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Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? - A Review

I have reached that point in life where my doctor starts many of his comments with “At your age....”. I have come to realize this is more than a mere figure of speech. Like most of my contemporaries, I began by trying to figure out “what” I was going to be (first a physician, eventually an engineer). I gave little thought to when or how age might nudge me onto an off-ramp from the expressway to money and success. Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? by Richard Leider and David Shapiro reminds us that sooner or later, our life-long model for living an accomplished life will fall apart. The book is not a list of answers or techniques, but rather a new perspective that will provoke thought and provide inspiration. Getting old is inevitable (provided you choose your parents carefully and take good care of yourself), but growing old, pursuing the “who” of your life, requires purpose.

The story begins at a rain-delayed baseball game attended by authors Richard and Dave, lifelong friends who have begun to examine each other’s journey from adulthood to elderhood. This metaphor for a life that might not turn out exactly as planned is an apt one, and it launches a serendipitous opportunity for reflection and growth. Our culture tends to see older people as burdensome and non-productive, while the authors suggest that declining outward responsibilities can lead to greater inward growth along with the opportunity to make a lasting contribution.

Personally, I thought it would take longer to get this old, but I am one of the fortunate ones. For many of us, age doesn’t just creep up but announces itself loudly with a serious illness, or the death of someone close. The one certainty is that we will all eventually die, which raises the question “What was the point?” St. Benedict wisely advised “Keep death daily before your eyes.” Once age dissolves away the “what” of our lives, along with many of the responsibilities which formerly consumed our time, we have an opportunity to focus on “who” we are, and what legacy we would like to leave behind. While the outward decline of body and mind might very well turn us toward spiritual pursuits, the authors focus not on the path of inner soul searching but look toward an outward facing journey of connection and service.

For no particular reason, I never attended any of my High School reunions (one of my best friends kept me informed on our classmates). I did, however, attend all my wife’s reunions, and the two of us noticed a curious thing which the authors touch on in Chapter 3 – the 10-year gathering was all about showing off how successful you have become, proving that you have mastered the world. By the 50th, the focus had shifted to memorializing deceased classmates and talking about feelings and the things we have learned.

There comes a time in life when it’s no longer about accumulating stuff, but more about understanding life and giving back. Until that point, we will fall victim to many default choices which, although they make things easy, often lead to disappointment later. For many of us, our life’s work will choose us long before we really grasp our passion or our purpose.

Chances are you have either heard of the “late life crisis”, or you are actually in one. In today’s culture, it’s not hard as one gets older to conclude that life has passed its peak, and it’s all downhill from here on. Older people are generally admired for what they did when they were younger, and not what possibilities may await them. The authors remind us that this is a perfect time to drop the “should haves” and move on to the “still cans.” As we grow older, we accumulate experience in dealing with the difficulties that life inevitably brings our way.

Growing old involves feeling less fear. We are less apprehensive about exposing who we really are, about being wrong, or showing our faults. We can finally live with “curiosity, choice and courage”.

The book ends with the “Three Ultimate Questions” about death. Leaders go first, and the authors own answers add clarity and serve as a guideline for those who choose to apply this approach to their own lives. This is a perfect finish to the book – one answer that struck me was from Dave, whose metaphor for life was his “cup”, i.e., “consciousness”, that would be tossed back into the ocean of consciousness. He would not cease to exist, but the “I” that he had identified with would no longer be distinguishable.

For many self-help books, the application is a weak afterthought. While the path of purposeful aging is a deeply personal one, the suggestions in the Afterward are an honest and effective attempt to help the reader. There are questions related to each chapter which could be answered in a personal journal or discussed with others on a similar journey. This intimate connection with others is one of the suggestions for “growing” as opposed to “getting” old.

There are good examples throughout the book. One personal favorite relates the story of older Japanese who volunteered to help clean up after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Here old age was an advantage; radiation-induced cancer would take 15-20 years to develop, and by then it wouldn’t matter for them. Chapter 2 proposes some steps to help unlock your life’s purpose, a helpful and welcome switch after all the philosophizing that preceded it. While there were portions which seemed a bit like advertising for Richard and his speaking business, there were also some insightful questions to address the issue of late-life crises. Quotations from 13th Century Persian poet Rumi as well as from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl provided a welcome addition of context and motivation.

A purpose for our life will not be discovered, but rather unlocked and released from inside. It is not only something we love and feel passionate about doing, but it also involves doing for others. Each of us will eventually die, and in our later years the legacy of our time on earth looms larger. The central theme of the book is “growing and giving.”

At my age, this is a welcome and refreshing message.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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