.

Dina, 80, tells us to wait until we are mature enough for the commitment:

I’m always a little bit leery of relationships for young people that are established really young, before I think people are mature enough and know themselves well enough to be in a really satisfying relationship. Women make too many compromises in that kind of a situation. I’m really glad for my kids, because both of my boys were a lot more mature than I was when they got married, farther along, had much more life experience. I think that that is really good because I think you come into relationships better prepared.

Do You Have Advice for One of Our Readers? Let’s Hear It!

One of our readers, Lucy, posted a great comment on “Liza’s List for Living.” Lucy was impressed with Liza’s independence and her advice to live life on your own terms.

Lucy’s comment is below. In it, she asks if Liza could correspond with her further. We replied that the names provided to the elders on this blog are in most cases pseudonyms (to protect people’s confidentiality) and that that getting a response from a particular elder is unlikely.

But I wanted to pose her question to you, our readers! Does anyone have wisdom for Lucy on the issues she raises? If so, look at Liza’s List for Living, and then comment away! Here’s Lucy’s post:

Liza: Thank you for your list. Having read it several times I find I agree with every point. I have come to similar conclusions and find the confirmation of these ideas very reassuring at this stage of my life. I feel strongly about being independent and having a life of my own and contributing to humanity in ways outside a conventional marriage. It’s not so easy to find many that agree so I really appreciate coming across your words. Although at 26 I haven’t ruled out having children (and I get annoyed with the amount of time my brain seems to want to spend on that question) I am certain I want to throw myself into an alternative project first.

If you are out there, and it is possible, I wonder if you would be willing to correspond further?