Aged Wisdom

At lunch recently, Bryan asked: what wisdom do we old folks have to pass on to young folk, if only they would listen? A few possibilities:

1) You might look inside yourself and think you know yourself, but over many decades you can change in ways you won’t see ahead of time. Don’t assume you know who you will become. This applies all the more to folks around you. You may know who they are now, but not who they will become.

2) You are more flexible than you realize. You may think now life that would not be worth living without your preferred city, career, partner, or hobby. But you really would adapt to most big changes, and have an ok life without most of what you now hold precious. Old folks with weak bodies and fading minds still love life.

3) Human lives are long. You might be unpopular when young, but with decades of work you could become popular when old. If you have something you are just dying to do, a lifetime can fit many failures before an eventual success. While it can be reasonable to take a few years of failure as a sign you might prefer something else, if this is really what you most want, you’ll have many more decades to keep trying.

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  • Nathan

    Regarding point one: Steven Pinker says in Blank Slate that personality is extremely stable through the lifetime, barring traumatic brain injury. So what do you mean?

    • Steve

      I think he means more along the lines of how you view yourself and your friends, what you learn and how that affects you. Personality may not change, but how that personality manifests itself in your behaviors, beliefs and actions evolve over time.

      I see it this way at least, because I’ve noticed that in my life as well.

  • I don’t quite get the point of (1). Yes, I can see how older folks could sit around and remark “Wow, I really think differently about X now” or “Gee, I would not have guessed when I was young that I would make choice Y now”. I’m 26 and I already notice these things. But what are the implications for me if I accept (1) to be true? What might I do differently with this wisdom?

    • If you expect your future self to change in unpredictable ways, then that suggests things like keep your options open, don’t make very long binding commitments, that sort of thing, over and above what you would currently choose to do based on things like discount rates.

    • Laura Grattan

      I think it means that you might want to think twice before getting that tattoo.

      • Marcus

        It means, you might thing twice before making snarky comments about tattoos 😉

        My point is, you do *keep* growing. Maybe in 10 years you’ll see the utter wisdom of the youth and foolishness in your values.

      • Bob

        “tattoo” is exactly the first thought I had at #1. You beat me to it Laura.

  • I’m with most of the commentators on #1.

    4) Don’t sweat life so much. All things work out one way or the other and usually in ways you have little to no influence over. Concentrate on the things that matter, food, shelter, hobbies, and relationships and be content with occasional moments of happiness while being content with the mundane. Concentrate on making enough money to enjoy your hobbies, not more, not less.

    5) You only have one immediate family, make nice with them. You might not care now but you will when your old and dying and you won’t have a chance to repair those bridges / forgive after they / you are dead. They aren’t as bad as you think and that lifeline if you ever rock bottom is invaluable.

    • Not necessarily true. The worst families are horrendous.

  • Are you assuming that an old person’s perspective is accurate? Why? People can have distorted views of the past. How do you know it isn’t that old people overestimate how much they’ve changed, and that the truth is most people change very little? The idea that an old person’s views about past are a source of profound truth and wisdom seems to be the kind of sentimental commonplace that you’re usually more skeptical of.

    • KPres

      Young people have a hard time putting things in perspective. When you grasp the big picture, it’s easy to spot somebody else who doesn’t. But reverse isn’t true. People who don’t get the big picture have no clue when they encounter somebody who does.

      Surely you’ve experienced this effect in some more specific area of inquiry, no? Why would you assume the same isn’t true when discussing “life” in general?

      I sense the 20-somethings posting in this thread are resisting the theme altogether. To them, I suggest comparing yourself to teenagers. What do you think about their behavior? That’s exactly how older people see you.

  • Anonymous

    Two more things I’d say to my younger self in hindsight:

    Your opinions and value judgments will change in ways you can’t anticipate. Parts of what you now believe are dominant truths in your mind only because they were dominant in the local memetic environment.

    Solving practical problems that can be broken down to sub-steps is a lot easier than you think it is. Changing the flaws in your nature through willpower, especially psychological ones, is virtually impossible.

  • Robert Koslover

    I agree that there appears to be much wisdom in the above essay, and also some more wisdom in the comments posted to it. Now, I also recall reading (but not sure where) that there are two pieces of very simple advice that are quite often offered to young people by those older and wiser, but which are seldom followed. They are:
    (1) Floss regularly.
    (2) Use sunscreen.

  • mjgeddes

    (1) Definitely true. I don’t believe people have any real idea what they actually want. Their volitions have not been sufficiently extrapolated. Our younger selves are abolute idiots, no doubt about that.

    (2) Not sure about. Someone that experienced great highs might never be able to adjust to the lows. More likely they’d spent all day bemoaning past glories.

    Aging is pretty nasty at the end if you ask me, Believe me, ‘weak bodies and fading minds’ is not something you want to experience. Some would say ; ‘It’s better to burn out, than to fade away’.

    (3) I don’t think human lives are that long. I’m in my 30s, it doesn’t seem that long ago at all that I was at school or uni. But you make a good point that there’s always plenty of chances. If something goes wrong one day, that’s always another chance the next day. But, it could be argued that really big ‘windows of opportunity’ for success or radical change are few and far between for most folks – I think they may only occur once every few years. And the ‘windows’ for success have an alarming tendency to suddenly slam closed on folks without warning while they are still trying to climb through, taking off folks’ fingers in the process.

    • Anonymous

      Aging is pretty nasty at the end if you ask me, Believe me, ‘weak bodies and fading minds’ is not something you want to experience.

      Yeah, I was a bit doubtful about that part too. I’ve seen old people lament every day. Some of them explicitly wish for death, which isn’t being granted. Others just lament. And then are those who are quite happy and self-determined until the end, but in my experience, it’s a minority. And then of course, there are the living wrecks that are reduced to animal status. Oh, and to top it off, they can all still feel the agony of burning alive if their house burns down, which occasionally happens to a small but statistically significant number of people. I personally am not going to be there. Pre-emptive suicide seems very attractive to me.

      • Pre-emptive suicide seems very attractive to me.

        You can get more bang for your buck if you start doing really awesome things without a lot of regard for the prospect of death when that time rolls around. It helps if you do them in a jurisdiction that honors do-not-resuscitate orders.

      • Anonymous

        Depends on how much you value the avoidance of pain, such as, say, burning alive in a car crash while fully conscious. But you’re right, I place less value on my long-term health etc.

      • mjgeddes

        Hackers Maxim #7:
        ‘Live Free Or Die, Death Is Not The Worst Of Evils’

      • Bob

        Um, as an old person .. and one who does suffer much daily physical pain .. life is much more worth living now than when I was in my 20s. For one thing the moments are just more precious and thus I feel I get the most out of them. We really do stop and smell (and just plain notice) the roses (or the nuances in a complex screen drama or novel). We take longer to reach political conclusions .. for one thing we have outgrown the idea that there are good guys and bad guys to be defeated. Once we realize that our opponents are not bad guys, their positions become much more interesting and we spend more time learning from them. We want to know how they arrived at them and our own positions become more nuanced (a long way of saying that we all start out thinking we are humanitarian or, in todays parlance, “liberal” because we think we are on the side of righteousness). Life is more enjoyable as an older person because we are intellectually reborn into a world where another veil between us and reality is lifted. That is why to us youth is wasted on the young .. until one has at least 5 or 6 decades under one’s belt, one is living in a fog. The fog is still here, just not as thick as before.

  • Trevor Blake

    – You do not have enough money saved. Save more money starting immediately.
    – Everyone you rely on will at some point (perhaps for a time, perhaps the duration) be unable or unwilling to support you. This is true emotionally, financially, politically, etc. Plan accordingly.
    – When you are young you care what people think and never think about your health. The inverse is true then you are old.

    • Matthew C.

      Saving dollars is for suckers. Put your money into something that will retain value and cannot be printed into existence by the trillion. . .

      • IVV

        Hint: That “something” isn’t bars or disks of metal.

      • Matthew C.

        IVV, you are welcome to pile all your chits into bitcoin if you’d rather.

        Anyone who studies a bit of history and looks at the debt / money creation activities of the Fed and USG — would have to be off his gourd to save money in US dollars for anything you want more than 1-2 years out.

      • IVV

        That “something” shouldn’t be thought of as currency. So bitcoins are just as ridiculous.

        If you need something a long time out, invest it in a value-creating enterprise and get it out there to create value. Have a farm. Have a factory. Have a power plant that’s making power. Because no matter what any currency does, if you’ve got stuff and the means to make more stuff, who cares how many chits or dollars or gold coins or whatever you’ll get for it–you’ll have what people need and will give you stuff for.

  • cournot

    I think what most people underestimate is the value of money, especially if you get hit with a Black Swan in yr personal life. Even most in their 30s would tend to underestimate the importance of financial backup in case of a massive shock to career, health, etc.

    • Matthew C.

      I think an even greater and more widespread misunderstanding is what is money, the nature of money, and money with a future versus money that is a “dead man walking”.

  • lxm

    I question the initial assumption that old folks have wisdom.

    Old folks are the ones who decide to send young folks off to wars for no good reason.

    Old folk may be old, but they are not dead and so they are still as self-interested as any young folk and maybe more so because they know (at least some do) that their time is running out. So why not just sell the young folks another tall tale.

    So young folks should be wary of what ever old folks offer as knowledge. It just might get you killed.

    On the other hand, the older I get the more I realize how little I know, how extraordinarily little. So for all I know, old folks might have lots of knowledge to share.

    But I will offer one piece of advice: If you are going to be a revolutionary, do so while you are young. If you do it when you are older, it will be an act of desperation.

    That was fun.

  • Mark M

    Adding to the list:

    – The people you spend your time with contribute more to your happiness than the things that you own. Plan accordingly.
    – Enjoy your life while you’re living it. Don’t put off your dreams for “some day.” Take steps towards achieving your dreams right now.
    – Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, there’s probably a reason.

  • #3 that is unless what you want to do is be a great athlete.

  • If you have something you are just dying to do, a lifetime can fit many failures before an eventual success

    This is basically Malcolm Gladwell’s point in Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?, albeit in an artistic context. I just finished the book he used as a source for many of his ideas, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, and it profoundly reshaped a lot of the ideas I had about success and failure in ways that are too long to explain here.

  • Rob
  • Becky Hargrove

    I was really appreciative of the third point. At mid life I had to start over, completely, yet again. And while some days it is not so easy, (will it take decades?) I still believe a better life – and personality – could happen with old age. And yes it is something I am ‘dying’ to do.

  • Trevor Blake

    Matthew C. & IVV: I’m sure you’re right. Drop a line and I’ll give you the address to mail all that worthless money to. Glad to help.

  • Steven Lost

    “You might be unpopular when young, but with decades of work you could become popular when old.”

    Would be great if true, but with my low IQ of 69, no matter how hard I try, I won’t become a genius or even _good_ at something (especially mathematics & physics).

    So there you go. Why waste decades of work on something you won’t master anyway? I’d rather commit suicide than end up a loser.

    p. s. Sorry for my english, it is awful owing to a) it not being my mother tongue and b) my low IQ.

    • John Maxwell

      I didn’t notice any problems with your english. I doubt your IQ is only 69, and even if it is, you could try comparing yourself to other people less. Modern society is pretty great, even the bums are enjoying it.

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