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Profound life lessons
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 I suspected it might be outdated, preachy, too conservative for my taste, or too generic.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.