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How to Avoid Being a Grumpy Old Man (or Woman)

Some dos and don'ts to avoid a common trope

Armistead Booker/Flickr
Source: Armistead Booker/Flickr

Recently my friend and co-author, Ken Blanchard, and I had the opportunity to speak to a breakfast meeting of kinda-, sorta-, semi-retired men about some of the ideas we discussed in our recently published book, Refire, Don’t Retire!. As with previous talks, we learned as much from the audience as they did from us.

The host of the event first asked people to go around the room, tell us their names, and say a little bit about themselves. This was a diverse group, ranging from a former career military man to businessmen, attorneys, and other executive types. Almost all of them described themselves as being in some type of transition. More than a few said they had retired but had gone on to be a volunteer or launch a new career or business. Our kind of audience.

Ken and I presented ideas that encouraged risk-taking, adventure, and a commitment to seeing what was next. Of the many things we discussed with this group, the following ideas resonated most of all.

The Last Minute Gang

Older people tend to become set in their ways. The Last-Minute Gang is a powerful way to get out of this rut and experience new adventures.

The idea is to agree with your spouse (if you have one) and friends that if an invitation is proffered—even at the last minute—unless you’re absolutely incapable of attending because of a prior commitment, you have to say YES.

The reports we've gotten back from those who commit to this practice are overwhelmingly positive. People wind up going to movies they thought they would hate, but actually loved. One hard-headed businessman found himself visiting an obscure art gallery and enjoying an unexpected treat. And last-minute dinner invitations almost always prove to be rewarding. Give it a try!

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

While getting out of your comfort zone is not a new idea, it's one we often profess more than we actually do. Here are some ideas to get you started.

If you've been following a particular route for weeks, months, or even years, take a different route and see what happens. It might take you a few minutes more (or even a few minutes less), but you’ll actually notice where you are, instead of simply going through the motions.

The next time you go to a restaurant, ask the server to bring you what they think is “the most interesting or best entrée that this restaurant serves—and don't tell me what it is before you serve me.” You might be thinking “but what if I don't like it?” You may not, but you're going to eat again in a few hours, so what's the big deal? But what if you get something you've never had before and just love it? As one person said, "When the server told me it was grilled octopus, I almost broke my promise and sent it back. But I tried it and it was fantastic. It may not be something I order every time, but it was certainly worth the risk."

Take a class in an area you know nothing about. Many older adults continue learning by taking adult education courses at nearby colleges and universities, but usually they study topics they are already familiar with. We encourage engineers to take art classes, artists to take business classes, and business people to take courses in writing or photography. My close friend—a retired physician and medical/business consultant—actually heeded my advice and took a course in pottery. Weeks later he ruefully told me that the art world had not lost a future master because he’d decided to go to medical school. While he really tried and actually liked the process of working with clay on a wheel, the outcomes were disastrous. Bowls were never higher than a cup and his creations would inevitably crack when put in a kiln for firing. His bottom line was that he was glad that he had made the effort but probably wouldn't do it again.

At the end of our breakfast meeting presentation, Ken and I asked for comments and questions. That's when the room came alive. People opened up about things they had learned over the years. Next, the conversation turned to the annoying behaviors common to older people.

No More 2's

“Annoying behaviors? Like what?” we asked.

One man shouted out, "No more 2's!"

“No more 2's?” I echoed.

“Yeah,” he said. No more:

‘It's too cold!’

‘It's too noisy!’

‘It's too crowded!’

‘It's too dark!’

‘It’s too stuffy!’

“Just no more damn ‘too's’! It absolutely drives me crazy when I hear people complaining all the time. Just suck it up and go with the flow.”

Stop Talking About Your Medical Problems

When someone mentioned the annoying tendency of older people to talk about their medical issues, there were resounding whoops of approval and spontaneous applause. Person after person gave examples of being told in excruciating detail things about their friends and acquaintances they really didn't want to know: their sleep patterns, digestion, aches, pains, and afflictions. Another gentleman said he had invoked a rule with all dining companions that after the first five minutes, the person who mentioned any medical problem of any kind would have to pay for dinner and wine. He said it wound up being a pretty good way of limiting both the length and scope of these conversations.

Stop Complaining About "The Younger Generation"

Source: xflickrx/Flickr

Yes, it is true that kids today spent a lot of time on their smart phones. They tend to communicate by texting rather than talking (even though sitting next to one another). They generally don't answer the phone when you call them, and don't respond if you leave them a voicemail message. Plus, they seem to have tolerance for things that you may find offensive or disturbing.

Many young adults today are relatively colorblind in terms of white, black, brown, red, and yellow. They’re generally comfortable with different gender identities and don't care much if their friends are straight, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Like it or not, most adolescents and young adults are more likely to be sexual earlier than we were. Most have liberal attitudes toward legalizing marijuana and other political issues.

My 20-something assistant, while editing this, took umbrage at my characterization and reminded me that “there are plenty of conservative, modest, non-sexually active young people in the world today.” She reminded me that Khalil Gibran addressed the issue of complaining about the younger generation in his poem “On Children”:

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

By the way, the above does not mean that you need to agree with what your kids or grandkids are saying. You certainly have a right to your own beliefs and values. It might even be interesting to have a conversation about why you each believe they way you do. But blanket condemnation is not likely to get you very far.

If you’re frustrated that your kids or grandchildren are often unavailable when you want to visit or talk, keep in mind that students wanting to go on to college today must work harder and longer than their parents and grandparents did in order to have a shot at getting into any of the highly competitive private or public universities. Not only do they have to be super competitive academically, but they also must demonstrate special talents. In other words, they're working their tails off, so give ’em a break.

Be Open to Learning—Really

Jim Larrison/Flickr
Source: Jim Larrison/Flickr

Many people who consider themselves open to new ideas and concepts are in fact resistant to learning new things. In another blog where I discussed the issue of Geriatric Technophobia, I gave the example of someone who had purchased a new car with all of the safety features that are now available, including alerting the driver if a lane change is unsafe, letting drivers know if they are getting too close to a car ahead, providing a Bluetooth connection to a cell phone for emergency calls, and even braking automatically if a crash is imminent. Because the purchaser was unfamiliar with these “gadgets” and disturbed by sounds and flashes he didn’t understand, he returned the car for one without these features, and felt much more at ease. Yes, much more at ease—but much more at risk.

Another example was told to me by a gentleman who is very much a fitness addict and goes to a gym regularly. Many of those who exercise with him early in the morning were older adults. One day, a notice was posted that the gym would be closed for two days for "renovation." When they returned, they found that management had replaced almost all of the old but familiar equipment with some initially intimidating "new stuff." The management had erred in not letting the people know in advance what was going on. They also erred in not having anyone there to explain the new equipment—until the members themselves complained mightily. Predictably, the older members’ general response to the new equipment was one of anger, resentment, and rejection.

It was only after a week or two of grumbling that the older members began to try out the new equipment and found—much their surprise—that it was actually better than the stuff they had been used to. Part of the initial resistance was going from the familiar to the unfamiliar and having to learn how to use the new machines. Interestingly, when the younger members showed up, they walked around the new machines, studied the illustrations, tested out the various gadgets, and then went at it.

Yes, technology is constantly changing. You learn to use a computer, they update the operating system, and you have to learn it all over again. Voicemail becomes texting, texting becomes Instagram, and who knows what will happen next? The main thing that determines your response is not your ability to learn, but your attitude toward the new and different. I'm sure many readers can recall when landline phones shifted from a rotary dial to push buttons, and how their parents railed against this change. Seems kind of silly now, doesn't it?

There’s an old saying that “you're only as old as you feel.” Yet to the outside world, you're only as old as you behave! Being grumpy, negative, judgmental, critical, rigid, and complaining doesn't really feel very good, and guess what? It doesn't make the people around you feel good, either.

It's not much fun being around someone who views the world through a negative lens. Sure, life is imperfect. Yes, sometimes it is difficult to keep up with all things that are going on. Yes, our grandchildren dress funny (i.e., different from how we dressed when we were their age). Yes, we sometimes don't “get” the music of Beyonce, Sam Smith, or Lady Gaga, and reminisce about Frank Sinatra, or even—gasp—The Beatles.

So just for the hell of it, over the next week or two be enthusiastic and see what it gets you. Learn to text your grandchildren and get reconnected. Visit a neighborhood that you rarely go to. Don't try to win every argument—instead, listen to what the other person is saying. And most of all:


More from Morton H Shaevitz Ph.D., ABPP
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