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20/20 hindsight from older Americans – not just for the young, right?

Somewhere along the way, it becomes painfully obvious that youth is indeed wasted on the young.  “If only we’d known then what we know now,” we muse.  We’d have taken that job overseas, dumped that creep sooner, flossed nightly . . . and things would have turned out better.

That’s the idea behind a new book called 30 Lessons for Living:  practical advice on a bunch of topics from more than 1,000 older Americans based on what they flubbed in the course of their lives — and what they got right. All are participants in the ongoing Cornell Legacy Project, directed by gerontologist Karl Pillemer, who put the book together. “Even though people in their seventies, eighties and beyond experience loss and illness, they actually are happier than younger people are,” Pillemer says, explaining the rationale for the book. “There had to be a way to get that wisdom, and distill it, and show young people what older people know about leading the good life and being happy.”

Obviously the learning curve slows as we age, and habits harden. It may be too late to become a better parent or to chase that dream career. But doesn’t it follow that many insights from late life could benefit anyone with the inclination to make course corrections? A chance at some do-overs, at least in theory, before it’s too late. After all kids don’t listen, while in midlife it’s easier to assess which tips ring true, and which we might actually act upon, perhaps with increasing urgency.

Take the advice about travel, which has always been a priority for me and for my partner; it was on serious trips that we forged a family. “Travel is so rewarding that it should take precedence over other things younger people spend money on.” More to the point, perhaps: “Create a bucket list now and start whittling it down.” That's why I’m going down the Grand Canyon with assorted friends and family for my 60th birthday, while my knees can still handle it.  

Common sense is  anodyne, but I found a lot to chew on at the Legacy Project website, especially in the section about how to grow old.  Most found late life to be far better than they’d anticipated, even those who’d been compelled to move to senior communities, where they found new friends and activities.  Hence the consensus that young people worry way too much about getting old.  Surely this advice is even more compelling for those of us further along the road?

The overarching message? Life is short.  Seize the day. The best part of the project? Watching the videos.  I really liked these people, and  the time with them was a treat.