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on December 31, 2011
Steeped in the wisdom of America's elders, 30 Lessons for Living has an undeniable power to influence the way we think and the choices we make. Karl Pillemer, the author and a professor of gerontology at Cornell, spent five years interviewing a diverse cross-section of over 1,000 senior members of our society to elicit their life advice. He reverently calls this group "the experts," perhaps for many reasons, but essentially because they have done something the rest of us haven't--they have lived into their eighties, nineties, and beyond, and are able to reflect on their nearly complete lifetimes with unique hindsight. [It's also no small thing that the experts have lived through everything their readers have... plus World War II and the Great Depression.]

As a liberal artist in my mid-thirties, I have to admit that while I was curious to see what the experts had to say, I was initially skeptical of how relevant I might find their advice to my own life. I suspected it might be outdated, preachy, too conservative for my taste, or too generic. On the contrary, I found the experts' words - as well as Pillemer's insightful synthesis - profound and often very moving. The book is a compelling, potent collection of guidance for how to live a meaningful life that's attuned to what really matters. The tone is never self-righteous. In fact, some of the most poignant advice stems from things the experts felt they got wrong, regrets they had, realizations in their final years about what was actually important. It's incredibly life-affirming to read about their successes as well as the lessons they learned through mistakes.

Pillemer organizes the book into six themes, including marriage, careers and happiness. Within each theme, he distills the experts' most recurrent comments into five pieces of advice. Each chapter ends with a "refrigerator list" of thematically organized advice that I know I will revisit in an ongoing way. One of the topics I found most interesting was "Lessons for a Lifetime of Parenting," for its discerning look at the impact higher life expectancy has had on adult relationships between parents and children. Our current elders are experiencing the upper end of this evolutionary fact without having had a clear model as children.

While the experts' individual anecdotes are affecting, the volume and reinforcement of similar messages over time underscore collective learning. It's startling to quantify that this book contains 80,000 years of life experience. The experts' words repeatedly got under my skin, and have already prompted shifts in my thinking and behavior. While change can often be easier said than done, I think it would be impossible to read this book without engaging in personal reflection, analysis, and consideration of some deeply challenging questions: Does your life reflect the advice of the experts? What can you do to live a life without regret? How do you want to look back on your life? Are you spending this finite time well? In one of my favorite lines, the author depicts the experts' perspective: "Looking at how younger people squander time, they are like members of a desert tribe staring in dismay at our profligate use of water." I welcomed the big-picture inquiry in the context of a culture increasingly fueled by instant gratification.

Pillemer strikes an impressive balance between showcasing the experts' anecdotes and weaving an accessible, often personal narrative. I appreciate the author's connections to his own life as a thinker, husband, father, and member of society doing as we all are - ageing.

Pillemer doesn't dwell on the ways in which our society neglects elders and their experiences, but the novelty of his study is a testament to our oversight and a reminder of the imminent loss of this valuable resource. On one level, this book provides advice for living; on another, it illustrates how simple and worthwhile it is to tap into such a goldmine. All it takes is an interest in asking questions, a willingness to listen, and an openness to our basic human connection despite pre-conceived notions of the gaps. In addition to the advice I absorbed through the lessons, I have an intensely renewed perspective on the "experts," not only those featured in the book, but those in my own life whose experiences and insights are more relatable than I imagined.
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VINE VOICEon February 4, 2012
At 20, I wouldn't have read it. I was in a hurry - learning, climbing. Mortality? Huh? At 30, it's family, career and it's obligations - no time to contemplate. Little time to read. At 40, I'm beginning to settle, mind is opening - I might have given this book a glance. But I'm wary. At x0, (I can't believe it or say it or type it). Where did the years go? My eyes are WIDE OPEN. I'm locked in on this book. Not sure how I tripped into the book. (Coincidence? Deepak Sharma would say Not.) I read an Amazon review where the reviewer described the book as "Profound." Really? How many top-10-list self-help books have I read? Not sure I can recall one lesson from these books. I was skeptical. (Highly). And I was wrong. (Again)

There is an estimated $1 billion spent each year on self-improvements books in the U.S. And more advice columns, television experts, and websites - all preaching advice of one sort or another. Yet none of them speak from experience of having lived and learned. Karl Pillemer, the author and a gerontologist at Cornell, interviewed more than 1,000 older Americans between the ages of 70 to 100 in search of lessons for living. He spent over 5 years on the project and summarized his findings in this book. Lessons range from:

* Lessons for a Happy Marriage (Marry Someone a Lot Like You; Friendship is Important; Don't Keep Score; Talk to Each Other; Commit to Marriage not just your Partner)

* Lessons for a Successful and Fulfilling Career (Seek Intrinsic Rewards, not financial ones; Don't give up looking for a job you love; Make the Most of a Bad Job, Emotional Intelligence Trumps all; Everyone needs autonomy)

* Lessons for Parenting (It's all about time; It's normal to have favorites but don't show it; Don't Hit Your Kids; Avoid A Rift At All Costs; Take A Lifelong View of Relationships with Children)

* Lessons For Aging Fearlessly and Well (Being Old is Much Better than you think; Act Now Like You will need your body for 100 years; Don't Worry About Dying; Stay Connected to others; Plan ahead where you will live)

* Lessons For Living a Life Without Regrets (Always be honest; Say Yes to Opportunities; Travel More; Choose a Mate with Extreme Care; Say It Now before it is too late)

* Lessons for Living Like an Expert (Choose Happiness; Time is of the Essence; Happiness is a Choice, not a condition; Time Spent Worrying is Wasted; Think Small; Have Faith; Live by the Golden Rule)

I was deeply moved by this book. I found myself being pulled along - with skepticism being stripped down to bare bones of belief as I turned the pages. He's on to something. The power of this book is in the stories and the anecdotes of the "experts" (the term he uses to describe the elders who are interviewed for his research). The voices of experts are calm...peaceful...learned...zen-like. The author weaves lessons and stories gently throughout - - a slow moving stream making its way south.

Highly Recommended.
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on December 26, 2011
30 Lessons for Living is a book to be savored. Written by Karl Pillemer, gerontologist and researcher at Cornell University, it is a product of the author's Legacy Project, a series of surveys and interviews conducted of those over 65, the "experts" on living to whom the book is dedicated. The purpose of the research is to identify the keys to the good life that those of a certain age have managed to uncover.

The book is broken down into several major themes having to do with such things as marriage, parenting, careers, health, and most generally how to achieve happiness. The lessons presented, with some exceptions--it's normal to have a favorite child--are not exactly earth-shattering. But the beauty of the book comes from the diversity of voices and individual expression that refract and enrich the observations from people who are remarkably aware and self-reflective.

Unfortunately, for stylistic reasons and because--at their age they know better--the thoughts and advice given here will be lost on youth. But for those who, like this writer, are on the cusp of seniorhood, the insights on lives well-lived are both instructive and heartening. This is a very good book for an individual reader contemplating life's "golden" years, even better if it can be shared across generations.
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on January 15, 2012
I'm a physician who has been in practice for 28 years. One of the joys and privileges that I've always discussed and appreciated is the ability to speak to my older patients about their lives and experiences. I can't even begin to tell you how much I have enjoyed doing that and the amount that I have learned. They have much to say and we have much to learn.

Buy this book.In a disposable culture, books like this can lead to personal and cultural changes that are so necessary to help appreciate what life has to offer.
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HALL OF FAMEon January 12, 2012
What are some of the major lessons drawn from this group of over one- thousand interviews with elderly Americans? There is advice about love and marriage . We are told it is wise to go slow in picking a mate, to choose a mate carefully, to look beyond appearances and to understand that Marriage must be a two- way proposition. One of the interviewees who talks about her second marriage says the key element was sharing values and a way of seeing the world.
In regard to raising children there is advice about the price which is paid for playing favorites, a price which may be exacted throughout a person's lifetime. Attention of course must be paid, and doing things with one's children, giving them Time is extremely important. There is the advice of treating each child as an individual and understanding them as an individual. Parents of grown- up children are advised to avoid interfering. Parents are recommended to be on the same page and show consistency in their messages to their children.
Advice about Work centers on the person's finding the thing they love to do, and devoting themselves to it wholeheartedly. One responder spoke about the importance of humility, willingness to learn from others. Young people are advised to take time and learn what their true purpose in work is.
In regard to Money there is much about the mistake of overvaluing accumulation of possessions. Comparisons are made to the Depression Era and people speak of the capacity to be happy with little and less. This connects well with another major message of the book. Happiness is according to the Advice given here not caused by a situation but made by an attitude. It is in many cases a decision and a choice. I qualify this because I myself know there to be extremely difficult and impossible situations where to speak of Happiness is a kind of mockery and absurdity. Importance is given to religious faith in general as a means of getting through hard times, and sustaining one's trust in the world. Advice is given about the mistake of worrying overmuch, of causing ourselves to be stressed. One respondent gives a very interesting report in which he describes the way taking care of physical health has given greater happiness over all.
Again this is a book filled with interesting reports and helpful suggestions. Among others I find echoing my own experience are those which stress the importance of maintaining a certain lightness and humor , of trying to help and give to others, of loving family.
As I have indicated there are many whose situation is so bad that they cannot take any of the advice given here. But I believe those who can read this book will be able to learn from the experience of others the kind of wisdom , that will make their lives better.
A wonderful and useful book indeed.
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on December 8, 2011
I thought this book was fantastic. I am 56 so I am getting ready to reach this phase of my life but the book was full of wonderful advice. I want my children ages 27 and 24 to read it. It is full of good advice for a young person. I highly recommend it,
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on July 1, 2013
The author (a social researcher) interviewed 1,000 old people, and recounts a subset of about 30 of the most common lessons and advice that he heard from the old people.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book. It was well written, and the pace moved along--no tedious dead spots, so it was an easy read. It was fairly interesting to read the many short quotes, stories, and opinions of the old people (kind of like being able to read just the highlights from a lot of good conversations about life).

The content seemed reasonable to me, for what the book was supposed to be (a summary of 1,000 old people's opinions). The 30 major lessons are:

On Marriage
- marry someone a lot like yourself
- friendship is as important as romance
- don't keep score (50-50 thinking, etc)
- talk to each other
- commit to marriage itself, not just to your partner

On Career:
- choose for intrinsic rewards, not for financial ones
- keep looking for a job that makes you happy
- make the most of a bad job
- emotional intelligence trumps every other kind
- everyone needs autonomy (in the job)

On Parenting:
- it's all about time (with the kids)
- it's normal to have favorites, but never show it
- don't hit your kids
- avoid a rift at all costs
- take a lifelong view of relationships with kids

On Old Age:
- being old is much better than you think
- act like you'll need your body for 100 years
- don't worry about dying (accept that it is nature's way)
- stay connected (socially, to people and groups)
- plan ahead about where you will live as an old person **very good

On Avoiding Regrets:
- always be honest
- say yes to opportunities
- travel more
- choose a mate with extreme care
- say it now (to people while you and them are still alive)

On Living Like an Old Person (an "expert"):
- time is of the essence (ie, don't waste it)
- happiness is a choice, not a condition
- time spent worrying is time wasted
- think small (focus on small present things vs big future things)
- have faith (attend a spiritual or religious group)

As you can see for yourself, the lessons seem reasonable (as they generally did to me). However, I had a number of issues with the book, some minor and some major, as described below.

First, I didn't like the subtitle or the main premise of the book. "30 Lessons for Living - Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans." It seemed to me that there was no compelling evidence at all for the claim that "old people = wise people", or that "the people who were interviewed are/were the wisest Americans." But I wonder. What is wise? Does being "wise" (living the 30 lessons) have a big impact on your life? Is the 30L way the "best" way to live life?

I found the whole premise of the book unconvincing. I think the book would be on much firmer conceptual ground if the author limited himself to a book, title, and premise that simply said "I interviewed 1000 old people (where I picked the topic questions), and here's a summary of their most popular answers", instead of trying to make the (unconvincing) claims that old=wise, and 30L="wise living."

Second, I thought some of the lessons were pretty trite (find a job that you really like), sometimes banal (spend time with your kids; take care of your body), and sometimes unactionable (being old is better than you think). And to me, I was baffled by the complete lack of reference to the importance of education in the 30 lessons.

As a young person (in my 20's), I took every opportunity that I had to ask old people (age 50-90) questions similar to this book. I would say "You've lived through 1 or 2 world wars, the great depression, the dirty 30's, maybe raised a family, and have had many jobs from farm to city along the way, maybe even in different countries. What advice would you have for a young person roughly my age about life, and how to live it?" Perhaps I asked 20 or 50 "old" people this kind of question.

The most popular thing they said -- and I emphasize that (1) I heard this advice at least 30% of time, if not more) and (2) that they typically said this advice with EXACTLY the same wording -- was, "Get all the education that you can. It doesn't cost you anything to carry it around." Time after time I heard this phrase, from both male and female "old" people. I found the "carry it around" idea intriguing, as if that generation had a mindset about needing to move their possessions from place to place.

And yet, this book has no mention of the importance of education in it at all, whatsoever (for singles, parents, or their kids). Very strange. It makes me think the book (the interview questions) did not cover a few of the big issues in life (eg. education or money).

Third, the book is based on a huge selection/survivorship bias. Just because the old people were lucky enough to be alive to be interviewed doesn't make them wise at all. Their existence could easily be as much lucky genetics versus their 30L living skills. Luck and skill are very different things. The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing

And of course the old people's generation grew up in a very different world, so who is to say that their advice based on the past 80 years is even 100% relevant to the next 80 years of living, let alone being "the wisest" advice.

I think the book should have addressed the HUGE survivorship bias issue. For all we know, the best advice for living resided in the people who died earlier, or those who were not interviewed. Once again, I think the book title and premise overreaches the content. A better title would have been "I Interviewed 1000 old people (who were close to the grave) about life; here is what they said."

So I think the book has reasonable content, since I think most advice you hear from old people (like I did) is reasonable when considered in the context of their lives and their experiences. Often their advice is even applicable to other people's lives. But I would bet that if you could ask dead people for advice, they would have "equivalent" good advice too, so being old and interviewed doesn't automatically imply wise or better living to me...

I would recommend this book to my friends as a fairly light book of stories and advice from old people (but not as a deep guide to improving your life).

Instead, here are a few deeper books that I think do a much better job of giving advice on how to live a happier, more meaningful life and marriage. (Oddly enough, they don't talk much about "get all the education that you can; it doesn't cost you anything to carry it around" either. Go figure.)

On Life:
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
Optimal Functioning: A Positive Psychology Handbook
Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It

On Marriage:
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts
By John M. Gottman, Nan Silver: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert
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on January 18, 2012
When I was first introduced to "30 Lessons," I thought: "Great, another uplifting self-help book filled with the same old tired platitudes." Boy, was I ever wrong! This book is a rare treasure offering a wealth of hard-earned insight and wisdom on the critical, bedrock issues we all struggle with to create a life that is meaningful, loving, and, at the end, absent of regret. I simply cannot overstate it -- if you've ever wished for a clear roadmap for how to live a truly good and satisfying life, well, you've just found it.
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on January 9, 2012
My grandmother passed away at 101 and she always had great stories to tell us about her life and hardships. The book is divided into several sections that discuss marriage, parenting, life, careers, hardships, and life. The book was full of inspiration, advice, and hardships that can help everyone live a more fulfilling life. Growing up I always thought that my parents just wanted to tell me what to do but I learned to realize what they were just guiding me in the right direction. Reading the book reinforced what they taught me. All the information presented was practical, easy to read, and should be read by a young person to give them a perspective on life. I highly recommend the book and it will give you a little insight on life and how to tackle the challenges that it may throw you.(Reviewed by Eileen- Melissa's Mom)
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on January 12, 2014
The books can at time be redundant but from what I have read so far, I want to keep reading because every time I have to put it down I feel a little more enlightened and inspired. I don't know if it is life changing but I have always had an appreciation for the words and life experience of my elders having worked at an assisted living residence as my first job after high school through college. Possibly my favorite job prior to the one I have now. The people you meet truly touch your life and that's what I like about this book, it feels like words from someone you know and admire. It gives you hope to know that there are people out there who have gone through worse than anyone I know and they have come out happy and fulfilled with life. That is what I am looking forward to. I hope to make the time I have in this life count and leave some wisdom and goodness behind.
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