Grow Old on Purpose
We may not want to admit it, but we are all getting older. It happens whether we want it to or not. Two friends have written a book on purposeful aging and growing old in an inspiring, purposeful way.
Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro’s Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? will help you ask provocative questions as you become the person you always were meant to become.
It is a book about how to grow old, with the emphasis on “grow.”
“The path of purposeful aging is a choice to wake up every day with the intention to grow and give.”
Tell us about the background of your book collaboration. How did it start? What’s the idea that started it?
Richard and I have collaborated on six books since 1994, when our first book, Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Good Life was published. So, it really begins back then. The story of this book, though, begins at a rained-out baseball game in Minneapolis, in 2018.
In the summer of 2018, we had spent a couple days together at Richard’s house on the St. Croix River, about an hour from Minneapolis, catching up with each other as we have done every couple of years, and brainstorming about what our next project together might be—discussions that eventually led to this book. Having worked hard for 48 hours and as a way to connect over a shared experience at the end of our time together, before Dave would fly back that evening to Seattle, we were treating ourselves to a Twins game. Richard had used his connections in and around the Twin Cities to get us some fantastic seats—front row, field level, right by third base. We arrived at the park a good half-hour before the first pitch, got ourselves some refreshments, and settled into our seats, ready to enjoy the game.
But things didn’t go as planned. As soon as the starting pitchers finished their pre-game warmups it began to rain; tarps were brought out to cover the field; the public-address announcer announced that there would be a delay. We looked at each other, shrugged, and figured, what the heck, Midwest weather in the summer; just wait twenty minutes and it will change.
So, we rose from our seats and began to take a walk, under cover, around the concourse of the stadium. There was an exhibit, among the other historical exhibits, about the Twins’ World Series victory in 1987, some thirty years before. It reminded us that we had known each other for even longer than that.
We met in 1986, when Richard came to lead a workshop at a company in Santa Fe, New Mexico where Dave was working at the time. Our old joke is that the content of Richard’s workshop, finding your purpose, was supposed to help employees link their purpose to the company’s mission so they could commit to it and foster greater organization success. Thanks to Richard’s influence, however, Dave discovered his purpose was elsewhere, and within a few months, he and his wife had decamped from Santa Fe to France, where Dave pursued his dream of being an expatriate writer in Paris.
While in Europe, and subsequently, as his aspirations to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t quite pan out and he returned to the States to pursue more traditional forms of employment, Dave stayed in touch with Richard, mainly through that old-fashioned form of communication, the postal letter. This subsequently led him to Minnesota, where, among other things, he and Richard renewed a closer connection, a connection which eventually resulted in our collaboration, as co-writers, on Repacking Your Bags.
In the years that followed, as Dave pursued a graduate degree in Philosophy and later, became a tenured faculty member at a Seattle-area college, and as Richard’s acclaim as a pioneer in the purpose movement grew, our conversation deepened. We wrote several more books together; Richard married Sally, and Dave and his wife, Jennifer, were honored guests at the occasion. Dave and Jen had a daughter, now a young adult; Richard’s children grew up, and he and Sally became grandparents. Life, as they say, has gone on.
As with many longtime friendships, there were fallow periods, when we would go months with little or no communication. Nevertheless, our connection ran deep.
As with baseball, our friendship has had some hits, like our collaboration on Repacking Your Bags, whose success exceeded our wildest expectations and provided the motivation for subsequent works together. There have been, also as in baseball, long stretches where very little happens, but also times of great activity, such as the present time, while working on this book, when we talk or email nearly every day. We’ve supported each other through the loss of parents, friends, and other loved ones, health challenges—our own and our spouses—and also successes: Dave fulfilling a lifelong dream of teaching philosophy to children in India; Richard leading three decades of “Inventure Safaris” in Tanzania, East Africa.
We are old friends; we are both old now, and our friendship is older; and yet, through long conversation, is continually renewed.
What we noticed though, watching the rain come down, soaking the infield and outfield, is that when our culture conceives of something old like a friendship, the older it is, in most cases, the better. Like fine wine, it improves with age. It becomes more valuable, more honored. An old friendship like ours is seen as something special, beautiful, to be treasured.
By contrast, the dominant societal narrative about the old friends themselves is not so positive. By and large, old people are often portrayed by contemporary society as “less than,” as “in the way,” as a drain on society. Getting old is a condition to be avoided at all costs.
So, as we began to formulate our ideas for this book, we started to explore ways to overcome that gap between old as valuable and old as problematic. And, somewhat to our surprise, the rainout at Target Field (the game was eventually called) provided a metaphor for us to draw upon.
In a rainout, the event you expect to happen never happens. The one thing you’re waiting for—the game—never takes place. But at the same time, everything happens. Life, and especially, the opportunity to connect and converse, presents itself ever more clearly.
Aging is much like that. For most of us, the “game,” changes; action on the field plays less of a role in our day-to-day living. Now, it’s more of an inward game. We have the time to be more reflective and contemplative about how we want to play that game for the rest of our lives.
As such, we have a greater freedom than ever before to finally become the person we’ve always felt we were meant to be. That is the singular promise of growing old—that we will experience a freedom in our lives we’ve never before fully experienced.
Above all it’s about unlocking a sense of purpose and growing old in accordance with it.
Richard has identified his own path to growing whole in very simple terms: “To grow and to give.” Growing and giving provide a structure for looking forward toward what Parker Palmer has called “on the brink of everything,” a model that helps us face our mortality as a way to embrace life in our later years.
To grow and to give—now Richard’s stated purpose—has informed the overall structure of this book. Throughout, we look back over lessons learned in the first half of life in order to grow whole. We wonder together about what we wanted to be when we grew up and how that played out. We explore what it means to be somebody and how becoming older has informed our view of what it means to live a good life for our whole lives.
“Admitting “I am old,” does not mean that we accept decline; rather it means we recognize that we’ve moved into the half of our lives that’s beyond external achievement.”
One of the main messages of your book is about recognizing who you are. What techniques have helped people in this journey?
Later life provides us with the opportunity to be the person we’ve always meant to be. Less constrained by societal norms and personal insecurities, we can finally express our true nature. That’s what it means to step onto the path of purposeful aging.
The path of purposeful aging is a choice to wake up every day with the intention to grow and give. Choice is the key. Later life affords us the freedom to choose to become the person we always meant to be. Too many of us live the first half of our lives “by default;” the “choices” we made were typically made for us by societal expectations, custom, and external demands. In later life, no longer constrained by those default choices, we are finally free to choose to become the person we really are, the most complete and authentic expression of our deepest self.
We don’t “find” our purpose, because it’s not something we have to go out and look for; rather it’s something we “unlock” by going inside—by getting to know what we stand for, what we won’t stand for, and who stands with us.
“Every day we’re given to live, every today, offers us the opportunity to choose to make a positive difference in at least one other person’s life.”
Purpose is always something that we love to do and enjoy sharing with others, that we feel passionate and care deeply about, and that we feel fits our values and way we prefer to live and work in the world. Our purpose will always express our true gifts, passions, and values for the sake of others—no exceptions.
The path of purposeful aging involves a growth mindset in which we wake up every day with the attitude that we can continue growing and giving in spite of the adversities of aging.
“Growing old on purpose requires being intentional about both the looking backward and the looking forward.”
How do you cultivate a discovery mindset so that you can experience the first step?
It’s about asking questions—questions that enable us to look within, to review our past and grow from it, and to reimagine our future, at any age. Questions like:
- Old? Who, me?
- If we all end up dying, what’s the purpose of living?
- Aren’t I somebody?
- Am I living the good life my whole life?
- How can I stop living a “default life” and instead live a good life?
- Am I having a late-life crisis?
- Will I earn a passing grade in life?
- How can I grow whole as I grow old?
- How will my music play on?
Exploring these questions, through personal introspection, and in dialogue and conversation with trusted partners enables us to develop the mindset that moves us from merely “getting old” to more authentically “growing old.”
The shift is moving from thinking to doing. Is it common to be stuck in thinking and not shift? What factors inspire people to make this move?
Sometimes we’re pushed by pain; other times, we’re pulled by possibilities. Purposeful aging requires letting go of previously-held assumptions about aging. Often, it requires being impelled by a crisis of some sort—a life crucible—to move us inward. The structure of the first half of life has to fall apart to some degree and show itself to be wanting, or we will not be motivated to grow.
Admitting “I am old,” does not mean that we accept decline; rather it means we recognize that we’ve moved into the half of our lives that’s beyond external achievement. It’s not about slowly dying; it’s about staying alive in ways that allow us to express who we truly are more fully.
In the old half of life, we discover that it’s no longer fulfilling to find meaning in simply being outwardly successful or physically appealing. We need a new story, a new language, and new models of what it means to be old. Embracing this story, seeing aging as a unique opportunity for growth and wholeness, is what purposeful aging is all about.
“Most of us have spent our entire adult lives working on the “what” we wanted to be; later life is the time to devote ourselves to the “who” we want to become.”
For more information, see Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?
Photo Credit: Rod Long