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30 Lessons for Living by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D.

30 March 2014

I must admit 30 Lessons for Living has influenced the way I think and the decisions I make. I had read similar articles or books that attempt to reach people with similar advice, but they failed to shape my thought. None of them speak from their experience.

Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor at Cornell spent over five years collecting the information from over a thousand older Americans, age sixty-five and over. The project is called Legacy Project and it is still an ongoing project. He calls these older Americans as the ‘expert’ for various reason, mainly because they have lived their lives. I’m particularly affected the most by the anecdotes from these experts, and that’s what make the book special. Pillemer lets the experts speak for themselves through their direct quotes. The lessons resonate stronger when you hear an 80-year-old woman talk with her own words.

The lessons in this book stretches to a lot of categories like marriage, raising children, career, avoiding regrets, health and so much more. I will share a couple of my favorite lessons to give you an idea of what will you get from the book.

My first favorite lesson is the lesson that has made the experts’ point of view towards life different from young people - Time Is of the Essence. It’s about the awareness of time. We’ve been constantly reminded that life is short and we don’t believe it. Why? Because the number of years left for young people seems infinite, and this is bad.

“Looking at how younger people squander time, they are like members of a desert tribe staring in dismay at our profligate use of water.” (p. 205).

The immediate practice suggested by the experts is for us to number our days. This is done not to frustrate us, but to help us make a smarter choice when we spend our time. And yes, I’m writing this post as a form of utilizing my time better. The awareness that life is short will also affect people view towards friendship. The experts’ advice suggests us to “skip the funerals and see your friends now.” (p. 209).

“What can I do to make her day or his day just a little happier?” (p. 47)

This question pops up in me every morning now. This is from the Lesson for happy marriage: Don’t keep score. According to the experts, a big difference in your relationship can be made even within 5 minutes when you wake up. It’s just 5 minutes! This lesson has a huge impact for me as a newly married man. The economic attitude of calculating 50 percent in and 50 percent out does not work in marriage. Both parties must give 100 percent all the time for a marriage to work.

Some of the lessons are pretty obvious, for example the Lesson for aging well: Act now like you will need your body for a hundred years. You may have found the message for “staying healthy” in other medias easily, or apparently from your parents persistent reminder, and yet you just don’t buy it.

“It’s not dying you should worry about - it’s chronic disease” (p. 143).

I know that you will not change your mind with a single quote. But if you read the book, you will discover real life stories from the experts about the chronic disease they or their relatives suffer from. Understand when you got a chronic disease, it is not only you that will suffer, but everyone around you too. Their stories will make you understand what you will be losing when you have a chronic disease. According to the experts, the effective motivator for staying healthy is “how you are going to live”, not “how long will you live”.

Pillemer ends the book with 10 questions for you to ask the experts in your life. He also explains in depth on how the study was done.

It’s been 2 months since I read this book, and the voices of the experts with their anecdotes are still in my mind. I will definitely revisit the book again for lessons that I can apply now e.g. parenting. I recommend 30 Lessons for Living if you are want a positive change in your life.