Monday, November 20, 2006

Do what you love - for a long time

Recently I was waiting for my connecting flight on a business trip to San Francisco, when an elderly man shuffled slowly into the boarding area. I didn't pay any attention to him, until he pulled out a dusty folder with drawings of steel bridges, and I caught a glimpse of his name engraved on the cover. I went over to introduce myself, and sure enough, he was one of my professors from engineering school 30 years ago!

We sat and talked, and I listened with amazement as he described life in his mid-80s - jetting all over the world as a consultant on steel suspension bridges, and flying to San Francisco this day to work on earthquake modifications for the Golden Gate bridge. As we spoke, he pulled out a picture of a man climbing precariously to the top of the highest cable of the bridge, and when I asked who that was, he said matter of factly, "Me, two years ago. I wanted to inspect the cables, and they let me go right up there."

It turns out that this man - who to this day, has never used a computer (as I tapped away on my laptop in-flight, he asked, "You say you put words in that thing?") - has been awarded some of the highest honors of the engineering profession, at an age where many of us would be playing shuffleboard in a retirement home. That, to me, is the epitome of a great life - to have a purpose, and enjoy doing it so much that your age becomes irrelevant.

My old professor is far from alone here. As I write this, I am listening to Al Jarreau scat-singing at 100 miles an hour on his album "Accentuate the Positive”, which he recorded well into his seventh decade. Peter Drucker wrote best-selling books and held court with business leaders well into his 90s. And I remember motivational speaker Norman Vincent Peale still packing them in at stadiums not long before he passed away peacefully in his sleep, on Christmas Eve, at age 95.

For those of us who are gifted with a long life, I have always felt that the road to happiness lies in what you are passionate about in the present moment. Even though it isn't unusual for me to put in 50-60 hour work weeks nowadays, I feel like I am already retired at age 51, in the sense that I am doing what I hope to do for as long as life and good health permit - writing, speaking, and waking up every morning with the same beautiful woman I met when I was 18. May we all find our own personal equivalent of that view from the top of the Golden Gate bridge, that carries us for the rest of our lives.