It may seem that times are tough right now, but there is a generation of Americans who had things worse.
“They’ve been through war, poverty, some the Resistance, some the Holocaust,” says Karl Pillemer, a professor of gerontology at Cornell University. “Many of them grew up in extreme poverty.”
Pillemer noticed that older people have higher life satisfaction, a perceived better quality of life, and are better able to regulate their emotions than younger people. He decided to talk to this group about what they had learnt in life. “If we’re living through economic hard times,” he said, “why wouldn’t we want to learn from people who lived through the Great Depression?”
He published the results in “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans,” which came out last month. Twelve hundred people were included in the study, adding up to about 50,000 years of career experience. These are people who remember a time of cleaner air, cleaner water supplies, and closely knit communities, as well as systematic sexism and racism and economic collapse. I spoke to Pillemer on the phone last week, and here are some lessons that emerged from our conversation, about life and work.
1. Do what you love
If you’re in a job that you detest, get out of it. The people Pillemer interviewed had a radical approach, he said. “If you’re not waking up in the morning at least relatively enthusiastic about going to work, you shouldn’t be an extra month in that. That’s because of the preciousness of time.”
2. Do your best
“They argue that, even if it’s McDonald’s, people should learn as much as they can about the field, immerse themselves in the job enthusiastically,” Pillemer says. “So even if you can’t get out right away, you get something out of it. So the second piece of advice is realistic. They say, ‘Look, it’s possible you’ll be stuck in a bad job but how do you make the most of it?’”
3. Emotional intelligence trumps technical skill
Develop interpersonal skills and you’re more likely to get on with people — and get ahead.
4. If at first you don’t succeed, and then again, you don’t succeed … Try something new
“They’re not into this idea of ‘If at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again’ when it comes to work,” Pillemer explains. “They actually think that if you’re exploring work, try something for a couple of years and if it doesn’t work then try something else. It all comes back to your lifetime being extremely precious and making the most of it.”
5. Say ‘Yes!’
“A very strong lesson is the importance of saying ‘Yes’ to things at work. They feel like if people think they can’t do something, they’ll even pass up a promotion because they feel it’s too much work or refuse to be transferred – yet almost always you regret not saying yes. As one man told me say yes unless you have an overwhelmingly compelling reason to say no.”