Frances Lear was a wise woman. She once said: "I believe the second half of ones life is meant to be better than the first half. The first half is finding out how you do it. And the second half is enjoying it."
Thats what I call a positive approach to aging. No one wants to grow old, but the alternative isnt all that great. In todays youth-obsessed era, baby boomers are fighting tooth and nail to beat the clock and stay forever young. And they are using every trick in the book, from botox to tummy tucks, to encore careers and a renewed search for meaning.
Aging encompasses a lot of paradoxes. For instance: it takes longer for adults to grow old these days (50 is the new 70), but our children are growing up faster than ever (10 is the new 15). David Wolfe, author of Ageless Marketing, says that as we age we get more androgynous, i.e. "men become more nurturing and women become more self-confident."
Two weeks ago I attended the 2nd Annual National Conference on Positive Aging here in Minneapolis. Several best-selling authors spoke on the importance of advancing a new dialogue around the subject of positive aging, and the idea that purpose, meaning, and wellbeing are central to that concept.
Richard Bolles, age 82, author of What Color is Your Parachute, started his presentation by announcing that he was "positive he was aging." That got a chuckle from everyone in the room. He offered inspiring insights into the importance of reflection as relates to continued growth and development. One idea I took from his presentation is to spend a few moments at the end of each day to note what the best part of my days was, and to ask myself "what did I learn today?" His point is that if we pay attention, we will keep learning. The day you stop learning is the day you start to grow old.
Harry R. Moody, Director of Academic Affairs for the AARP, built further on that idea with a wonderfully visual talk highlighting how many famous artists (including Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Georgia O'Keefe) ended up creating their most powerful works in their later years. It was in their advanced ages that they found the courage to pare their work down to the simplest and most powerful essence. He shared the story of how Goya, at the ripe old age of 80, signed his work "Aun aprendo," which translates as: "I am still learning."
Richard Leider, author of Something to Live For, talked about life as a bell curve. He stressed how important it was to make the downhill descent as filled with purpose as the youthful, uphill climb. He told a story about the elders of a hill tribe in Tanzania, where old age is revered. In their culture, they believe that the two most important days of our lives are the day we are born, and the day we figure out WHY we were born. When you know that, he said, you have a reason to get up out of bed every morning, no matter how old you are.
Several people in the audience challenged his portrayal of the aging process as a 'downward descent,' saying that it sounded too negative. That brought to mind a famous quote by General Douglas MacArthur: "We're not retreating, were advancing in another direction." I think it's a great analogy for how boomers can reframe the notion of retirement. Instead of 'slowing down' and retreating into the twilight of life, retirement will become more about 'changing course' and moving forward in a positive direction.
The course we take is up to each of us as individuals. The goal, however, should be to die young, as late as possible. That would be the ultimate paradox.