There was a time when I thought it would be a major accomplishment to turn 30. So getting twice as far in chronology is no mean feat. Early in my journalistic career, I tangled with mobsters, politicians and union leaders on the South Side of Chicago. In the interim, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people and written thousands of pieces. Here are six life lessons I’ve learned turning 60:
1. Some things take a long time to gestate. I suppose, like a lot of my contemporaries, I’m increasingly focused on events that happened 40 years ago. I’ve discovered that time is the best fabric for knitting a better story.
Case in point: About 40 years ago, I was immersed in the massive layoffs in the steel and auto industry as a business/labor reporter in Chicago. I saw tens of thousands of workers lose their livelihoods and wrote more than 200 articles on one steel mill alone (Wisconsin Steel). My reporting later was noted in David Garrow’s current bestseller Rising Star, the biography of Barack Obama. So I was humbly writing the first draft of history, but didn’t think of it at the time.
I will never forget those men and women. But only now, within the context of time, can I see a better way to tell their story (as a future book). I think this is one of the greatest gifts of late middle age: understanding your narrative and those of others – with deep context and nuance.
2. Saving is tremendously important, at any age. I know this is boring thing to say after six decades, but the concept, and execution, of saving is a real lifeline. Early on, I saved money by going to a commuter college and getting my degree in three years while working on the side. My savings allowed me to travel to Europe during college and to start a local magazine after graduation.
Since my journalism career has been a jagged line roughly tracking the stock market, I’ve experienced a lot of income peaks and valleys. So saving aggressively to cover out-of-pocket medical costs has helped enormously. That was especially true in 2009 when my income dropped 90 percent due to losing a column in the wake of the 2008 meltdown. At that time, my wife was diagnosed with cancer (and treated), while I had to rebuild my career with two young daughters and a large property-tax bill for my suburban Chicago home.
Most people my age haven’t saved enough for retirement — 78 percent have saved less than $100,000. My advice to people in their 50s and 60s: Max out your 401(k) plan if you have one and take the employer match. If you don’t have a 401(k), open an IRA and keep an emergency cash reserve equal to a year’s worth of salary (if you’re self-employed like me) or six months (if you have a solid job in a steady industry).
Even at this age, time is on your side because of compound interest. The savings math is marvelous and immutable.
3. Your life journey is richer for the people you meet. I’ve been incredibly lucky in this regard. I’ve met, interviewed or heard lecture some of the smartest and most consequential people on the planet. They include eight Nobel Prize winners (in economics), Timothy Leary, Charlton Heston and game changers like Ralph Nader. I’ve also met more than my share of saints and sinners.
One of my favorite moments – being thanked by the legendary Jessica Mitford, author of the classic The American Way of Death – for helping her with some research. In gratitude, she introduced me to my agent.
Always keep in mind that you will meet compassionate, active and engaging souls during your life. Learn from them.
4. Rediscovering your passions is enormously fulfilling. I realized at around 50 that I not only needed to end my estrangement with music (violin, guitar, piano, bass) and performing (I went on hiatus as a part-time professional musician toward the end of the disco era), but wanted to engage with my community in a new way — through music.
When a neighbor invited me to play in an Irish/roots band, I took out my violin and started playing for the first time in about 30 years. Even better, I started singing and enjoyed the hell out of it, even taking up the mandolin and occasional percussion instruments. All told, I played six instruments in our band and enjoyed doing so intensely. But it’s the experience of seeing little souls dancing to our jigs for the first time that’s been the most rewarding.
Know this: It’s not about you, it’s about how you serve others. Do it with passion, if you’re going to do it at all. If you can, dance and sing more or actively create art in some other way and bring it into peoples’ lives.
5. It pays to finish that challenging project, whatever it takes. While researching the 2008 biography I wrote about energy tycoon and Thomas Edison’s right hand man, Sam Insull, The Merchant of Power, I found a letter in the archives from the great inventor Nikola Tesla. So after finishing Merchant, I started writing a book on Tesla’s work and legacy. In the intervening decade, however, I lost my mother and three friends to cancer; my wife was diagnosed and treated; my agent left the business and had to reboot my career more than once.
I was nevertheless determined to finish the Tesla book. Fortunately, I got lucky when a friend hooked me up with her agent who, in turn, found an excellent publisher. The result was Lightning Strikes: Timeless Lessons in Creativity from the Life and Work of Nikola Tesla. But the book, owing to my turbulent life experience during those intervening years, became more about my parallel journey.
I’ve made a pittance writing and selling books, but I’ve come to believe that the challenges of taking the first steps from idea to execution are the marrow of life. Often, the work you do that fulfills you isn’t about the money. It’s about what you get from the life experience. So ask yourself: What makes you feel most alive? Then pursue it.
6. Tackle something bold. This is an essential lesson for the rest of your life. When I turned 50, I decided to get involved in my community, formed a nonprofit to research sky-high property tax issues, worked with a bipartisan group on tax transparency and drafted a state law on tax transparency and appeals that ultimately passed. The remarkable thing about this achievement is that I’m not politically inclined nor connected, I’m not a lawyer or lobbyist and I was working with Illinois politicians.
The first version of our new law stalled because our governor at the time — Rod Blagovich — went to jail, which is hardly unusual in the Prairie State. But the incoming governor, Pat Quinn, then signed it!
While the law hasn’t lowered our stratospheric real estate taxes or changed uber-dysfunctional state politics, it did raise awareness and empowered property owners. That’s a big win in the most fiscally-troubled state in the union.
So my advice to you: Aim big, strive to help your community with compassion and hope for the best. That’s what truly makes our country great.
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