Advice from our elders about careers, choices and life’s unending uncertainty.

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When you’re young, taking advice from older people can be difficult. The short explanation of why is simple – it’s annoying. But however much your mother or grandfather may drive you crazy with unsolicited tips and suggestions, most of us know deep down that those with vastly more life experience than us have valuable insights to offer.

It’s been a bumper year for online posts and columns offering to pass on the wisdom of age to the young and curious, with The New York Times columnist David Brooks leading the way.

Over the past few months, Brooks has asked elderly readers to send in their life stories, as well as the lessons they’re learned over the decades for the benefit of his readers, with Brooks summarizing the results in a series of thought-provoking columns. Among the many insights from the project:

Divide your life into chapters. The unhappiest of my correspondents saw time as an unbroken flow, with themselves as corks bobbing on top of it…. The happier ones divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases. They wrote things like: There were six crucial decisions in my life. Then they organized their lives around those pivot points. By seeing time as something divisible into chunks, they could more easily stop and self-appraise. They had more control over their fate.

Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives…. Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.

In the same vein, hospice nurse Bronnie Ware made waves online with a somewhat wrenching post on the most common regrets of the dying (not all of whom may have been seniors, but all of whom presumably were forced by short time horizons into hard reflection). The post is worth a read in full, but one regret from the list might be of special interest to young careerists. She wrote:

I wish I didn’t work so hard. This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

Of course, not all the wisdom of senior citizens is reserved for weighty matters and the most fundamental values decisions of life. Less somber advice is on offer too. For example, a recent post on Wise Bread provides a 94-year-old’s tips on making good decisions. Among the ideas:

Be grateful that you have choice. It’s natural to dread having to make a tough choice — I know I often do. But what if you thought of that choice as a privilege? My grandmother grew up at a time in which women just weren’t given much say; she was raised to listen to her parents and then later, all the big decisions went to her husband. Now that she’s all on her own, she relishes doing what she wants, even at the cost of sometimes making choices she regrets. So next time you’re struggling with a decision, remember that you’re actually indulging in a luxury that has not always been available to everyone — and that in some parts of the world still isn’t.

Do what you want. As an active and able 94-year-old, my grandmother relishes being able to do whatever she wants. Maybe some of that’s a luxury of old age, but she’s also learned that you just can’t make everyone happy, so it’s best not to try. Going with the flow can often be a way of taking the easy way out. Make the decisions that are right for you.

For those looking into the really deep dive, Stanford professor Tina Seelig (merely middle-aged but clearly onto some of the secrets of career success) has a whole book on subject entitled What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World.

When asked in an interview what single piece of advice she’d like to give her younger self, she replied:

I would tell myself that the uncertainty of life never goes away. There are always choices in front of you, challenges to overcome, and failures from which you need to recover. If you embrace the challenges and view them through the lens of possibilities, then you will not only be happier, but will be much more likely to turn the inevitable obstacles into opportunities. The world is always changing, and it is up to you to be flexible and optimistic.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from an elder?

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London and is the author of BNET’s Entry-Level Rebel column.


  1. Abigail Gorton

    I am not ‘that old’ (well maybe of some of you – LOL!) but the chapters idea resonates for me. I do believe you can have it all, I am not so convinced you can have it all at once.

  2. Megan

    The best advice I’ve ever received was from my mom when I was about 17. I was really anxious about some things that were going on at school – I was running a pilot program for elementary school students at our arts department, and I was having trouble getting along with my co-founder, screwing up my regular classes, my then-boyfriend had forgotten what I looked like – generally panicking about life, impending graduation and ruining every friendship I had while irrevocably scarring 30 ten-year-olds.

    My mum sat me down and after I told her I was freaking out on a totally new level. I needed to have my head together, but couldn’t calm down, she said two words:

    “Fake it.”

    I looked at her like she was an idiot. She (having two teenagers daughters – she brushed my look of with aplomb) shrugged and said “just fake it.” leaving me to sulk.

    I figured I had nothing to lose and tried it. I faked having it all together. It became true after a little while. Amazing. Again and again this has been useful for me.

    From the article – I particularly like the advice: the uncertainty never goes away.” that is really good to keep in mind when there are choices to be made. Even if it doesn’t exactly make you feel better – knowing you’re not alone is wonderful.

  3. Greg Miliates

    Uncertainty and change are always present. Job security is a thing of the past. Create your own financial security so you don’t have to be dependent on a job or an employer.

    After being frustrated with my corporate day job–and worried that layoffs were imminent–I started my own consulting business in January 2007 while working full-time (and with 2 kids, so I didn’t have a ton of time to devote to it).  I gradually built up a list of a few dozen clients, so that I have a steady workload and income. I’ve got more flexibility and financial security than I ever had at any of my day jobs. (The financial security comes from having multiple clients who pay me, rather than relying on a single employer for my income). Since I started my consulting business, I’ve QUADRUPLED my former day-job salary.

    It’s truly been life-changing, and has completely changed my worldview; I’m no longer dependent on a single employer, and I continually see new business opportunities.

    As a result of my daily actions to build my own business and make it succeed, I feel empowered and happier. I complain less, and when I find myself complaining, I try to refocus on how I can change the situation instead of just bellyaching about it. I’m modeling those behaviors for my kids as well, and teaching them about entrepreneurship and how it can lead to greater independence.

    You can check out an interview I recently did where I talk about how I made the switch from employee to consultant, and where I talk about some of my initial fears & doubts, and give actual income & rate numbers:

    Take advantage of your skills, experience, and vision, and create what you want–but don’t think you need to depend on a job or an employer for your financial security.

    Greg Miliates

  4. Anonymous

    Be grateful you have a choice says it all.

  5. Jalexd

    My 3rd stepmother, who was French, told me at 16 “A woman never reveals her perfume or her age.”

  6. Zack

    Best advice? I got a lot of bad advice but I guess the best was about saving money. Did I listen? – No.
    Its sad but I miss some of my kids activities now because of work. Not only will I regret it later but I regret it now. But I feel I have no choice unless we want to sit around later in life and reminisce about how hungry we were with no shoes on our feet. It’s not my druthers, it’s a necessity. I’m sure we will all regret the work thing later in life and in a perfect world we could spend as much time as we wanted with loved one’s. The reality is – we can’t.

  7. Kathy

    Do What You Want: “…Going with the flow can often be a way of taking the easy way out. Make the decisions that are right for you.”

    This was probably the best advice I was given by my parents. I was always told to be me. And as tough as it was (and sometimes still can be in the workplace), I’ve stuck to that.

    So I say “BE YOU!” Forget about society, and their expectations. As long as you’re not hurting anyone (or yourself), BE your wonderful self!

    Thanks Jessica! 😀

  8. Live It Forward

    Best advice from my Mom: Do what you want! There’s no harm on taking risks as long as you’re happy with it. Just be wise with your judgement and take responsibility of your own actions. Thanks for this awesome post Jessica! Great insights how to avoid work-related regrets, am sure anyone can easily relate with these. Keep your posts coming!

  9. Jrandom42

    “Nobody lay on their deathbed, wishing they’d spent more time at the offfice”

    Most recently attributed to former Senator Paul Tsongas

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  12. Anonymous

    I think the best advice ever came from my father as he saw me giving up too much of myself for a college boyfriend. Some of this may sound sexist, so I apologize in advance to those who find it either insulting or out-of-date:
    1 – “Men don’t change.” Obviously, he saw things in this boyfriend that were not great, and he assumed I thought the guy would change. Maybe I did, since I hung on to this relationship, off and on, for an additional 11 years! But, Dad was so right; the guy never changed, and neither did I. We both ended up getting married in 1985, to other people. Good advice, but I think I could change it to “People don’t change.” I think women are at times more flexible, or they learn some lessons more readily and put the results into work sooner, but really, people don’t make revolutionary changes in their character.
    2 – (This one will REALLY sound sexist in today’s world.) “Your boyfriend will always tell you that you look great (or fine) with no makeup and your hair just pulled back, or natural. Then when they break up with you they go to the woman who looks great and put together.” I am not sure that this was correct, especially since there was not a lot of experience to draw on with it. However, that “boyfriend” said those things to me, and he and I never really got it together as a couple. My husband DID think I looked great with no makeup and in anything, and he never took another look past me.

    You didn’t ask for difficult advice, but I have some of that, too. My husband passed away almost 9 years ago, very young, from cancer. At the time my step grandmother, who buried two husbands, said to me “Life goes on.” For about 3 years I hated her for saying that to me, for about 5 years I think I understood exactly what she was trying to tell me to do – pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and put one foot in front of the other, which is what I think I did. But, recently I read something from a writer who said that the problem he had with that sentiment is that life doesn’t go on, death does. And, that makes sense to me too; every single day I think about my husband and our life together, and the fact that he is gone goes on for me daily.

    I will just close this long and sorry tale with the lesson I needed to learn from it all on my own – I will never put work before a loved one again, ever. Life’s just too short.

  13. Silvia T.

    I read your article with very much interest.I liked it very much.I find myself in two categories: in the first category I find myself in the “Divide your life into chapters” category of David’s Brooks project(I also had 2 crucial moments that changed my life in a better one ).In the second I find myself in the “Do what you want”(that’s my motto).The best advice that I received it was from my dad: when I was eighteen I wanted to leave my country and work in another country.He told me that if I will go far away from my land my soul will be sad and I will miss my friends,family and hometown.I listened to it and now I am glad I did cause I couldn’t imagine my life without my friends,familly and my hometown.

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