In a recent column alluding to research revealing that ages 82 to 85 are among the happiest years of a person’s life, David Brooks takes issue with its “deterministic” emphasis. He’d rather think that people get better at living through effort, skill and mastery. I can’t agree more. So I intend to surface his six issues that make life much better and apply them to Generations X and Y. Why wait until you’re an octogenarian for a happy, good life?
Start with Aristotle’s unique theory of ethics. Aristotle doesn’t see ethics as following a list of moral rules. He believes that the virtues of justice, courage, temperance and so on are complex rational, emotional and social skills. But he also emphasizes “practical ethics.” ...
Second, there’s jumping to conclusions, that psychological need to make an immediate decision about others’ behaviors. I’ve often thought that jumping to relational conclusions is one of the most prevalent deficits in humans. The great comedian, Danny Kaye, had a line that has stayed with me since I was a kid. Talking about a woman he dislikes, he says, “Her favorite sport is jumping to conclusions.” Jumping to conclusions is especially risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high and there is no time to collect more information. These are precisely the circumstances in which your intuition is liable to get you into trouble. Suspending judgment of right or wrong--especially the moral or evaluative-- until you’ve got more data can make for a lot less stress.
Bifocalism is an especially rare, but treasured skill. It’s difficult, for example, to be compassionate, and often just as difficult to be critical. But what is most difficult of all is to be both at once. Only with experience and interactional analysis can most learn the skill. Bifocalism is essentially paradox. It is the acceptance and valuing of characteristics that are in opposition or conflict. Yet, much of business reality is reflective of bifocalism. What makes bifocalism difficult for most is that we are raised and trained in an either/or atmosphere. Bifocalism, like paradox, emphasizes the truthfulness of both/and. Bifocalism is well-expressed in the familiar aphorism that you’re “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
Then, there’s what Brooks calls lightness, the ability to be at ease with the downsides of life. Brooks refers to Holland and Greenstein’s book, “Lighter as We Go,” who emphasize that while older people lose memory, they also learn that most setbacks are not the end of the world. One of my theological mentors taught me this same value, although he called it “sanctified nonchalance.” In my blog, written after the loss of my wife to Alzheimer’s, I described sanctified nonchalance as not holding tightly to life, viewing it, instead, as a gift to be used for myself and others. Lightness and sanctified nonchalance both assume a significant trust in the universe that’s reflected in not sweating the small stuff or being too invested in particular outcomes.
There’s also the ability to balance tensions. Many social roles require you to balance competing demands. In my conversations with clients, I find many of them attempting to balance the demands of family with the demands of work—and dealing with the tensions that both create. Or, the demands for near perfection with an unrealistic timeline that surface regularly in today’s work world. In my studies of intellectual history nearly 45 years ago, I still remember my prof pointing out numerous instances in which the founding fathers were constantly balancing competing demands. The US constitution and the Bill or Rights are highly reflective of these competing tensions. Washington government, for example, is constantly at war over the tensions between individual and collective responsibilities since the Revolutionary War. Obamacare is merely one instance to attempt to balance such tensions. Workers and business are filled with these tensions. As Brooks writes, this form of wisdom can only be developed by acquiring a repertoire of similar experiences. But the competency can relieve painful hassles and stress.
Finally, an intuitive awareness of the landscape of business reality. That includes a sense for what others are thinking and feeling, and an instinct for how events will fall out. In his article, Brooks refers to insights from “The Wisdom Paradox,” by Elkhonon Goldberg, who details the many ways the brain deteriorates with age: brain cells die, mental operations slow. But a lifetime of intellectual effort can lead to empathy and pattern awareness. What I have lost with age in my capacity for hard mental work,” Goldberg writes, “I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight.” Just the other day I had an impromptu conversation with a bright twenty-year-old who’d graduated from college early. He was having a devil of a time trying to figure out about a career “for the rest of my life.” I chuckled and suggested that he think about the next three to five years and forget the rest of his life. He’d probably make a dozen changes over the years, so there was no reason to get embroiled in such long-term thinking.” His jaw dropped and his mouth opened wide in surprise as he said he’d never heard such before. So I took a few minutes to explain the volatility and ever-changing business reality.
It’s intriguing to recognize that life, for many, gets happier with age. But I agree fully with Brooks: it’s a lot more useful to recognize the really important competencies and to understand how people get a lot better at doing the things that they do. One objective of any culture, including business organizations, is to spread that wisdom—those rather sophisticated street skills—from old to young. The consequences can be highly liberating.