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Wisdom We Wish We Had Known

My Four Pieces of Advice for Wonderful Life

Illustration of bits of wisdom to illuminate your way.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

When I asked my readers on Facebook what advice they would like to have given to their younger selves, I got an avalanche of great tips. Look at this sampling:

Don’t sweat the small stuff. • Travel more. Admit mistakes. • Try harder at school. • Take your time making decisions. • Experience life before working. • Happiness comes from within. • Come out sooner. • Keep your money separate from your partner’s. • Be easier on yourself. • Believe in yourself. • Don’t stay with anyone who doesn’t respect you as a woman and a person. • Learn to defend yourself—physically, mentally, and emotionally. • Speak up. • Be your authentic self. • You don’t need to be a people pleaser. • Read more books. • Be grateful. • Don’t marry just because he’s the only one that asked you. • Listen to your gut. • And lastly, invest in Apple stock.

I was impressed that so many of you focused on being your authentic selves. And how many of us missed a hot stock! Seriously, I appreciate all of these comments, the collective wisdom they offer, and the generosity shown in sharing your life lessons. Thank you. I love hearing from you.

In my late twenties, I was not at all sure about who I was beyond the fact that I was married with small kids and that I was committed to being a good mother and wife. I assumed I would live out my life like my mother and grandmothers as a stay-at-home mom. I would, like my mother, paint watercolors, be active in the community, and have a garden. But then reality set in. I discovered I didn’t like painting or gardening, and I found that being a 24/7 mom was exhausting and stressful. I knew something was not right in my life but I wasn’t clear what to do. So here are four pieces of advice I would have liked to have been able to tell my young self. 

1. Know thyself.

Illustration of a woman's face hiding behind a flower - know thyself.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

“Know thyself” goes way back to ancient Greece. It was inscribed on the entrance to the oracle at Delphi and also attributed to Socrates. Wise and so basic. But not easy! I got my wake-up call from reading the iconic book, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Friedan prodded us to question and talk about our vague dissatisfactions. “How exactly did we feel about our lives?” “When in recent months had we felt really alive and engaged?” Pondering those questions one night with a group of friends I took a giant step forward to knowing who I was. As David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times, “You can’t know who you are unless you know how to tell a coherent story about yourself. You can know what to do next only if you know what story you are a part of.” That night back in 1964, I began to see myself as part of the story of the changing roles of women. I saw for the first time that I needed to broaden what I was doing beyond childcare. I was more than someone’s mother or wife. I needed to change.

2. Get help.

Getting help when you need it is one of the key secrets to living a long and happy life and my second piece of advice to my younger self. Many Americans have trouble asking for help. Too many of us still cling to the lone ranger model of a successful adult. Getting help is seen as admitting failure. That outdated notion fails to recognize the value of community, mentorship, or old-fashioned support from someone who cares.

Illustration of a man walking precariously along a wall's edge - it's okay to ask for help.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

My young self believed that since I had a college education, clearly I didn’t need any help from anyone. Once I did understand that I needed to change, it was easier for me to consider that, just maybe, it might be useful to get some counseling. I was lucky to have a minister who was wise and available to counsel. He provided me with much-needed advice about how to stop my 3-year-old son from biting other children. But so much more! He empowered me to find my own, unique way. I did not have to follow the same life plan as my mother and my grandmothers— and it would be fine.


When we moved to a new state, I continued my learning with a therapist who worked from a Jungian perspective. This time it wasn’t such a big deal for me to ask for help. I realized that the best way for me to learn about myself was talking with a wise and trusted person. Again, such good fortune to find a “just right” person to open my eyes to alternative paths. After some months, I had found my vocational direction – I wanted to go to social work school and become a psychotherapist myself. I did just that and I have kept on opening doors to new pathways. In my forties, I went back to school to study organizations and social psychology. “None of it promises to be easy,” Olga Harrison of Odessa, Tx. would tell her young self, “Push through until they can’t say no.” I worked full time and went to school at night for about five years. By age 50, I had a brand new Ph.D.

3. Happiness comes from being your authentic self.

My third piece of advice was cited in various ways by my sage Facebook friends: Happiness depends on being your authentic self. It comes from within. Ankur R. Thankor, a Facebook follower who lives in India, says he would assure his younger self, “It’s good to be you.” As I grew up I always thought my happiness depended on events in my life. It was the presents at Christmas, having friends, fun experiences, doing well in school. As I grew older, I assumed happiness came from accepting the conventional wisdom about women’s roles and taking the usual life pathways. I was wrong.

Illustration of a young man standing out from the crowd - being your authentic self.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

Conventional pathways do not work for us all. I thought I would be a better mother when I had a job I loved and that was true. This was a big leap for me because back in the 1960s working was not the usual path for women who could afford to stay home. When I told my mother I was going to social work school, she said, “Now why on earth would you want to do that?” I had been at home for nine years and I needed to get a job. I wanted to be out in the workforce. Luckily I had a supportive husband and reliable help for the kids was available. For me, it was the right time to get trained for a profession. I could “Go for it!” as Calvin Wulf of Colorado Springs says he would encourage his younger self.

Lastly, here is a fourth piece of advice that I wish I could have told myself when I was in my fifties and beginning to worry about aging.

4. Stop dreading growing older because much has changed about aging. There’s still time to become the person you want to be.

Illustration of a person standing before windows of possibilities - there's still time to become the person you want to be.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

Observing the later years of my grandparents’ lives, I concluded that aging was all about decline and loss. But I was oh-so-wrong. Most people in their 70s and 80s are living active and pain-free lives. Life expectancy is now 79 compared to 65 back in 1934 when I was born. Few of us have caught up with the reality of how aging has changed thanks to modern medicine and new understandings of the plasticity of the aging brain. The big question is, “What shall I do with the additional years so they will be meaningful and purposeful?” If you need convincing that older people are mostly happy, take a look at several confirming studies. Researchers like Laura Carstensen at Stanford, David Blanchflower of Dartmouth, and Robert Waldinger and the Harvard Longitudinal Study are unearthing the truth about aging today.

If you are a young person or an older person reading this, know that aging is about growth, ongoing development, and unexpected happiness. It is about becoming the person you have always wanted to be.

Now enjoy the paperback edition of Eightysomethings!

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