The Wonder Years can be great, sure: first loves, long summers, and exclusive panoramic dreams for those with a lifetime runway. The working years, too: solid identity, new family and old friends, freedom to pursue personal goals and professional satisfaction.
Ken Cura of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln doesn’t want you to forget the Wisdom Years. They got their name from the famous psychologist Erik Erickson, who roughly defined them as beginning at the age of 65, often considered the tendency sign for retirement in the United States.
But while Erickson saw the years of wisdom as clouded by twilight—a period of reflection on a life one has lived, and one is ready to filter through the lens of regret or achievement—Kiura and others realized those years were not the end of the road. , like the ramp to others.
Kiewra, a professor of educational psychology at Nebraska State, has spent a large portion of his career studying talent development and the productivity of those who possess it. While teaching a course on creativity and talent development, Ciorah and two of his students, Jessica Walsh and Chris Labbins, considered exploring the wisdom years through a series of interviews with people who made the most of them. With the support of the University’s Center for Transformative Education, they will do just that.
Some of the interviewees—Husker volleyball coach John Cook, broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff—carried out their early passions into their later lives. Others, including a trio known as the Wander Women, decided to radically reorient their lives at the same time that some began considering cooling off.
These in-depth interviews, and the lessons about the team’s later years of wisdom, are detailed in a paper recently published in Educational Psychology Review. Kiewra sat down with Nebraska Today to chat about the importance of lifelong endeavors, the value of following bliss, and the best ways to acknowledge aging without succumbing to it.
How did this study become? What prompted you to interview, as I reported in the paper, “those who eschew traditional retirement and continue to produce meaningful work”?
I’ve conducted a number of talent studies – looking at great talents across all kinds of fields, and especially the roles parents play in developing them. I also did research on what scientists are productive and what makes them so productive. So we were looking for a new entry point.
As I progressed in my career, and in my wisdom years, I was curious as to what I could do as I approached retirement. Do I want to go to the pasture? Or do I want to stay productive? What did others do? What are the productivity success stories during the wisdom years? So that was the impetus to study this.
How did you decide who to interview?
We chose Judy Woodruff, one of the highest-profile personalities in the news world, because one of our co-authors, Jessica Walsh, is interested in journalism. Rich Meyer is perhaps the greatest educational psychologist on the planet. This is my field and Chris Labins’ field, so it was an obvious choice, and I interviewed him for other studies on productive scientists. John Cook: We’re all big fans of Nebraska volleyball, and he’s had a great career. You probably can’t find a more successful coach anywhere to interview, so it was a good and easy choice.
At the time we were drafting the study, we were reading about Nancy Shank, who was a professor and administrator here at the University of Nebraska who had changed careers, moving from the ranks of professor to playwright. And we were really into that, because that was such a stark departure — to quit your day job and go in a completely different, unpaid direction. So it was an important and interesting choice.
Who is better than John Rosenow, who wrote a book about the years of wisdom and who, at the age of 21, founded the Arbor Day Foundation? And it’s local. So it was a great choice.
And the last one actually came from my daughter, who is a committed naturalist and hiker. She knew well three adventurers, known as the Wander Women, who literally quit their jobs, sold their possessions and set out to discover America on foot with these remarkable journeys of thousands of miles across the American wilderness. So we just had to talk to them, and we were so grateful they took the time out on the road to talk to us.
My interviews yielded multiple lessons on how to stay productive and find meaning in later life. What are some lessons that resonate with you in particular?
One is that none of these people wanted to retire. And if they’re going to retire without a citation, they’re going to retire to something not from something. They all realize that you don’t want to stop doing your life’s work and then wonder what’s next.
Another lesson is: follow your bliss. All of these people, throughout their careers, have been doing things they love. Theirs were acts of love, like never going to work in the first place. Whether they stayed or lost their way, they were truly following their bliss. For example, Nancy Shank loved her job at university, but something greater was calling her. She had this desire, this need, this passion for creativity, for writing—to write a play, to write a novel.
So she was someone who was definitely pursuing her bliss. Who better than Rich Meyer to embody this? Years ago, Meyer could have retired from his university position on full pay — and yet continue to work for the same salary. How many of us would do that? But his take is, “Why should I retire? I love what I do. I’m curious about the things I investigate. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”
I don’t think these people live to work. I think they found their work interesting and interesting. Psychologist Howard Gardner is famous for his studies of creative people — outstanding, extraordinary creators — and all of them had this kind of childlike perspective, this childish joy about what they do. This is what I’ve seen over and over again with those we interview: incredible passion, bliss. For them, this was not a job.
Were you surprised by any of what the interviewees said?
Perhaps I wasn’t surprised, since I’d seen this happen among other gifted people I studied, but there was a bit of serendipity, a dash of luck, or the idea of the universe conspiring, if you will, to make something happen. Perhaps the best example of this is Wonder Women, who go to see a financial advisor to chart out the rest of their lives and finances — and are told that in a few years, in their 70s, they can finally retire.
Then they leave that meeting with financial figures and pie charts moving around in their heads. They go to a small coffee shop and there, on the shelf, they discover a book about changing the nature and direction of your life. They open the book, and the first line is, “Quit your job.” What if they don’t go to that coffee shop? What if they don’t see this book? where are they now? Are they still in their self-described moderately satisfactory jobs? Likely as well. Think of all the experiences, all the living, that they might have missed if they had found it or been directed in some way to this book.
It seems that in any case in which I interview someone with talent, there are always one or two intersecting points in their life where, without something happening by chance, almost mysteriously, they may not have gone in a certain direction. I just find that cool. Now, the other part of that, of course, is that people always have opportunities and they always have options. It is the choices they make that will actually define them and the lives they live. The Wander Women could see this book and chose to ignore it. But they didn’t.
American society often seems to focus on youth — how to continue to look and feel young, especially. How do you think this study might contribute to the conversation about youth and aging?
People in all their wisdom years recognized their weaknesses, saying things like, “I’m a little concerned about my memory. I have to hold the handrails now. I’ve had to change up my daily routine and get more sleep and more exercise.” They all recognized the vulnerability of life and aging, but found ways to counteract or reduce it. Meyer, for example, now uses a monthly paper calendar to record appointments and long-term goals, a yellow board to list weekly goals and plans, and sticky notes to indicate what he plans to accomplish that day.
These people were willful and intentional in how they remained productive despite the frailty of old age. And I think there really is a message out there for all of us. Because we all have barriers, whether it’s aging or something else. To be successful, we need to compensate. We need to transcend, transcend, transcend, or transcend our barriers. This is what these people were doing. Despite the physical and mental limitations, they persevered. They were not deterred. They keep producing.
Production can apparently continue in the physical spheres as well. The Wander Women are in their 70s and still hikes of 2,000 miles or more. When asked about their physical limitations, they said, “Maybe you used to run a six-minute mile, and now you’re running a 12-minute mile. Well, so what? Still a 12-minute mile. Where do you want to go. Still healthy. Still fun.” My hunch is that elite former athletes probably feel the same way. Even though their talents have eroded, they can continue to play and enjoy their sport on some level.
How do you think you can apply these lessons to your own life?
I am 68 years old, and I am considering official retirement. But I love what I do, it’s a blessing to me, and I’ll likely continue to write and produce in my retirement years. It’s just that some of that writing is likely to move outside of educational psychology.
Whatever trends and projects I follow, I am inspired and guided by years of wisdom who happily continue to produce at high levels and seem to slow down aging.
Kenneth A. Cura et al., Moving Beyond Achievement: Wisdom Years Stories of Passion, Perseverance, and Productivity, Available here. Educational Psychology Review (2023). DOI: 10.1007/s10648-023-09747-z
the quote: Interviews with Icons Give Lessons on Productivity in the Years of Wisdom (2023, March 30) Retrieved March 30, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-03-icons-yield-lessons-productivity-wisdom. html
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