Reflections at 71: Life Expectancy, Life’s Expectancies and The Seven Biggest Truths I’ve Learned

(updated December 12, 2013)

Where did the time go?

I hate clichés like this, but among the things I’ve learned in my 71 years of lurching around life is that these pithy statements became clichés precisely because they are true. Often profoundly so. Looking through the rear view mirror of my life the past feels like a movie played a triple speed.

For the vast bulk of you who are younger, probably quite a bit younger, than I am, I want to give you an insight: Hardly anyone believes they are really old (by normal chronological standards). Okay, I admit I’m not young — but old? Not me.

The hard-to-believe fact is that I have already outlived the life expectancy of the average person born in 1942 (it was 68). That is really scary. Does this mean I’m on borrowed time? What is my likely expiration date? The news is better than I thought.

According to Understanding Life Expectancy by Mark Stibich (published in 2007 – perhaps it’s even better today), my longevity outlook is better now than the average calculated for all people born in 1942. Because I didn’t die of infectious diseases, car accidents or anything else I am in a smaller class of those born in 1942. All of us who survived to reach the 65 benchmark were told in 2007 that we could expect to live another 18.4 years (so if I hit the average I have 12 years left).

Okay, these are only averages, but I have a decent shot at another decade of living and learning. On the other hand … (I don’t want to think about the other hand).

I hope to learn lots more things in the next decade or so, but just in case, I think it is wise that for posterity I transmit some of the most important things I’ve learned so far. Life expectancy is not just about the length of ones life, but the expectations that define the quality of life. Here are the 7 biggest truths I’ve learned:

  1. SELF-IMPROVEMENT AND PERPETUAL GROWTH. No matter my age, I (along with everyone else) am a work in progress. But the process can be either growth or decay. I choose growth. I also know there will always be a gap between who I am and who I want to be (and who I can be). It is never too late to close that gap.  “One doesn’t have to be sick to get better.”  Every day brings opportunities to improve my life and my character.
  2. INTEGRITY. Understanding and keeping one’s integrity is one of the most critical challenges we all face. Life is full of temptations and distractions that can drive a wedge between our beliefs, words and acts. I’ve learned it’s a lot easier to talk about integrity than to live it. The true test is my willingness to do the right thing even when it costs more than I want to pay. I have a decent batting average, but it’s way below 1,000. Among the seductions is the tendency to “do onto others as they have done onto you.” No matter how I behave, some people will be mean-spirited, dishonest, irresponsible and unkind, but if I fight fire with fire, all I’ll end up with is the ashes of my own integrity.
  3. CHARACTER AND REPUTATION. Both character (who I really am) and reputation (what others think of me) are very important. But, character is more important than reputation (it’s even more important than competence). As Lincoln said: character is the tree, reputation is the shadow. That doesn’t mean reputation is not important. Reputation affects whether  people believe us (credibility) and the opportunities that are presented to us. Some people’s reputation is better than they deserve; others may deserve a better reputation than they have. The point is, we should constantly build and preserve both. Trustworthiness is the essence of character and being trusted is the essence of reputation. It takes years to build up trust and only seconds to destroy it. I must often remind myself that I tend to judge myself by my best intentions and most noble acts, but, in the end, I may be judged by my last worst act.
  4. ATTITUDE SHAPES EVERY EXPERIENCE. I know I can’t always control what will happen to me, but I have a lot to say about what happens in me. As they say, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. There is absolutely no doubt that if I can monitor and manage the way I think about my life — including getting older — I can make the most out of my life. If I view every failure as a practice shot and learn from it I will always fail forward and that is success. My attitudes not only change my life, however, they also can change the lives of people I interact with. I can lift people up, console, comfort and encourage them. I can be a good example or I can be negative and drain them of energy and hope. Attitudes, both good and bad, are contagious.
  5. SUCCESS AND SIGNIFICANCE. I’ve learned that the most critical step in being successful is how we define success. If I define success in small and shallow terms like winning a particular event or making money or earning some modicum of fame I will be limited by my small ambitions. Winning is more than coming in first. First, of all, there is no real victory without honor. Second there is no real victory unless what I’ve achieved is significant. The ultimate measure of success is whether I have lived my life well. To do that I need to remind myself what I hope people will say about me after I die and live backwards to earn that eulogy. I know that real success is being significant. Being worthy of the trust, pride, respect and appreciation of others — both strangers and those close to us — is the best life purpose I know.
  6. BEING GOOD AND WISE DOESN’T COME NATURALLY. I believe that the quality of my life, and the lives of those I touch, will be determined by my ability to consistently adopt and live according to four key mindsets: 1) positivity (including optimism, enthusiasm, hopefulness and cheerfulness), 2) kindness, 3) gratitude and 4) forgiveness. Perhaps some are born with these outlooks or dispositions but I wasn’t. Thus, for me, it takes continuous and a conscientious effort to be positive, kind, grateful and forgiving, but when I do so it ALWAYS pays off for me and those around me.  Nelson Mandela, to me one of the great men of our era, clearly chose to be forgiving. He felt anger and resentment and a desire for revenge but he responded to his better angels and willed himself toward reconciliation and banished bitterness.
  7. HAPPINESS. I’ve learned that happiness is a worthy personal goal as long as it isn’t achieved through selfishness or self-indulgence. Happiness is both deeper and more enduring than either pleasure or fun. I’ve learned that what is fun or pleasurable is not always good for me and what is good for me is not always fun or pleasurable.  I think the surest road to happiness is good relationships and that the best way to have good relationships is to be a good person. Finally (and this goes back to positivity and the power of attitude), I’ve adopted Abraham Lincoln’s insight: I will be as as happy as I’m willing to be. When good things end I am better off smiling because it happened than crying because it’s over.

I’ve also learned that sustaining a nonprofit organization like the Josephson Institute requires the help of a lot of people like you. Please increase the Institute’s life expectancy by making a donation here. (If you want a report on our success this year and reasons to give, please see this message I wrote.)

NEW NOTE: COST-FREE WAY TO HELP. My friends and family on this personal FB know that the Josephson Institute (my life’s work since 1987) is really struggling this year. A few of you have made donations and I am grateful. I hope more of you will but there is another way you can help without depleting your wallet. The Institute’s creative director, Tony Baer, came up with a great way everyone can help. Think of the possibilities if you and some of your friends post the following message (or your own version) 2-3 times before the end of the year? It would mean a lot to me to know you are willing to spread the word.
“Just want to urge you to learn about and consider making a donation to a very worthy and important organization during this holiday season. Character Counts is a non-profit org that works with schools, sports organizations and even companies and public agencies to help build character in youth and and promote ethics in business and the workplace (see You can donate easily at AND if you like what you see, please spread the word by sharing this post. Thanks!”

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