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The Nurture of Passion as You Age

The soul and spirit don't retire even if your career does.

Key points

  • Successful aging depends on whether you belong to the “lifelong learner” or the "can't teach old dogs new tricks" school of thought on aging,
  • Vitality and longevity ask you to continually reinvent yourself, stay close to passion and purpose, and remember that you have a use-by date.
  • People who flourish well into old age tend to score high in novelty-seeking behavior—they continually try new things.
  • People who tend to fulfill their potential routinely make the growth choice over the fear choice.
Source: NeuroscienceNews

I recently ran across a video called “What is Old?” and I think it speaks powerfully to both the challenges and opportunities of aging.

In the video, 20-somethings are asked “What is old?” One young fellow said 40, and they all said 40's, 50's and 60’s.

Then they were asked to demonstrate how an “old person” walks across the street, and they all bent over into a turtle-like shuffle. They were asked how an old person sends a text message, and half of them mimed using a flip phone. They were asked how an old person does a jumping jack, and, well, you get the picture.

Then the 20-somethings were each introduced to an “old” person according to their own definitions—people in their 40's, 50's, and 60's—and each pair spent two minutes together teaching one another something they were good at—a dance move, a yoga posture, a martial arts move, etc.

Then they re-interviewed the young people and once again asked them “What is old?” Now they said 80's and 90's, and one young lady said 100.

The video ends with one of the older men saying, “When people start stopping, that's when they start getting old.”

That’s also when they’re no longer able to role-model vitality and aliveness, which is what the “old” people in the video apparently did for the young people. Within minutes of meeting “old” people who were active and engaged, they changed their minds about “what is old.”

And the older people got to step into the great work of culturally reframing what it means to be old—to not just get older but grow older—and even to be an “elder” at all, which is something you earn, not something that's handed to you on a silver platter just because you've racked up a certain number of years.

How you feel about growing older, of course, depends on whether you belong to the “lifelong learner” school of thought on aging, or the “can’t teach old dogs new tricks” school of thought on aging. And how far along the life-span you believe you can push the notion of being “fully alive.”

By the way, the consensus among dog trainers is that it's utter nonsense that you can't teach old dogs new tricks. In fact, most of them are eager to be physically and mentally stimulated—as long as it doesn't involve backflips. What vets call “shrinking world syndrome” isn't just a function of incapacity, but our assumptions about aging. If we think old dogs prefer just lying around in a heap by the fire, the question is, have we given them a choice?

I believe that an affirmative approach to aging takes into account that new parts of us are always clamoring for airtime, and the soul and spirit don’t “retire” even if our careers do.

I’ve presented at many “successful aging” conferences, and been delighted to be in the company of people (typically 60’s to 90’s) who are clearly the lifelong-learner types, and who intend to stay on their growing edges and be actively engaged in life til the clock strikes 12.

They’re eager to give feet to those clamoring parts of themselves, whether they involve passions and creative leaps, service projects and leadership roles in the community, mentoring, or simply rediscovering their sense of wonder. For some of them, it’s a whole new way they want to live and relate to life—not so much a place they want to get to, but a place they want to come from. When Bill Gates quit Microsoft for a life of philanthropy, he said, “It’s not a retirement. It’s a reordering of my priorities.”

This may require (as it did of the young people in the video) a reassessment of their attitudes toward aging itself. A Yale University study * found that people who have negative attitudes and stereotypes about aging—for instance, that it's mostly about decline and disability—have poorer mental and physical health as they age, and die on average 7.5 years sooner, than people who have more positive attitudes toward aging.

And even if a certain amount of slowing down does occur as you age, a tempering of the drive and the fight in you, losing interest in the world is purely optional, and detrimental, because your attachment to life depends on your interest in it—your sense of enthusiasm, curiosity, wonder, reverence, participation.

Indeed, these clamoring parts of you—if not longevity itself—ask you to continually reinvent yourself, stay close to your deepest sense of passion and purpose, and remember that you have a use-by date. And we intuitively know this: the older you get, the more the sense of urgency is turned up. I once saw a bumper sticker that said: Warning, dates in calendar are closer than they appear.

I'd say 75% of the people who typically take my Callings workshops are baby-boomers—10,000 of whom are hitting 60 every single day, and some hitting it harder than others. And part of what propels them into these workshops is that whatever they've been doing for 20-30-40 years, come midlife or so some other part of them wants an entrance cue: their creative side, their nurturing and mentoring side, their adventurous side.

But whatever you've been doing for 20-30-40 years, certainly professionally-speaking, you've developed some mastery in it, confidence, competence, a sense of identity, a circle of colleagues and peers, maybe a regular paycheck. And after being an expert, being a rookie again can be a stinker.

In her book New, Winifred Gallagher refers to “neophilia”—the enthusiasm for novelty that’s at the heart of the exploratory urge—and says that researchers looking for the traits that characterize people who tend to flourish as they age, have found that such people tend to score high in novelty-seeking behavior. That is, they try new things.

For anyone who's reached or passed midlife, this neophiliac impulse is tempered by the understanding that, contrary to the popular belief that anything is possible, anything is not actually possible. You can't become a ballerina at 60. You can dance, but you can't become a ballerina.

But in your accumulated wisdom, you know something about the limitations of time and talent, the breakdown of expectations, or even lifelong illusions. And this can keep you in right relationship with yourself as you age, because you know better where you stand with life. Yes, you have to surrender the infiniteness of your aspirations, and maybe that feels like defeat, but it's also a kind of liberation. You're not giving up personal initiative. You just have a clearer understanding of what can and can't be done, which is extremely useful when it comes to planning the rest of your life.

The kind of thinking that characterizes this phase of life—realistic thinking—cuts out a lot of static. It cuts down on the magical thinking of childhood, the heroic thinking of adolescence and young adulthood, and helps you focus, in the way the English writer Samuel Johnson meant it when he said that when you know you're to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

But Abraham Maslow, who coined the term self-actualization—referring to people who tend to fulfill their potential—believed that self-actualizing types are those who routinely make the growth choice over the fear choice.

* Reference: Yale University study:….

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