“Life isn’t a train ride where you choose your destination, pay your fare and settle back for a nap. It’s a cycle ride over uncertain terrain, with you in the driver’s seat, constantly correcting your balance and determining the direction of progress.  It’s difficult, sometimes profoundly painful. But it’s better than napping through life.” 

John W. Gardener, Self-Renewal

Jim Collins’ incredible energy and passionate focus on what makes companies great is compelling, but it’s his quiet conviction that an individual’s greatest period of contribution and creativity starts around age 50, and runs for 25+ years that really caught our attention.

His reasoning is persuasive. By 50, our cumulative adult life experience has (we hope) generated wisdom and judgement, the opportunity to amass resources with which to take greater risk, if desired, and one’s offspring is approaching, if not fully launched, into self-sufficiency. He adds two conditions for this wondrous period of vitality and engagement: that we maintain robust physical health and that we court a passion for self-renewal.

The underpinnings of the physical health bit are summed up beautifully by Chris Crowley and Henry Young in Younger Next Year, namely, engage in moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise 6 days a week for at least 40 minutes a day, and don’t eat junk.  The passion for self-renewal raised a few more questions.  What fuels it?  What are the characteristics of people who engage in self-renewal?

John W. Gardener speaks eloquently on the topic in Self-Renewal.  In his view, renewal is an ongoing process that requires motivation, commitment, conviction and a connection to values that give meaning to our lives.

How?  Primarily, we must resist “hardening of the categories”, or the all-too-common human inclination to rigidity and narrowness in outlook.  In our youth, we tend to embrace new thoughts and ideas, but by our mid-30s, many of us have abandoned any notion of acquiring new skills or attitudes.  The scope and variety of our lives shrink to a few interests and a limited number of relationships.  This sets up a vicious circle.  The less change we encounter, the less resilient we become, the less change we find ourselves able to cope with.   To keep this at bay, we must continually:

  • Discover our full range of abilities.  Often we exploit only a few of our innate talents.  Try different things, develop varied interests, and get out of our ruts.  Our education needn’t end at graduation, especially with resources like Coursera available at the click of a mouse.
  • Deepen our self-knowledge.  Robust mental health rests on a bedrock of objective self-awareness and self-acceptance.  Humans are positive geniuses at avoiding themselves, between watching TV, surfing the Internet, answering email, and stuffing our hectic schedules with activities.  It would behoove us to unplug, disconnect and get acquainted with ourselves from time to time.
  • Take chances.  Fail.  Blow it. Perform badly at something.  What’s the worst thing that can happen?  Because if we aren’t failing, we likely aren’t growing, either.
  • Embrace social relationships. Say yes to invitations.  Don’t be an isolated crank.  We need to rely on others and in turn, have them rely on us.  Other people keep us flexible and push us into new perspectives. Relationships are the key to healthy aging, the New York Times article “A Life Is Lived Longer With Company” suggests, and Dr. George E. Vaillant, a professor and psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School discovered in his longitudinal study (begun in 1938), and described in his book  Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.
  • Find a purpose.   Do something about which we care deeply; something meaningful.  It doesn’t have to be in service of a civic cause, either.  Many of us will do nothing more than work for the health, well being and integrity of our families and that is perfectly fine.  What’s important is that it involves a relationship between ourselves and some larger system of ideas or values, or a relationship involving obligations and rewards.  Meanings in life are both variable and profound, and they change over time.  We don’t get to a point in our lives where we’ve discovered “the meaning of life” and get to keep it, like an object (with all due respect to Monty Python). It changes and evolves.  It renews.
  • Approach life with zest and energy, not cynicism.  Self-renewing people are generally very motivated, and it’s the connection to deeply held values that fuels the motivation.

So here’s to Self-Renewal.  Long may it occupy, inspire and confound us.

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