Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University, collected advice from over a thousand older Americans on a range of subjects from marriage to parenting to aging. Older people, he says, have a unique source of knowledge. They have lived their lives and gone through experiences many of us can barely imagine. Their limits have been tested by failure, betrayal, danger, and illness.
Here, distilled from his new book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, are five secrets for making the most of your career:
1. It's better to take home less money, and enjoy what you're doing, than hate your job and live for the weekend. One 77-year-old woman insisted that a job can pay a million dollars a week, but if you're not happy, it's not worth it. "Remember, you have to get up in the morning and do it every day," she said. "And it's for life." Not one retired person, looking back, said it was a good idea to work as hard as you can just so you can make the money to buy whatever you want. Nobody said it was important to compete with your friends to be more successful or buy more things.
2. Don't be afraid to move around and try different jobs. Find out who you are and what you're good at. One retired entrepreneur suggested: Spend some time in your chosen field working for somebody else. Learn as much as you can and decide if it's really what you want. If it's not, then within a year or two, move on—try something else. Many retired workers were initially saddled with dead-end jobs, but they made the effort to search and train for a more fulfilling career. "It may take years," Pillemer admitted, "but we should never give up." We spend too much time working to remain stuck in a job we hate.
3. Make the best of a bad situation. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it's not always on the career path you envisioned. Most retired people, born during the Depression, had plenty of experience doing boring, tedious work. But, they insisted, if you can't have the job you love, then find something worthwhile about the job you have. Those who succeeded were able to take a mundane job and transform it into a learning experience by developing expertise, making contacts, and learning from the best and brightest. You can even learn from sloppy, disgruntled colleagues. They're the ones who show you what not to do.
4. No matter how brilliant you are, you need interpersonal skills. Many people have torpedoed their career because they were rude to colleagues, ignored their boss, or engaged in petty political disputes. As one 72-year-old former engineer said, "Your technical ability is important, but getting along with other people is important too. In the end, most of us are in the people-pleasing business." One key to success is to develop some humility. Take yourself down a peg, and admit that your colleagues sometimes know more than you do. Cooperate with your fellow workers, don't try to bully them into thinking the way you do.
5. Everyone needs some autonomy and the ability to direct their own work load. If you don't have a say in how things work, you feel terrible. You're the underling who complains, "Oh, now they want me to do this, and it's a stupid idea." Looking back, retired people agree that freedom and flexibility are crucial ingredients for a rewarding career. So, in any job, look for ways to take responsibility for results, rather than getting bogged down in process. As one ex-office manager said, "I liked my job because nobody told me what to do." She knew how to get things done. Her bosses trusted her and let her run the place the way she knew how. And everyone was happy.
In the end, you want a job that offers you a positive experience, not one that fills you with dread. Sure, every job has its ups and downs. But as one former businessman said, "If you can't wake up in the morning and want to go to work, you're in the wrong job."
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.