Lessons from 50,000 Years of Experience

Accountability Books Contribution


Key point: What if you had a chance to sit down with your grandparents and have a rich, personal conversation about the lessons they wanted to share with you regarding their careers? And what if your grandparents magically had the combined wisdom of 50,000 years of working? What would you do with that wisdom? Would you act differently? Well if you read Karl Pillemer’s 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, it may not be as intimate as that visit with your grandparents, but it is a very compelling substitute. 

For five years, Cornell professor Karl Pillemer interviewed the savviest seniors he could find, more than 1,000 of them, and from this material distilled 30 powerful life lessons. (And since I now qualify as a senior, I think this is a brilliant exercise). The book includes a distinct chapter on career advice based on the wisdom generated from his subjects’ 50,000 years of work experience. The following are what Pillemer calls the “refrigerator list” of the five lessons siphoned from all that experience.

  1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones.
  2. Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy.
  3. Make the most of a bad job.
  4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind.
  5. Everyone needs autonomy.

Character move:

All of the above are complimented by leading research on motivation, leadership, happiness, etc. that I have referred to in many previous blogs. It is reassuring that sage advice and science intersect in a mutually supportive way. The following are key actions that correspond to and reinforce the refrigerator list.

  1. Focus on contribution and value; compensation follows along in a way that usually works. Remember the benefit of intersecting what you are good at, like to do, and the value an organization needs. You are accountable to connect all three areas.
  2. Happiness at work most often is related to being valued by others and doing a job (even lousy ones) exceptionally well. Excellence has its rewards. Expect to find happiness at work related to a growth mind set along with the 3-way intersection defined in No. 1 above.
  3. All of us will at one time or another have jobs (or tasks within jobs) that just plain suck. The only way out is to add defined value to the job. Often when you give your best, the “exit” from a lousy job finds you. Sometimes that bad job is the reference you need to fully appreciate the great ones.
  4. Remember that emotional intelligence (EI) balances judgment, self-awareness and empathy. When you realize EI trumps every other intelligence it is the great career leveler. Organizations are filled with high IQ people that find it difficult to connect with others. They are smart but just struggle to leverage their brain into relationship effectiveness. Developing a high Emotional Quotient (EQ) is as accessible to you as anyone. Go work on it! By the way, applying The Character Triangle reinforces EQ development!
  5. The one thing that is a must for all of us, is to be able to make decisions and have a level of control over what we do. The way we generate happiness and value at work, is through the learning we acquire from taking action and participating in the consequences. The dumbest thing people in management do is suck away autonomy. It is the “choke hold” so often needlessly applied by managers who think everything must go through their personal ring of fire. Fight for autonomy but be humble and keep your ego in check in the process. Bring value and autonomy often emerges.

Listening to the wisest in The Triangle,