The Legacy Project followed a series of steps that characterize research in a new area. When I became interested in studying the practical advice older people might offer, I first tried to find existing literature on the topic. Although much has been written in scientific journals about wisdom in older people, I was surprised to find that no one had surveyed elders about the concrete lessons they feel they have learned over the course of their lives. To gather lessons for living from America’s elders, we used the following methods in the Legacy Project.

Pilot Studies.

When sociologists encounter an under-researched area, we often begin with a pilot study – some kind of initial data collection that shows us the lay of the land. What I first needed to do was to answer the questions: Would older people actually have ideas and opinions about life lessons? And would they be able to articulate such ideas if asked? With the help of my research assistants, I set out to find answers.

We began by contacting alumni of several colleges. We wrote to former students age 65 and over, asking them to send written responses to the following question: “What are the most important lessons you feel have learned over the course of your life?” I was surprised and delighted when letters came in from across the country. Some responses went on for pages in the precise handwriting taught in the early decades of the last century. A number of the oldest respondents dictated their answers to younger family members. We then created and publicized a web site nationally. Elders – who are more tech-savvy than we acknowledge – gave us their thoughts via the web. Approximately 500 written responses were received by these combined efforts.

Using these responses, I developed a set of general categories of potential life lessons and created an open-ended interview protocol. Assisted by Cornell undergraduates, we conducted pilot face-to-face interviews with approximately 80 elders from many walks of life. These interviews allowed respondents to describe their views in more detail and to provide life history information that formed the background to lessons learned.

In all, we received many wonderful, detailed responses. However, as a social scientist, I knew one thing was missing. We sociologists depend on “random samples” of the population. That is, we do surveys where everyone has an equal chance of being selected, which allows us to generalize to some degree beyond the actual group of people who are interviewed. Of course, individuals who choose to write a letter or visit a web site may be a bit different from other older people. So my next step was to do something about this.

National Random-Sample Survey

With the assistance of Cornell’s excellent Survey Research Institute, I surveyed a national sample of people age 65 and over. Individuals from around the country were selected at random and called on the telephone by trained interviewers. The interview began by asking in general: “What lessons have you learned in your life?” We then asked respondents what they had learned in specific domains including: work and career, marriage, raising children, health, and religion and spirituality. We also asked if there were any problems or difficulties in their lives that had taught them valuable things, and what core values and principles they lived by. Finally, we asked if they had any advice for younger people about how to age successfully.

How, you might ask, did respondents react? Of course, these days people are a bit suspicious when a telephone interviewer calls them, even if it is from Cornell University. One fellow quipped: “What have I learned from life? Not to answer surveys over the phone!” Most people were intrigued, however. One woman said: “I’m glad you called – I could write a book about that.” Some were amazed that anyone would ask. An 80-year old man told us: “I was sitting here just staring out the window and suddenly the phone rings and you’re asking me something as profound as this?”

The national survey conducted interviews with 314 respondents (average age of 74), lasting about 20 minutes each. All of these interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed, and I treated them as narratives, reading and re-reading each one. I also did a simple coding of the responses in different domains to get a general sense of the kinds of lessons that were viewed as most important. A major advantage of the national data is that it confirmed the findings I was getting from more selective, “convenience” sampling, allowing some confidence that the patterns of lessons were representative of elders in the general population.

Systematic In-Depth Interviews

After spending months reviewing all of these data, I decided that a final step was necessary to complete the picture of the practical wisdom of America’s elders. I had collected written responses and conducted relatively short personal interviews. I realized that there were still a number of unanswered questions and that I needed to return a more detailed, in-depth method of interviewing. I had also learned two important things from the previous data collection. First, there are many people who have led interesting lives but who are not easily able to relate their experiences to lessons for living. So I wanted a sample of people who were more likely to be able to articulate life lessons. Second, I learned that people were much better at answering the questions if they had some time to think about them in advance. So the last stage of the research included two features: individuals nominated because of their perceived wisdom and providing the interview topics to respondents in advance.

I asked professional colleagues and agencies to nominate people over the age of 70 for interviews. I also included discussions with personal acquaintances about their life lessons. These nominations resulted in approximately 240 additional interviews that lasted one to two hours each.

Despite the different sources of information, from a national random sample, to a mail survey, to in-depth interviews, the perspective of the elders was remarkably consistent, resulting in the lessons we share on this site. And we continually gather new lessons (to add yours, go here).

One note on the lessons posted on this blog (and in my forthcoming book): All of the lessons are provided by the elders, but the names we have given them in almost every case are pseudonyms.