Life Lessons from 1,000 Years
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Today at a Glance
- Every year on my birthday (January 5), I like to conduct some interesting exercise that will push me to grow in a new way. This year, I asked a number of 90-year-olds a simple question: "If you could speak your 32-year-old self, what advice would you give?"
- The responses were...incredible. They range from fun, playful, and witty to deeply moving. I'd encourage you to read through them with your loved ones and reflect on those that hit you the hardest.
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Every year on my birthday (January 5), I like to conduct some interesting exercise that will push me to grow in a new way. In past years, I've written gratitude letters to all of my close family and friends, gone on a 10-hour silent walk, and done a lengthy self-reflection process.
But this year felt different.
The birth of my son in May has altered my relationship with the most fundamental reality—time. Observing the passage of time—both in his daily changes and in the juxtaposition of the newness of his life with the maturity of his grandparents' lives—has left me wrestling with its nature.
I fall somewhere in the middle. As I turn 32, I have lived a bit, but still have so much to learn.
So for this year's birthday exercise, I decided to explore a bit of the wisdom that time has to offer. To do so, I spent the last month asking a number of 90-year-olds a simple question:
"If you could speak to your 32-year-old self, what advice would you give?"
I am fortunate to know several nonagenarians, but to add to the robustness of the response, I put the question out with a number of friends with older grandparents or great-grandparents. In total, there was over 1,000 years of lived experience captured. You can find photos at the end of the article of several of the participants (shared with their permission).
The responses were...incredible. They range from fun, playful, and witty to deeply moving. I'd encourage you to read through them with your loved ones and reflect on those that hit you the hardest.
Without further ado, here's the life advice everyone needs to hear:
Reader's Note: Bold text is directly from the participants, with regular text as additional context from me.
#1: Now and then, break out the fancy china and drink the good wine for no reason at all.
Stop waiting to enjoy the finer things. If tomorrow is never guaranteed, find the time to enjoy them today.
#2: Dance at weddings until your feet are sore.
Don't let the fear of embarrassment stop you from having a ball. Dance proudly.
#3: Tell your partner you love them every night before falling asleep.
Someday you’ll find the other side of the bed empty and wish you could.
#4: Don’t fear sadness, as it tends to sit right next to love.
This is part of the fundamental balance and tension of life. The joy of love comes in the same package as the pain of loss.
#5: Treat your body like a house you have to live in for another 70 years.
Invest in keeping the foundation and structure sound. A little bit of regular maintenance can go a long way.
#6: Never raise your voice, except for at a ballgame.
Very few problems have ever been fixed by a raised voice.
#7: Do one good deed every single day, but never tell anyone about it.
Pay for someone's coffee, take out the trash without being asked, let someone into your lane. A little bit goes a long way.
#8: Time doesn't heal anything when it comes to relationships.
Don't delay difficult conversations. Have them now, before too much water floods under the bridge.
#9: Find the things that make your eyes light up. Do more of those.
The best of life is lived with the people and things that make your eyes twinkle. Prioritize them.
#10: Always remind yourself that your track record for making it through your bad days is perfect.
It's easy to lose sight of this when you're down. Zoom out and reclaim your perspective.
#11: If something has a minor issue, repair it right away.
Minor issues become major issues over time. This applies equally to love, friendships, health, and home.
#12: The most damning lie you can tell is the lie you tell to yourself.
If you can't be honest with yourself, how can you be honest with anyone else?
#13: No one has ever argued their way to happiness.
When someone wants to argue with you, you can either (a) argue back or (b) do literally anything else with your life. Option (b) should always win out.
#14: If you’re going to lose a fight, make sure the other person thinks twice before fighting you again.
You're going to lose some fights in life. That's ok, but make sure your opponent remembers the pain they felt in beating you.
#15: Getting old is no picnic, but it's much better than the alternative.
Remember this on your hard days and when life knocks you down.
#16: You may occasionally disappoint others, but make sure to never disappoint yourself.
You may let others down, but never let yourself down.
#17: Never let a good friendship atrophy.
Send the text, make the call, plan the trip. Good friendships must always be treasured.
#18: When you meet someone, look them in the eye, give a firm handshake, and call them by their name.
These old fashioned things will never go out of style.
#19: Give everybody a second chance, but never a third.
If someone acts like a jerk once, assume they're having a bad day. If they act like a jerk again, assume they're just a jerk.
#20: The "good old days" are always happening right now.
"I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them." - Andy Bernard, The Office
There is...treat every day as the good old days.
#21: Whenever you hug someone, make sure they are the one to let go first.
Treat every hug like it could be your last. You never know when it will be.
#22: If it's raining on a warm summer evening, go outside and dance in it.
You won't remember the muddy clothes and ruined shoes, you'll only remember the laughter and joy.
#23: Taking no risk is the biggest risk you can take.
Regret from inaction is always more painful than regret from action.
#24: It doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be wonderful.
Nothing in life is perfect. That's ok, because wonderful is pretty damn good.
#25: When in doubt, love. We can always use more love.
The Beatles were right: All you need is love!
#26: Looking presentable is a matter of self-respect.
When you take yourself seriously, the world will follow suit. Dress for the life you want, not the life you have.
#27: When you’re feeling down, smile at yourself in the mirror for a full minute.
You are always enough.
#28: Travel as much as you can. Collect one token from every trip to remember it by.
When you're young, you take travel for granted. When you're old, you'll wish you didn't.
#29: If there's something bothering you, ask yourself whether it will matter in one month. If not, let it go right now.
Very few points of stress are able to withstand the test of time. Once you internalize that, you start viewing them differently.
#30: Stop trying to change people who don’t want to be changed.
Stop chasing people who don't want to be chased. Stop saving people who don't want to be saved.
#31: You may win the argument, but if you lose the friend, what was the point?
Arguing never got anyone anywhere worth going.
#32: Stubborn pride is the downfall of many men and women.
Learn to forget the slight hurts and avoid grudges at all costs.
#33: Do one thing that challenges your mind every single day.
A crossword puzzle, math problem, riddle, anything. Daily “exercise” will keep your mind sharp for the long haul.
#34: If something isn't working and your gut tells you to try harder, first ask whether there's just an easier way to do it.
There is a certain nobility in hard work, but always ask whether you can win through smart work.
#35: Allow your kids to fail. You will hate it, but it's so important.
Without failure and suffering, there is no growth.
#36: There’s nothing wrong with shedding old relationships as you grow and change.
A hermit crab changes shells throughout its life. The shell of one phase may not be appropriate for the next phase. It's ok to shed your shell and find a better one.
#37: No amount of money is ever worth trading for your peace of mind.
"Money often costs too much." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
#38: If your kid wants to dance in line at the store, join them.
Somewhere along the line, society makes adults boring. Let your kids bring out the fun in you whenever possible.
#39: Smile and say good morning to strangers on the street.
This has somehow become old fashioned, but everyone benefits when more people do it.
#40: Laugh loudly and unapologetically whenever you feel like it.
Laughter is the currency of a life well-lived. Those who have it in plenty are rich beyond measure.
The Life Advice We All Needed
It's difficult to overstate the impact that these conversations had on me. I found myself nodding at almost every single one of them, laughing at a few, and crying at others.
And in the days since, my wife and I have said "I love you" before falling asleep each and every night.
I have two simple requests for all of you:
- Ask your older relatives the same question and see what advice they would offer.
- Walk through this list with your loved ones. Which pieces of advice resonate most deeply? Which pieces of advice will you implement into your life today?
Always remember #25: When in doubt, love. We can always use more love.
Special thank you to the incredible participants, several of whom are captured in the photos below. It was an honor to be the conduit for the wisdom of their 1,000 years of lived experience.