No one under 50 unless accompanied by a senior

Lifelong-Learning-ImageLee Haber remembers watching his grandfather bundle himself up against the Winnipeg winter wind and head out to the library to study. He had decided, deep into retirement, to pursue a degree in economics. He graduated at age 74. “Did it serve what we might call any ‘real purpose’?” Lee asks. “Not really. But that’s not the point.” The point is that “when he was studying for his degree, he was up to something. He had an energy that inspired the rest of the family.”

Lee credits his grandfather in part for the inspiration for Cotuto, an online venture that matches people who want to learn things with people who want to teach things — and by “things” I mean skills that typically fall outside of what’s usually offered by universities or vo-tech schools. (For example, how to make furniture out of found wood, or “meditation for people who can’t meditate.”) These are inspired offerings for curious people, catnip for lifelong learners.

One of most significant findings in health science in the last fifty years is that the human mind is far more plastic and pliable than we thought. Our ability to adapt and grow never stops. Whether the desire to keep moving the deck chairs around diminishes is a different issue. In some older people it does; but then in some young people it does, too. The fact is that most of us, whatever our age, it feels good to be up to something. And if what we’re presently up to isn’t sending power to the grid anymore, it feels good to get up to something else.

Dave Evans, one of the co-founders of Stanford’s popular “Design Your Life” course, often tells of his snaky career trajectory. He started out in biology because of Jacques Cousteau, and he stayed with it even though he didn’t really like it, because “I didn’t think I had permission to not know what I was doing.” He finally made the switch (Turkish proverb: “no matter how far down the wrong road you’ve gone, turn back”) to mechanical engineering, and soon got recruited by Apple. He politely turned the recruiter down, because computers “bored” him. Evans now realizes he broke one of his own bedrock rules on that day. The rule is this: “stay open to latent wonderfulness.”

This is almost the definition of lifelong learning: “stay open to latent wonderfulness.”

That’s the driving spirit of Big Days, too, I believe. There are gaps in our spiritual resume, always. There are more things on the table than we will ever get to try. If anything, the urge to explore our options ought to intensify as the game clock ticks down. I think most of us would pop up like toast in the morning if we fully understood the promise of latent wonderfulness — or at least fully bought in to it.

I gave a little talk about the Big Day concept recently. I explained that for me it was a structured way to combat the million daily distractions that can take over your day and just torpedo it. Afterwards, my ninetysomething friend Sonia came up to me. “For me it’s a bit different,” she said. “For me it’s about making sure I have something in each day.” This is the flip-side OBD. Everyone needs days that are about something. I want a day to be about something so it’s not about everything; Sonia wants a day to be about something so it’s not about nothing.

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