Jack’s Lesson for Living: Guest Blog from Summer Intern!

Thanks to our summer intern, Laura Museau, for learning Jack’s lesson for a happy old age, and sharing it in this guest blog!

It is said that experience teaches wisdom. During my time with the Risk and Resiliency Internship Project, I had the good fortune to have been taught wisdom by listening to the experiences of older adults. The Legacy Project interviews that I conducted this summer contain valuable information that will be useful as I journey into adulthood. One of the key themes discussed by those I interviewed highlighted using passion as a guiding force in life. Passion can make the difference between living a life filled with regrets and one of contentment. For even if accomplishments fall short, the heart’s desires have been satisfied.

The thoughts that Jack Bronsen, a writer from southern California, shared with me expressed this best. He was clear that having something that he is passionate about has been the critical factor in having a good quality of life in older age:

At the end of your life or in the latest years is when you look back and you assess what was important. I was passionate about my work. I still am. I did a specialized type of drawing, still doing it, for almost 60 years: making India ink drawings of inventions for patent attorneys around the country. I loved to play golf. I still do even though I’m in my 80th year. I don’t do it very well but I still do it twice a week and I do walk a full course.

I love to write. I’ve written 3 novels and quite a bit more as a restaurant reviewer and newspaper columnist. I’m also passionate about acrostic puzzles which I love to do. I do the New York Times one every other week on Sunday.

My father loved his work. He worked until he was 82. Then he retired and he watched television all day. He went straight down hill. And the same basically happened to my mother who lived to that same fine age of 91 but did not seem to have any real passions. And they both kind of faded away mentally and that would be my concern: that if I let go of my passion, I let go of my mind, of my life.

He emphatically stated that each person should “have something you are passionate about. All through your life. Not a person, but something that you do yourself that you love to do.

A Young Person's Dilemma: Readers, Can You Advise Him?

At the Legacy Project, we sometimes receive questions from readers seeking wisdom about decisions they are making. Often, they are trying to apply the advice from the book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans to their own lives. But of course, that book can’t deal with every specific situation, and sometimes we take their questions to you, our readers – and you have always come through!

Do you have any advice for this student who is making a difficult career choice? Please let him know your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Dear Legacy Project:

First off all, thank you for your book “30 Lessons for Living.”  It has helped me out as a 22 year old! If you do not mind, I have a question regarding that topic and would greatly appreciate a response!

I am curious as to one of the lessons in the book: choosing a career for intrinsic rather than financial rewards. I totally agree. However, I am in a dilemma. I am thinking of pursuing a field which many people around me (family, some friends) consider to be “not worth it” due to job outsourcing of industrial jobs, instability of job market (for example, lay-offs in the industry I would be working in), and rather low pay. Simply googling the field I’m considering will bring up many discouraging, negative posts talking about how it is not worth it and is a bad decision for both academia and industry!

 My reasons for pursuing that field are simply that I love it very much. The passion is there. Do you believe that the experts would still persuade me to follow such a path given the risks? Or would they say that one can develop new passions?

A career advice you do not mind giving me would be very greatly appreciated!

Okay readers: You thoughts?

Learning to Live in the Moment: Why Not Do It Now?

John, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished career. His lesson is to learn to live more in the moment. He learned this in his sixties, but suggests younger people learn it sooner.

I don’t say people shouldn’t think about the future. But when you really give yourself up to the present, when you’re in the room and you look around you, and there are other people in the room and you’re able to really zero in on those other people, and being able to really sense what they’re feeling and tap in to their own presence, then it’s not aimless at all. You feel very connected, very grounded, and it’s energizing. So you receive energy by making those connections in the present moment.

And it’s not just with people. The same thing is true with a walk in the woods. If you can really open yourself up to hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, and feeling the touches, the wind, and all those things, then you increasingly feel like an integral part of that system, so that you too have feelings, and they begin to connect with what’s going on around you. You may feel small, but it’s not a very frightening smallness. Instead it’s a feeling of being a part of a larger something. There’s a connectedness that is very, very reassuring. So that’s what I mean by being present and being connected to now.

I think you inevitably look at the future, but to the extent that you can still appreciate what is going on today and at the moment, then exactly what that future is going to be continues to be an open question, and that openness I think has great value. You’re allowing in some sense your intuition to play a role, and not being afraid that somehow that intuition is going to compete with and overwhelm your reason. That the two can work together, and support one another, influence one another.

It’s not easy, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in academic institutions or other jobs where the rational part of you is applauded. Living in the present and enjoying life isn’t something that you complete, or accomplish; it’s something that you strive toward, something that you work on, something that you engage with. It’s a process, at least in my experience.

Putting Money in Perspective

Many of the elders grew up in the Great Depression, and they knew what it was like to live on almost nothing. But there was something else they learned: you could be very happy with almost nothing if you had a loving family, a supportive neighborhood, and you weren’t competing with a lot of other people who had more than you did.

Maybe this is why so many of the life lessons of the elders had to do with not over-valuing material things. They don’t want us all to be starving artists, but they want you not to be ruled by possessions or an overwhelming urge to make money.

Ed, 76, a retired engineer, told me:

You don’t want your things to own you. The best example that I can give you is my mother and father. Their house was their idol. All the stuff in it was pristine and laid out and my mother saved every book she ever read, every lesson plan, everything she’d ever done, and the house was chock full of all kinds of stuff. Some really good stuff, but, after my father died we took a few things and all the rest went into the dumpster. All that worry, all that thought. And it’s hard to shake. You look at all the stuff and think ‘all this crap owns me, I’m a prisoner of it.’ There’s a lesson in this that I hoped I’ve learned while I’m still alive. I’m not owned by expensive things because they’re expensive.

Micah, 77, stressed not choosing work just for the paycheck:

That was always the way people that 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, and everything revolved around ‘what are you earning? what are you making?’ and stuff like that. So  the more money you made the more successful you were. And that became of more importance 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, 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. When I was a kid, down the street we had a shoemaker. He was a father with his kids and they all did the shoes, leather soles and stuff, and they were a pretty cool family. They loved working there. They were making shoes and fixing shoes. So there’s ways to be happy without having to be this big shot corporate guy.

Overcoming Obstacles for Success – Advice from Grace

Here’s our first guest blog from summer intern Ariana Wolk, who interviewed Grace, age 79, about her lessons for living. Grace learned to never give up on a dream while creating a pre-school for young children. Thanks, Ariana!       

Grace raised her children in Brooklyn, where she still resides with her husband. Throughout childrearing, Grace embedded the importance of education in her children’s minds, and encouraged them to use family trips as inspiration for school reports and assignments. Grace’s strong belief in education led her to found a school in her neighborhood.

To this day, Grace is the principal of the school and actively works with the children to ensure they receive the highest education possible. Grace’s early struggle – but ultimate success – in getting the school up and running is a testament to the willpower she exemplifies.

 Grace ran into a few obstacles along the way. Despite the setbacks, her desire to provide a place of enrichment for children helped her overcome the struggles. Grace told me:

Do not let anybody tell you you can’t do it. If you feel you can do something and you’re positive about it, whatever the business is, if you believe in yourself and you think you can do it, you will do it. 

And Grace didn’t let anyone tell her she “couldn’t do it!” When the building she wanted for her school was too expensive, she figured out a long-term payment plan with the landlord. When the city objected to the use of the building, Grace went to directly to the mayor and got his permission. When Grace found out she needed more education to run the school, she went back for her masters degree. Her belief in herself and desire to start this school led her to take action and build the establishment that still exists today.

 Grace’s determination deemed benefits for the entire city of Brooklyn. Grace explained:

 It took me five years to get out of debt. But I didn’t care. I got my school. It was licensed and it was the best thing I ever did…If you were going to buy a house today and you wanted to make a school out of it, you would call downtown and use the precedence of my school! I set a precedent in the whole city. Now anyone who wants to turn a house into a nursery school just needs to follow what I did and the city can’t deny them.

 Grace also emphasized the need to choose a career for its intrinsic rewards: “You have to love what you do. You cannot be in any business if you don’t have a feeling of fulfillment and it’s only for money.” She told me that the feeling she receives when her three-year old students begin to read is defined as fulfillment. She does not work for the money—instead, she does it because she loves it. And Grace  truly practices what she preaches. Just as much as she loves instilling information in young children, she also enjoys enriching herself, and learning new things. After her first initial bachelor’s degree, grace went on to receive a Ph.D.

 If that is not genuine love for education and her profession, then I don’t know what is!

First Job? Learn from the Bad Stuff!

Many new grads are starting their first real jobs this month, perhaps after a bit of well-deserved time off. The Legacy Project elders told us that you may be stuck initially in work that is less than idea (many had not-s0-great jobs during the Depression).

They have an important piece of advice for that situation: Treat a bad job as a learning experience.

Sam Winston, 81, trained as an engineer but also worked in marketing and as a general manager. He attributes his considerable career success specifically to his ability to learn from jobs he didn’t like. The key, he says, is to see them as learning experiences and to take advantage of any opportunity to gather knowledge about an industry or occupation.

One important thing for young people is to be observant. No matter what the task is, whether you like it or not, it’s very important to learn everything you can about what’s happening around you. You never know when that may be of great value later.

I’ve had many different experiences throughout my life where I really didn’t like what I had to do and I would feel what I was doing was inconsequential. But the lessons I learned doing those things played an important part in my life.

For example, I had to work my way through college, in many jobs you may consider meaningless. Later on they were very valuable for me as an employer, to help me understand my people. I would tell younger people that no matter what the experience is — learn. See what’s happening.

“You Can Do Anything for an Hour” – Contest Winner

We asked young people to submit lessons they have learned from an elder in their lives, and we picked three winners. Here’s the first – a great example of what we can learn from elders if we pay attention. Danny Ellison penned this winning entry.

I learned from an older gentleman once that you can do ANYTHING for an hour.

I (a 30 year old man) was casually playing fiddle with a group of older folks at a bluegrass festival when the director of the festival came to our group and told us that there had been a health issue with one of the professional bands due to perform later that afternoon. He asked us if we would like to play in their place.

We excitedly accepted. We practiced as long as we could, and although we played well together, we were no match for the other professional groups playing that weekend. As we approached the stage for our part of the show (following one of the best bluegrass bands I have ever heard, I might add), I told my older friend that I felt like I was too nervous to play. That’s when he said, “Son, you can do ANYTHING for an hour.”

 I have since applied this wisdom to ANYTHING I dread doing and it has gone a long way in helping me put things into perspective.

Just Start! Lesson from Winning Contest Entry

We’re excited to post the first of our six Legacy Project contest winning entries! We’re beginning with the elders who shared their own wisdom. Then we’ll post the three young people who offered what they have learned from their elders.

Our first runner up entry comes from Art Pereira. He highlights the importance of “just starting.” And he’s right – we could accomplish so many things if we would just take the first step.

If you have an idea, any idea, begin working on it. Just start. Start anything, start anywhere, though starting at the beginning is a good idea. Too many times we don’t start or begin because we already have this notion that it is not going to work or it will fail. And so, we don’t start because we don’t want to waste our time on it and fail.

 Don’t worry about failure. If you start on it, anything, you can figure out whether you are making the right moves as you go along. It does not need to be perfect or pretty. You will make changes as you go along. But if you don’t start on it, you will never know how to make it work and it will most certainly have failed before it got off the ground. So be brave, be the one that made the decision, be the one that opened the door for everyone to walk through, be the one to start.

Just Start.

Advice for Graduates: From the Wisest Americans

We looked over our surveys of over 1200 of the oldest Americans, to see what advice they would offer new graduates hitting the job market. This month’s grads hit one of the worst job market in 100 years – so why not ask the advice of those folks who started looking for work in the worst job market (in the aftermath of the Great Depression)? Journalist Catey Hill summed up the advice nicely for the new website Next Avenue.

Here are the wisest Americans’ five lessons for having a fulfilling career and advice from experts on how to implement them effectively:

1. Say “yes”: This was the biggest message Pillemer heard over and over again. “People who passed up promotions, or opportunities to do things like work abroad, or who didn’t apply for a job because they thought they were underqualified said that not saying “yes” was their No. 1 career regret,” notes Pillemer. 

For Boomers with grown children, it may be easier than ever to say “yes.” Lower expenses may make it easier to finally take a chance on a less lucrative career or to move to another city for work, if necessary.

“Often there are a lot more opportunities to say ‘yes’ once the kids are out of the house,” says Lisa Adams, founder of the career-transition firm Fresh Air Careers. “You can finally take a chance on a less lucrative career or something you’ve really wanted to try.”

How to make it happen:  One obstacle people face in getting to “yes” is that they view a new job or opportunity as permanent, which makes them more risk averse, says Michael Jeans, president of New Directions, a career transition consulting firm. Instead, look at the offer as an adventure for the next two years or so.  

You may be tempted to say “no” because of a fear that you won’t like the new job – or that you won’t have the necessary skill set to be good at it. To combat this response, “do a 360-degree assessment of the opportunity,” says Lavie Margolin, a career coach whose firm is called Lion Cub Job Search. Ask the employer for details on what the job entails, then make a list of the positives and negatives, noting how well-aligned your interests and skills are to each job task, Margolin says. Once you’ve made this assessment, you can make a more informed decision and you might want to quickly bolster any skills you’re lacking.

2. Figure out what kind of job would make you happy – even if it means taking a pay cut: “This group overwhelmingly said that intrinsic rewards were much more important than financial ones,” Pillemer says.  

How to make it happen: Take a career personality test to figure out what kind of job might make you happy, Margolin says. This type of test, offered by many colleges and career-counseling centers, lets you assess your interests and skills then match them to potential careers.

It’s also important to make a list of the things that have made you happy (these could be hobbies, social interactions or work tasks) and create a list of jobs that could let you do them. Then “talk to people who do the job you think you want,” Jeans says. “Ask them what they do all day and what the challenges are in their jobs.” If possible, give the field you’re interested in a test drive, Margolin says. “Take an adult internship or volunteer with an organization where you can try to do what you want and see how you like it.”

3. Make the most of a bad job: Even if you’re toiling in a job you hate and feel you can’t leave it, do whatever you can to turn it into a learning experience. In his book, Pillemer says you should modify the Stephen Stills song lyric “And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with” to “And if you can’t have the job you love, honey, find something worthwhile about the one you’re in.”

How to make it happen: Identify the factors about the job that are making you the most unhappy, says career expert Julie Redfield, of PA Consulting Group. It might just be a single factor – like a long commute or disagreeable coworker – that could be easily remedied. Talk to your boss or the person contributing to your unhappiness to see if something could be done. Maybe you could work remotely a few days a week to avoid the commute. Or you could move desks to be farther away from the disagreeable co-worker.

If your boss is making you nuts, try to have a candid conversation with him or her. Don’t become accusatory or try to change the boss’ management style, but do see if the two of you can come up with ways to improve your working relationship.

If you can’t change what’s making you hate the job, try to gain new skills that will help you transition to a different job with the same employer, Jeans says. This could mean anything from helping out another department in your spare time to taking advantage of your employer’s college tuition reimbursement programs, he says.

4. Improve your people skills: You may be the most talented engineer or the most exacting architect, but you won’t get as far as you want without the ability to work well with people, Pillemer says. “Older Americans overwhelmingly said that emotional intelligence trumps every other type.” Getting along better with others at work will also make your job less stressful and more enjoyable.

How to make it happen: “Don’t just be an interesting person, be interested in other people,” Jeans says. To do this, ask people questions about how their day is going or offer to help them with projects. “You can start small,” Margolin says. “Tell yourself to ask one person one question about himself or herself per day.”

It’s also important to stay even-keeled and temper your criticism. “Before you speak, take 10 seconds to think about how what you’re going to say might impact the person, he says. “If you feel yourself ready to blow up, excuse yourself to take a bathroom break.” Similarly, before sending an email, reread it to make sure the tone isn’t accusatory or mean. You might even have a trusted coworker look over it.

5. Look for work with autonomy: “Career satisfaction has a lot more to do with how much autonomy and freedom you have than how much money you make,” Pillemer says. “You need the freedom to make your own decisions.”

How to make it happen: Find ways to get better at what you do at work. “If you excel at your job, your boss is most likely going to get off your back,” Jeans says. Try to get regular feedback from your boss, so you can then do what’s necessary to improve. You might also try to talk with a superior about establish approaches to work that might allow for less intervention – or at least reduce the need for it.

Certain careers – typically ones that are specialized and require more education – tend to be more autonomous, Margolin says. If you have a job like psychologist, social worker, counselor, financial adviser or graphic designer, you’re the expert, so people don’t meddle as much.

Your years of experience can help you sculpt an autonomous job by leveraging your experience into a consulting gig. Tap your professional network via LinkedIn or flip through those business cards to get started) or check out the Small Business Administration’s start-up guide online.

Next Avenue: 5 Career Lessons From the Wisest Americans

Finding a Purpose: Can You Help One of Our Readers?

Dear Legacy Project Blog Readers:

Cathy commented on this post (see below) asking for advice. In the past, you all have had some great advice for people like Cathy. Do you have any suggestions for her? If so, please comment!

I’ve been talking to friends of ours whose children are applying to college (thankfully, ours are done with that!). It got me to thinking about one powerful message of the elders to young people: Take time to find your life’s purpose.

Many of the Legacy Project elders told me something along the lines of: “Find what you love and do it!” What’s interesting is that people said this from all walks of life and all professions: Look for your purpose and your passion, or you miss out on a lot of what life has to offer.

Gary, 74, trained in engineering and spent his career as an executive in the railroad industry. Gary’s calm demeanor and self-effacing, folksy comments  reminded me a bit of Jimmy Stewart. He’s someone whose goal was to “do his best,” and he looks back on his life with dry humor.

His main advice (indeed, it was his primary life lesson) is to take the time to identify your life’s purpose.

One problem is you go through life and you don’t tend to think very much about these kinds of things. You go along, the dishes need to be done, the groceries need to be bought, you have to get off to work. So insight number one is that there’s more to life than getting the chores done every day. You should draw back from the hurly-burly of daily living and spend a little time thinking about: What’s my philosophy of  life?; Why am I here? What am I doing? Does it make any sense to be doing this? Those kinds of questions.

We need to take the time, perhaps even a little time every day, to reflect on our lives. I don’t know if we do as much as we should, so I think that might be rule number one. Even when you’re in high school. High school a good place to start, that’s where you begin discovering who you are. You should  start laying the groundwork  to develop a philosophy early in life. And throughout life, take a little time to determine what the purpose is to what you are doing. You can view your life as a kind of continuum, one you can direct more if you know the purpose behind it.

This can begin in school. When you’re in school you have a once in a lifetime chance  to learn something. And go for it. You can go for for it to shape your philosophy. If I were to go back and tell those kids in the class I would tell them to  get into whatever you’re doing now as intensely as you can. I think you need to spend some time reading history to this so you can  understand what life was like 2000 years ago versus today.

The end result of this reflection, Gary says, is to discover your underlying passion.

My first thought would be; ‘Is there something in life you have a passion for?’  And if it’s possible, can you start your career in whatever that field is? It could be butterfly collecting, anything. There are people that live very good lives in butterflies and collecting. It doesn’t matter what it is. so I think if you have a chance and you have a passion, follow it. A lot of people don’t have a passion, but if you do, see if you can somehow incorporate that into your career. And it could lead you interesting things and if that’s the case then take advantage of it.

It’s a balance. You need to be careful of what you do, to plan ahead, and so forth. But if you do too much of that you’re going to become stunted.You need some kind of middle ground. And it depends on the individual. If your passion in life is climbing mountains then go climb mountains because that is a talent that you have, a desire, and if you don’t do it, if you consciously give it up because something bad might happen, you’re going have a lot of regrets of missing your dream. But of course, check your gear before you go!