Perhaps you have been following David Brooks’ series of op-eds in The New York Times. He asked people over 70 to send him “Life Reports” — essays about their own lives and what they’d done poorly and well. No need to wait until we turn 70 to reflect on these “life lessons” and devise our own, especially as we approach the time for New Year’s resolutions.
Formulating lessons are important for all of us who work in the arts, whether as a performer, an administrator, an advocate, or an educator. These lessons are especially important because of the nature of our field — low wages, long hours, competition for jobs, among other obvious challenges.
What can we learn from Brooks and those who submitted “Life Reports?”
Divide your life into chapters: Brooks talks about “the happiest of his correspondents being those that divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases.” He describes these people as those who could see time as “something divisible into chunks” and they could more easily stop and self-appraise. This approach, he says, “gave them more control over their lives.”
How often have we talked to students/teachers/artists who struggle with indecision about their next steps as if it is their final step? If we could only help them to see that through experimenting with one role or another they will build their skills and realize their vision. Chapters, yes. End points, no.
Beware rumination: “The most impressive people were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it, or were grateful for it.”
Can we as artists, arts educators, and administrators become “strategic self-deceivers?” Can we forgive ourselves when the performance, the class, or the board meeting doesn’t go so well? Can we go around the barriers to achieve our ambitious goals?
Lean toward risk: “Many seniors”, Brooks reports, “regret the risks that they didn’t take.”
And how relevant that is to so many organizations, boards, administrators, and artists who don’t understand that to grow we must take on the unknown. How many organizations won’t hire that next person who they know will make all the difference, take on a more ambitious script, or commit to innovation because they are risk averse?
Can we learn from these seniors before we turn 70?
In 2012, let’s pledge to reflect actively on where we are and how we will proceed, forgiving ourselves, moving ahead, and writing new chapters.
The Life Report
Published: October 27, 2011
If you are over 70, I’d like to ask for a gift. I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way. You can write this as a brief essay or divide your life into categories — career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge — and give yourself a grade in each area.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
If you send these life reports to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll write a few columns about them around Thanksgiving and post as many essays as possible online.
I ask for this gift for two reasons.
First, we have few formal moments of self-appraisal in our culture. Occasionally, on a big birthday people will take a step back and try to form a complete picture of their lives, but we have no regular rite of passage prompting them to do so.
More important, these essays will be useful to the young. Young people are educated in many ways, but they are given relatively little help in understanding how a life develops, how careers and families evolve, what are the common mistakes and the common blessings of modern adulthood. These essays will help them benefit from your experience.
The closest things I’ve been able to find to Life Reports of this sort are the essays some colleges ask their alumni to write for their 25th and 50th reunions. For example, I just stumbled across a collection of short autobiographies that the Yale class of 1942 wrote for their 50th reunion. Some of the lives are inspiring, and some are ones you’d want to avoid.
The most common lament in this collection is from people who worked at the same company all their lives and now realize how boring they must seem. These people passively let their lives happen to them. One man described his long, uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded, “Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but it’s a little late now.”
Others regret the risk not taken. One rancher wrote, “The pastoral country and its people of New South Wales and Tasmania are similar to Arizona of fifty years ago, that I recall so fondly. I deeply regret not moving to Australia when I was married there 25 years ago.”
Others wish they had had more intellectual curiosity, or that they weren’t so lazy, or that they had not gotten married so young. Some are strangely passive even in the case of their own character flaws. One chemistry professor wrote, “I am stubborn, cold, selfish, and resentful of being corrected or opposed. I also wish that a course in parenting had been required of all of us at Yale.”
Looking back, many were amazed by the role that chance played in their lives. Others point to the pivotal moment that changed their lives. One man was nationally humiliated when he lost to Charles Van Doren in a television quiz show (Van Doren was cheating). Another had a daughter who developed schizophrenia at 16. Another made his fortune in a moment, inventing a mechanical birdcall. “The way it is shaping up now it will be The Audubon Birdcall that is my legacy, and not much else,” he wrote.
The most exciting essays were written by the energetic, restless people, who took their lives off in new directions midcourse. One man, who was white, trained an all-black unit during World War II, was a director of the pharmaceutical company that developed The Pill, and then served as a judge at an international court at The Hague. “Career-wise, it was a rocky road,” another wrote, “but if diversity is the spice of life, then mine resembled hot Indian curry.” Nobody regretted the life changes they made, even when they failed.
Some felt summoned to do one thing. Their essays ring with passion and conviction. “I have been put on earth to be a painter,” one artist wrote. A scientist writes, “I can think of no career more rewarding and no pursuit more noble.”
After an unexciting business career, one man found total fulfillment teaching others how to build custom fishing rods. Another found it volunteering for the International Crane Foundation, preserving bird habitats.
The men all mention serving in the war, but none go into detail about their war experiences. Many were struck by tragedy: blindness, the suicide of a child, a profound professional catastrophe.
They strike me as less intellectually adventurous than the Yale students of today. They were alarmed by the shift in values they had witnessed during their lifetime. But most were immensely grateful to live in the era that they did. An amazing number cherished their marriages of 43 years or more. And, for almost all, family and friends mattered most.
And they left these essays, offering lessons for the rest of us. I’m hoping you’ll do that, too.