David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, is undertaking a project he calls “Life Reports.” In late October, Brooks asked his readers over 70 years old to write reports about their lives, focusing on career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge and then to give themselves a grade in each area. Since then he has been publishing some of the reports on his blog and has written several follow-up columns about the project.
The reports make for fascinating, thought-provoking, and emotional reading. Take a few minutes and read as many as you can.
I particularly liked the Life Report of B. Clewly Johnson. In it, he summarized 10 important things he learned along the way.
- Follow your instincts, your intuition. Don’t stay with people who, over time, grow apart from you. Move on. This means do what you think will make you feel okay – even if that makes others feel temporarily not okay.
- Do the kind of work that you love. I spent 32 years with one organization. There were few days when I didn’t look forward to going to work. The company helped me to see the world, meet wonderful people, and achieve heights of professional satisfaction. They also equipped me with the knowledge to run a successful one-man business after I retired.
- Don’t marry too young. I married at 22 and had three children by the time I was 30. The biggest disadvantage was that I spent my 50s trying to live the carefree 20s that I missed – with disastrous results. The biggest advantage is that my older children are barely more than a generation away in age. And my youngest child, now 21, has taught me wonderful things about technology!
- Embrace fear. I moved from South Africa to the UK with my young family, leaving a very good life for a more challenging one. I moved from the UK to the US when I was fifty, with a new wife and a new child. I moved from the US to France when I was fifty-four, divorced and pretty much broke, because I wanted to start a new chapter. I did the same when I was 62, moving from the UK to the US. At the time, these moves meant a leap into the unknown. I regret none of them.
- Love your children. Despite the hard times I’ve put them through, I’ve tried to keep our relationships intact. I’ve concluded that I’m much better at being a father than a husband. I love my children more than life, and I think they love me – most of the time. Also, be generous with your ex-wives, if you have them. Your children will thank you.
- Find a true love. I now find I’m with someone whom I regard as the love of my life. My two wives gave me four wonderful children but, in my own life, lovely women became wives, and then they became mothers. The man/woman magic palls. Unless you’re either very fortunate or very wise, it’s hard to keep that early attraction alive; you become other people. I know I did. I changed, but I failed to adjust my perceptions to changes (or lack of changes) in the other person. I could have been more patient.
- Build a few strong friendships. I have a dozen firm friends around the world. Ironically, all of them are in long marriages. But I’m reminded what Beatle George Harrison’s widow said when asked for the secret of a long marriage: ‘you don’t get divorced’. Can it be that simple?
- Keep fit. I run half-marathons, and box, and climb mountains. I watch my diet. Even so, I have hypertension and high cholesterol. But at my age, I’m not going to give up on good food and fine wines. Life today is, literally, too short.
- Keep trying new things. I read a lot. I’m nuts about foreign movies. I’ve self-published a thriller. I’m writing a memoir, and a book based on my consultancy work. I love to cook and to travel.
- Who knows? There should always be room to learn more…
Reading these Life Reports has inspired me to write my own, even though I am not yet 70. Many of the reports tell of great regrets from risks not taken or opportunities not pursued. Perhaps if we examine our lives more carefully along the way and chose our path more deliberately, fewer of us will have regrets when we are 70.