Archive | Aging Ungracefully

Why Coaching Is So Meaningful As We Age

writing coach

writing coachI ran into a student just before lockdown whom I’d worked with a year ago. She was in the office of a local university where I coach PhD students on how to write their dissertations. She was there to pick up her diploma.

When I first met this woman, she’d been trying to write her thesis on and off for a decade. Her original academic advisors had long ago left the building. She was on her own now, with a newly assigned advisor who wasn’t even in her field, and struggling with debt, deadlines and concomitant mental health issues.

“Working with you was transformative,” she told me when we met. “You were the first person to talk to me about my work for more than 15 minutes  in ten years.” She was beaming. The slouching person near tears I’d worked with a year earlier had morphed into a confident and accomplished vision of health.

Coaching as Empowerment
I’ve written before about why I enjoy being a writing coach. Unlike editing, where you basically fix a person’s writing, coaching is about cultivating that ability in the writers themselves.

This support can take all different forms. One client I worked with was an undiagnosed dyslexic. We spent six weeks going over the basic rules of grammer, devoting one entire session to the comma. Another client wanted help crafting essays for his business school applications. The schools wanted him to tell stories about himself, but he’d never written in the first person before and felt uncomfortable.

Most of the people I coach are at some stage of writing their doctoral dissertations. With them, it might be about helping them re-think their introductions so that these provide a roadmap for the entire paper. Or showing them how construct a literature review that won’t bore the reader. Most of the time, it’s simply about asking them a series of questions to help them articulate their core argument in one sentence and why it matters.

As you work together over time, you don’t just help clients with their writing, of course. You help them to feel confident about doing all these things on their own.

Coaching During Lockdown: The Power of Connection

Lockdown has intensified my relationship with the people I coach, especially the students.
Writing a PhD can be a very lonely process. Most of the time, you’re holed up in a library, poring over a bunch of obscure texts and trying to make sense of them. Occasionally, you go visit your advisor for feedback. Their job is to make you feel even worse about your writing. (Here, I paraphrase any number of famous people who’ve been credited for observing that “the politics at universities are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”)

But during lockdown, students are stuck in their bedrooms. They can’t derive comfort from an impending coffee break with their friends or from the shared struggle of looking up and seeing a hundred other people tapping on their keyboards in a library. Worse, most of the feedback from their advisors now arrives via email.

So when I talk to them, it often feels like I’m the first human being they’ve spoken to in ages. This connection is good for them. But it’s also good for me. I’m finding that one of the silver linings of lockdown is how much I’m enjoying my daily, face-to-face connection with students. It’s become a high point in my day.

Giving Back as We Age: Wisdom and Crystallized Intelligence

I wonder  sometimes if I would enjoy my coaching work as much if I were younger. I doubt it. A recent episode of Adam Grant’s fantastic Work Life podcast probed the difference between “fluid intelligence” and “crystallized intelligence.” The former refers to the ability to solve problems in novel situations and tends to peak when you’re young. The latter is the ability to use knowledge acquired through experience, which emerges when you’re older.

I think the reason I’m enjoying coaching so much right now is that it affords me this ability to transfer the knowledge I’ve acquired about writing through 30 plus years of experience. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of her life in a classroom, the rush is no longer so much about how I come across to the students or how I perform. It’s increasingly about what they take away from our interactions.

Research suggests that the difference between older and younger managers is that whereas younger managers are all about self-advancement, older workers are much more other-directed. They are more collaborative, more empathetic and more inclusive. They listen better and delegate more.

I think this is what Jonathan Rauch calls wisdom in his book The Happiness Curve:  Why Life Gets Better After Midlife. Wisdom is not only, or even primarily, about knowledge and expertise. It’s about cultivating a greater ability to focus away from ourselves and towards our community.

Image: Writing by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

Note: This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.

Mourning the Death of a Parent: A Poem

woods

woodsNothing drives home the reality of adulthood quite so clearly as the death of a parent.

My mother passed away last Wednesday. It was her 89th birthday.

Shortly after my father died 11 years ago, a friend sent me the following poem to comfort me during this loss.

Today, in my mother’s honor, I again share that poem with you:

In Blackwater Woods

–          Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blur shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what it its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Image: Woods-Trees-Forest-the edge of by Guangyanggluo via Pixabay

Virtual Volunteering in the Age of the Corona Virus

virtual volunteering

virtual volunteeringIn the wake of the all-consuming Corona virus, there is plenty of advice floating around  for how to keep yourself calm and occupied at home. I personally liked Margaret’s list over on Sixty and Me. In addition to the usual ideas of crafting and exercising at home, she also had some great suggestions like virtual travel, watching Ted Talks, and doing a “life review.”

But there’s another way to occupy your time right now that will also help make you calmer and happier: virtual volunteering. At a time when we’re getting daily reminders to be mindful of the most vulnerable, volunteering on line is not only good for the community, it’s also good for you.

The Value of Volunteering as You Age

There’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that volunteering is good for your physical and mental  health, particularly as you age. As one author wrote long before the Corona virus set in, volunteering – by allowing her a place to deposit her abundant, mid-life energy  – became her personal “chill pill.”

Volunteering also taps into a larger sense of purpose. In his book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch explores the science behind the so-called ” Happiness U-curve.” The U-curve, a statistically robust finding which cuts across countries, shows that life satisfaction falls in our 20s and 30s, hits a nadir in our late 40s, and then increases steadily until our 80s. But that upwards curve, Rauch suggests, is not only the product of greater personal acceptance and expectations-adjusting as we age. It also derives from a greater ability to re-direct our focus away from ourselves and towards our community.

The numbers back this up. As Marc Freedman notes in his book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, fully a third of older adults in the United States already exhibit “purpose beyond the self”  – i.e., they identify, prioritise, and actively pursue goals that are both personally meaningful and contribute to the greater good. That’s 34 million people over the age of 50 who are willing and able to tutor children, clean neighbourhood parks, or work for world peace.

Virtual Mentoring

Obviously, in an age of social distancing, we need to move all of that good spirit and energy online. One of the easiest ways to do that is by becoming a mentor.  The beauty of being a mentor is that you don’t need to work inside a large company – or even a formal hierarchy – to make a difference. All you need is a transferable skill set, a bit of empathy and the ability to help someone breakdown their work, life or education challenges into tractable, bite-sized chunks. Writers, scholars, artists, social workers – not to mention you corporates out there – can and should mentor.

Nor, in this globally connected world, do we need to work or live down the hall or street from our mentees. When I worked at the BBC, I mentored a young journalist via Skype who lived and worked 5,000 miles away from me. I gave this young woman tips for how she might communicate better with her introverted boss. I advised her on stress-management when she got stopped and questioned by her government for having taken photos of a taboo region in the country. We even discussed how she might navigate societal expectations that – as a single, unmarried woman in her early 30s – she was long overdue to have a baby, even though she didn’t feel ready.

Online Campaigning

You can also get involved with online campaigning for a cause you’re passionate about. An American artist friend of mine in London recently launched a Kick-starter campaign to support a beautiful Haggadah collage she was making for the upcoming Passover holiday. Unfortunately, she launched this fundraising drive about a week before Corona virus awareness hit “red” on the dial in the UK and the US. So she abruptly cancelled her own campaign to support a friend in Texas who was raising money to build a safety net for the restaurant workers she was going to need to lay off.

This is also a good time to get involved in political campaigning. It’s sometimes hard to remember that there’s a major set of elections in the US approaching us in November. Going door to door in swing states is ill-advised in the current moment. But there is plenty to be done online to support your political party/candidate. I personally plan to re-direct the volunteering time I normally spend teaching creative writing to children into depolying online tools to mobilise the large and occasionally pivotal swath of Americans voters living abroad.

Ageing  and Wisdom

One of the concepts Rauch talks about in his book about aging and happiness is “wisdom.” His argument is that wisdom is not only, or even primarily, about knowledge and expertise. It’s also about rising about self-interest in order to promote the common good.

I, for one, feel wiser for knowing this. And I can’t wait to spread my wisdom online.

Image: Volunteering Hands via Needpix.com

Authenticity: Life Lessons from my 18 Year-Old

tiger mom

tiger momIt’s a bit of a cliché to say that we learn more from our children than we teach them. I remember a close friend of mine coming to stay with us when her son was about six. They happened to show up on my husband’s birthday. When her son realized this, he produced a dollar from his pocket and gave it to my husband as a gift. It was one of the most touching things I’d ever witnessed. She turned to me and said, “He does a thousand things like this, every day.”

My own son is now 18. Yesterday, he finished his A-Level exams, which are equivalent to your final exams in High School. In a couple of months, he will be heading off to college.

My son has not been the easiest child to parent and we have definitely had our run-ins. He’s still not nice to his sister. And when I ask him to take out the weekly recycling, you’d think that I’d ask him to fill out my annual tax return.

But one thing he has always been is true to himself. From an early age, he would develop an obsession with a given topic and immerse himself in it. As a toddler, it was cars. He was so consumed by automobiles that when he was two, my husband and I abandoned getting him books at the local library. Instead, we took to obtaining those free, used-car supplements they used to give away in newspapers so that he could stay up to date on the latest models from Honda, Chevrolet and Cadillac.

When he was eight, he insisted on dressing up as Tamerlane for Halloween. (You know, the Turkic-Mongol ruler from the 14th century? Not a household term? Wasn’t for  me either. Can’t you just go as Batman like all the other kids?) He also began reading the Game of Throne books long before these were age-appropriate. (Though I blame my husband for that. No, honey, they aren’t quite the same as The Lord of the Rings series. Sorry.)

A few years back, as it came time to think about college, I began – in true Tiger Mom fashion – to harangue him for not doing more extra-curricular activities. British Universities could care less if you’re on the debate team or volunteer at the local homeless shelter. But American Universities eat that sh$% up. And since I knew that he was going to at least contemplate studying in the U.S., I began to entreat him to start thinking more strategically about how we would position himself to an American college audience.

He largely ignored me. Sure, he did a bunch of activities at school. But he never once did anything that didn’t genuinely interest him. Even after all these years, his main hobby remains – wait for it – reading.

“Reading isn’t a hobby!” I would shriek periodically. “You can’t list it on your application! You need to have more leadership roles!” And no, I’m not suggesting you follow my parenting lead. (Although at least I didn’t bribe someone to say that my son rowed crew or that he needed extra time on the SATs.)

I ranted and raved. And he kept on doing his thing. Eventually. I accepted that my trying to control his path in life was really about me trying to manage my own fears and anxieties about myself. So I gave up.

Needless to say, the whole college thing worked out just fine. But he also taught me a valuable lesson in my own life. Round about time that he was applying for college, I was trying to launch my own business. There were plenty of moments along that journey where I was tempted to throw in the towel and just go get a job – any job – that I *could* do. Rather than creating the job for myself that I actually wanted.

Watching my son gave me the courage to take some risks. Which in my case mostly meant creating a career that reflected my whole self, rather than just one part of it.

Which is another way of saying that my son taught me the value of authenticity. He showed me that the best path forward is always to be true to yourself. 

So thanks, pal. I needed that.

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Image: Siberian Tiger Mom with Cub by Mathias Appel via Flickr

 

Lifelong Learning: Cultivating Curiosity as we Age

Continuing Education

Continuing EducationNot long ago, I attended an all-day workshop on PowerPoint. It was designed for people who felt comfortable using the program, but who wanted to take it to the  next level. As I use slides all the time in my new consulting business, I thought it might be a useful skill to hone.

It was.

I’m a big fan of taking classes in adulthood. Since moving to London twelve years ago, I’ve taken classes in everything from public speaking to improvisation to  how to write a business plan. In past lives, I’ve taken classes in freelance writing, beginning Hebrew as well as the  Continuing Ed class to end all Continuing Ed classes: I’m Jewish, You’re Not.)

People go back to school as adults for many different reasons. Often, it’s to pursue a hobby. You try something new (or return to something old.) You meet new people. You collaborate. Above all, you have fun. (I’m currently eyeing a course entitled Actors Singing From West End to Broadway. Bring it on!)

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Continuing Education Adult Education Expo via Wikimedia Commons

Like what you’re reading? Sign up to my “Good Reads for Grownups” newsletter, a monthly round up of books and films I’ve liked, the latest research on aging, and other great resources about the eternal journey of adulthood, plucked from around the web. Subscribe here

How to Live Forever: Book Review

inter-generational learning

inter-generational learningAt first blush, I didn’t think a book entitled  How to Live Forever was for me.  I was expecting a hard sell on a new killer vitamin that would add years to my life…gene therapy that could prevent chronic disease…botox for the brain. That sort of thing.

As with many books, however, the book’s main message is revealed in its sub-title: “The enduring power of connecting the generations.” The author, Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, wants us to understand that we live in an age-segregated society, one where housing, labour markets, education and pensions policy combine to separate the old from the young. This “age apartheid” is not only out of step with current demographic trends, he argues, but down-right counter-productive:  It impedes the happiness of individuals, who benefit enormously from these cross-generational relationships, and it limits progress on a host of social ills.

Read the rest of this post over on the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing blog

Image: Art and Feminism NYC Generations via Wikimedia Commons

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Women and Money: Crowdsourcing Financial Advice

stock market

stock marketI was on Facebook recently when a former colleague who has just started a new job jumped in with a query about investment portfolios.

“I need advice on stock-picking strategies,” she wrote on her wall. “I want to feel more in control of my finances.”

Within minutes, a whole bunch of us who’d worked with her had glommed onto this thread. Turns out, she wasn’t alone. Several of us – seeing the cusp of retirement in the not too distant future – had taken a sudden interest in managing our money more wisely.

At some point several comments in, someone in the thread suggested that if my colleague was able to obtain the answer to this question, she could share it with the rest of us over drinks. (We’d pick up the tab.)

And then someone else had this brilliant idea: Why don’t we make a deal where one of us is put in charge of making these sorts of vital, grown-up decisions for the entire group on a six-month, rotating basis?

And just like that, the “Designated Adult” (DA) Club was born.

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Stock Market Indices by Karsten Reuss via Flickr

Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons to Confront Pain as we Age

back pain

back painOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I went to see a neurologist recently. I suffer from migraines. And while they aren’t nearly as bad as those endured by some of my friends – i.e. I don’t vomit, I’m not light-sensitive, etc. – they aren’t pleasant.

I really should have done this awhile ago. My migraines have been steadily increasing in frequency and intensity for several years now. But you know how it is:  you need to go see your /primary care doctor, get a referral, and then block out the time to actually deal with the problem, rather than just suffering through.

But because I really didn’t want to overdose on Ibuprofen, I finally took the plunge and went to see a specialist. (I also finally broke down and went to see the dentist about a different but equally persistent problem I’ve been having with my teeth.)

If – like me – you’re avoidance-prone where pain is concerned, here are five reasons not to ignore the problem any longer:

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Low back pain via Wikimedia Commons

Life Lessons from Philip Roth: “Believe in Your Own Crap”

Philip Roth

Philip RothI was scrolling through my list of podcasts the other day – listening to podcasts being my latest hobby – when I came across a New Yorker podcast devoted to the late author Philip Roth.

Roth was a very controversial author, and not everybody’s “cuppa” (as my mother is wont to say). While I haven’t liked everything of his that I’ve read, I count American Pastoral among the most awe-inspiring books I’ve ever encountered. (My husband, who has read each and every one of Roth’s books, says When She Was Good is his all-time favorite.)

So I came to this podcast mostly to see if I would learn something about the recently deceased  author that I didn’t already know.

I did. But it was not what I expected. I expected a celebration of Roth by some of his contemporaries and a reflection on his contribution to the canon. There was that, to be sure.

At one point in the podcast, Radio Hour host and New Yorker Editor-in-Chief David Remnick asked Roth a question we should perhaps all ask ourselves as we get older: “What did age give you?”

Initially, Roth answers that age gave him “Patience. Patience to stay with your frustration. The confidence that if you just stay with it, you’ll master it.”  But then he goes on: “Over the years, what you develop is… patience with your own crap. And a belief in your own crap. That if you just stay with it, it will get better.”

Roth is talking about writing, of course. And in many ways he is merely re-stating what writer Anne Lamott famously described as one of two secrets of being a writer:  shitty first drafts. As a writer and writing coach, I wholeheartedly agree. You need to learn how to live with the utter rubbish you put down on the page and believe that somehow, with time, as you work on it a bit more, you will transform it into something better.

But Roth’s insight about what he has learned through time and experience is also applicable to life itself.  As someone who only recently  – 30 years in – figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve often berated myself for not having sorted all of this out much earlier.

But applying Roth’s observation to my own professional journey, I now see that the entire process – every wrong turn, every partial fit  – was all part of learning how to be patient with the “crap.” By which I mean, learning to endure the series of “rough drafts” (read: jobs) that ultimately merged and metamorphosed into my current calling. Which I love.

As the man says, it’s all about trusting the evolutionary and organic process of self-knowledge and self-improvement, being willing to take risks, and then…waiting. (Could I possibly transform this into a pithy strap line to go above my desk, she wonders?)

And with that profound reflection, I wish you all a happy new year.

Image:  Roth photo by Bibliotechque Municipale de Beaune via Flickr

Tips for Adulthood: Five Highlights from The Longevity Forum

new old age

new old ageOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

It’s been a long time since I attended a conference where I found myself looking forward to every single panel. But that was precisely the feeling I had this past Monday, when I attended the launch of The Longevity Forum, the latest organisation to emerge on the UK’s burgeoning ageing scene.

The Longevity Forum takes a two-pronged approach to the demographic realities of a globally ageing population. It is, on the one hand, interested in the potential for current scientific research to extend the lifespan. But it is also focused on the social and behavioural changes needed to adapt to this age of longevity.

The inaugural event to launch the Forum was invitation-only, so this blog shares five interesting ideas I took away:

Read the rest of this post over on the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing blog

Image: Smart Phone Face Man Old Baby via Pixabay