I ran across this book, “Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self: Real Words of Wisdom from People Ages 7 to 88,” by Susan O’Malley and it offered me a chance to pause and reflect. In the introduction of the book, O’Malley states:
It’s easy to forget how wise we can be. We resist our internal wisdom due to any number of reasons, such as fear, fatigue, or inconvenience. We race through our hyperactive lives, so busy with the details of day-to-day living that we end up feeling disconnected from ourselves and each other. But what’s great about the 80-year-old self is that no matter how frantic we get, she is always readily available to us. She is present within each of us, reminding us we can be the best version of ourselves, not through some colossal effort at personal reinvention, but simply by slowing down. We just have to take a moment to pay attention and listen.
I started this project because I needed to listen to my 80-year-old self. At the time, I spent sleepless nights wondering, Should I leave my grown-up job with a paycheck and benefits to pursue my artistic passions? This ongoing dream felt terribly irresponsible, scary, and uncharted. But with the rapid illness of my mom, who was only in her 60s at the time, life suddenly felt too short not to take a risk. How would I feel at 80 if I did, or did not, make this choice? Before I had the courage to truly take the leap though, I turned to the words of strangers to help me navigate the way.
O’Malley spent some time asking the following question to ordinary people across San Francisco: “What advice would your eighty-year-old self give you?” She asked young and old people this question and every single time the responses surprised her. Here are some of the answers she collected:
“It will be better than you imagined.” Catherine, 45 years old
“Listen to your mom. Be friendly to people. Don’t pull people’s hair.” Pascal, 8 years old
“Make it up as you go.” Richard, 55 years old
“Don’t ever lie.” Barbara, 50 years old
“Eat well. Exercise. Make hobbies and friends.” Caroline, 71 years old
“Appreciate your body. Especially when it is working.” Larry, 88 years old
“You can’t change anyone except yourself.” Sarah, 50 years old
“Be bad at something. Perfection is overrated.” Margaret, 77 years old
“Love is everywhere. Look for it.” Kit, 83 years old
I pondered these simple, but complicated messages and wondered what advice my 80-year-old self would offer if she was sitting in front of me. In the terrain of midlife, I think my advice would range from philosophical to fun: 1) Be here now; 2) breathe; 3) worry about the right things; 4) laugh more and 5) don’t be afraid to be free. My words, though, carry a hollowness, because I am not certain if I am great at following any of this advice. At the very least, this exercise put things into perspective in a way I hadn’t envisioned before.
When I discover a new book I enjoy, I want to find out more about the author. As I flipped the pages to the end of the book, I discovered a tribute by O’Malley’s best friend, Christina Amini, on the back cover. O’Malley suddenly died at age 38 and this book was her last completed work. In her afterword, Amini says “Susan asks us to pay attention to the moments in our everydays. She reminded us to listen to our biggest and best selves, and to each other.” She ends the book with this: “I keep hearing the words of one of Susan’s pieces, “You are here,” she said, “awake and alive.”
What advice would your 80-year-old self give to you right now? In honor of Susan’s legacy, please let me know in the comments. Thank you.