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Column: Talking to yourself, and other strategies for developing wisdom


Recently I was looking through some of my grandmother’s things and came across her tattered, softcover Bible. As I paged through it, a yellowed newspaper article fell out. It was from a 1966 edition of the Minneapolis Star, written by a certain Dr. Walter C. Alvarez. It was titled “You Can Grow Old Gracefully.”

Nowadays, that sentiment is not very widespread. Growing old has become something to be dreaded, feared, and, if possible, avoided. This is partly rooted in America’s youth-oriented culture, which differs from that of places like Japan or parts of Africa, where older people are seen as repositories of wisdom and authority.

Illustration by Dave Cutler

Still, I liked the headline of Dr. Alvarez’s column, even if the useful advice in his article was limited to exhortations to read widely, be friendly, and try to cultivate an interesting persona in youth and middle age. If you become a good and interesting person when you’re young, he wrote, you will be a good and interesting person when you are old.

My grandmother did, in fact, age gracefully. She never become bitter or isolated or hopeless, even though her husband died – after falling off a ladder – just four years after she cut out that article. For as long as she could manage, she played bridge, went to water aerobics, and worked the crossword puzzle, and she always seemed able to see the humor in things. That she kept that article – in her Bible no less – meant that she must have had some faith that aging gracefully was something she could do.

So do I. I’m now coasting through middle age, ever closer to the time when I am clearly “growing old” – a phrase I prefer in that, unlike “getting old,” it implies that aging is a process in which you can play some part, rather than something that simply happens to you. 

But if Dr. Alvarez was correct that the kind of young person you are, or were, is also the kind of old person you will be, I could be out of luck. I have seldom felt as though I am living gracefully. But I’m not ready to give up yet on becoming a wise older person. Fortunately I have role models, like Bernie Otis, a member of the Rotary Club of Woodland Hills, Calif., and a popular speaker at clubs around those parts. He is 88, has a bad leg, and lives in a senior home. None of that has slowed him down. 

“Life does not stop until you stop living it,” he said when I called him. “And no matter how old you are, or what impairment you have, if you have knowledge about something, if your brain is working, then you have something to contribute to society. You can do things and help people.”

I had gotten a note from Otis about a book he had written titled How to Prepare for Old Age (Without Taking the Fun Out of Life), which mixes his observations with some practical advice about getting older. (And in which, full disclosure, he quotes a few of my Rotarian columns.) Otis spent his career designing hotel restaurants in Las Vegas and still has an active presence on LinkedIn, where he writes about sales and marketing and offers free phone consultations. (He recently helped two former colleagues get jobs working on Apple’s new campus food complex.) He just took a position on the board of the Glendale International Film Festival. Mostly he focuses on giving back from his own store of knowledge and experience. 

“So many people who are living in senior homes are fully capable,” Otis says. “They have knowledge. They have the ability to do things. But they’re not setting any new goals for themselves. They’re not planning anything. Life is about creating opportunities for yourself. If you have knowledge about something, find the people who could use that knowledge. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not doing something that’s helping people. And I’m loving it.”

Otis is describing what psychologist Erik Erikson called “generativity,” which is a sense that you are contributing to society, to the next generation, or to the future. It’s something that becomes important later in life – after we find love, after we find work, after we find our identity and our place in society. Having children is one way we do that, but there are many others, all of which contribute to what psychologists call “eudemonic” well-being. That term refers to the amount of meaning in your life – as opposed to “hedonic” well-being, or the amount of pleasure you feel. 

A talent for that kind of big-picture thinking is one key to aging gracefully, though it can be hard to achieve, let alone maintain. (I suspect Otis may have always had it.) And while there is no precise criteria for what makes a person “wise," other abilities might include recognizing the limits of your own knowledge, being able to see others’ perspectives, seeking out compromise, regulating your emotions, understanding that change is inevitable, and being aware that events may unfold in different ways. Researchers sometimes distinguish between kinds of wisdom – benevolent, philosophical, and practical – but they agree that wisdom is different from intelligence. You can be smart but not wise. 

One universal assumption about wisdom (with apologies to Dr. Alvarez) is that it increases with age. But in fact, this seems to vary by culture. A few years ago, Igor Grossmann, director of the Wisdom and Culture Lab at the University of Waterloo in Canada, conducted a study in which he found that Americans’ ability to reason wisely – including being able to recognize other people’s perspectives, the limits of one’s personal knowledge, and the importance of compromise – does, in fact, grow as they get older. But in Japan it stays about the same, since even young people there are likely to use those strategies.

Grossmann is one of a few scientists researching the boundaries of wisdom. He points out that self-help books about how to become wise are as numerous as those advising how to become happy and healthy, but that none are based on data. 

Now that Grossmann and others are gathering that data, it seems inevitable that more of our assumptions will fall. Another one is that wisdom is a quality, a personality trait, or a state that we arrive at and don’t leave. According to Grossmann, wisdom is best seen as situational. 

“The lay belief about wisdom is that either you have it or you don’t, and that wise people are always wise and the majority of us are not wise,” he says. “But that is not really what happens. What happens is that all of us have some distribution of wisdom from one situation to the next. And there’s great variability. There’s actually more variability within people than between people: You can be super wise and yet vary dramatically from situation A to situation B.”

That’s the bad news: There is no free ride on the wisdom train. But the good news is that Grossmann and others have found ways to increase wise reasoning in a given situation, through “self-distancing" or looking at a situation from an outsider’s perspective. One strategy is to explain that situation to an imaginary 12-year-old. Another is to visualize yourself from a bird’s-eye view. Another is to refer to yourself – out loud – in the third person.

“These strategies make people less self-centered,” Grossmann says. “And they are pretty effective for boosting wisdom – things like talking to yourself in the third person before making an important decision. Ask, ‘What would Frank do?’ instead of, ‘What would I do?’"

Over the next few days, I tried this. Although it felt a little strange at first, it didn’t seem as megalomaniacal as I thought it would. In fact, my thinking was cooler, clearer, more removed. I was surprised how powerful the shift was and how much it felt as though I was watching the person I wanted to be. I became less afraid of things not going my way. I felt more open to whatever might unfold. It became easier to see from others’ point of view.

This wasn’t quite wisdom yet, but I hope it was the beginning of it. Maybe there’s still time for me to grow old a little more gracefully and a little more wisely. 

• Frank Bures is the author of "The Geography of Madness" and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian. His column in the August 2015 issue, “Beyond Belief," was a “notable" selection in The Best American Essays 2016.