Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt: Still Surprised


In Geeks & Geezers, Bob Thomas and I describe how leadership is typically forged in a crucible, an event or experience that tests and transforms a person. In fact, we are rarely shaped for all time by a single trial or challenge. Rather, we encounter crucibles throughout our lives that try us and change us. World War II was the first of my crucibles, as it was for millions of others, and aging, I suspect, is my last. Now halfway through my ninth decade, I can report that the crucible of age is the most exciting, demanding, curious, frightening, fulfilling, and educational of my life…

There seem to be opposing points of view about aging, both extreme. What I think of as the boomer attitude is represented by a smiling, gray-haired couple, both tanned and fit, dancing the tango or kayaking in the surf, Viagra no doubt coursing through the veins of the happy male. This is the sunny view of aging that a contemporary of mine unequivocally rejected when he said, "Golden years, my ass." The contrasting view is that aging is an endless series of horrors, a kind of geriatric version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In my experience, both are nonsense…

Old age is another of life's many roles, this one imposed on us by the passage of time. It is a role you can't really prepare for. Before you grow old, however, you can find models of successful aging and look to them for some idea of what will come and how to deal with it. When I was a younger man, my closest friend was longtime Hollywood agent Sam Jaffe. Sam, who died in 2000 at the age of 98, was present at the creation of the film industry… But in all the years I knew Sam, I rarely remember him talking about the past. He lived in the present and looked to the future…

No matter how you sugarcoat it, aging forces you to confront the essential tragedy of our species. The good news is we have the capacity for speech and opposable thumbs. The bad news is we are conscious of our own mortality. My usual strategy for dealing with this unsettling reality is not denial but avoidance. I rarely think about death. For that matter, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about aging. Why am I able to do that? Once again, because I'm lucky. I have a rich, rewarding life to focus on and lose myself in. Unlike so many people forced to retire, I have the option of working full-time until I choose not to. Because my workplace is a campus, I spend time almost every day with students young enough to be my grandchildren. They expose me to new words, new ideas, and music that I would never listen to otherwise; they share their passions and occasionally their gripes, and they fill me with hope for the future. I also work hard at keeping well enough to perform the activities that age can erode. I still drive, although I like it less than I once did (the Jaguar was so much more fun than the Lexus). I remain in the world, unlike so many older people who can no longer work and who feel they have been thrown away. There is always something interesting and worthwhile to do, like serving on the search committee for Steve Sample's successor. With mentoring and teaching and books to work on, my daily calendar is as full as it was 30 or 40 years ago…

Someone asked me recently what I would like my legacy to be. There is so much I still want to do, I'm not yet ready to think about a legacy…Moreover, I know that a legacy is something history determines, not the actor. Shakespeare's contemporary John Webster understood this perfectly when he wrote: "Vain the ambition of kings / Who seek by trophies and dead things / To leave a living name behind, / And weave but nets to catch the wind." Whatever else people remember about me, my true legacy will be my children—Kate, John, and Will—and their children, none yet 10 years old, and their children…

In Geeks & Geezers, Bob Thomas and I wrote about neoteny, the zoological term that means "the retention of youthful qualities into adulthood." The most fortunate old people don't lose the curiosity, energy, playfulness, and joy they had when they were young…I take an almost childlike pleasure in each new day. There is always something new to see, to taste, to hear, to learn. I live surrounded with people whom I love and who love me. I have a few regrets—that I wasn't allowed to witness the births of my children and that I once smoked—but too few to poison my days. If I am occasionally grumpier than I used to be, I am also more forgiving. I understand now, as Philo of Alexandria observed two millennia ago, the need to "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

…And every day I remind myself how lucky I have been—to have survived the war, unbroken; to have lived among great minds; to have fulfilling work; to be greatly loved; to thrive with my loving, gorgeous Grace; to have healthy children; and to have lived to see the development of antibiotics, the end of Jim Crow, the defeat of polio, and the birth of the computer age. The actuarial tables tell me I'm nearer the end than the beginning, but nothing is certain. Children look at the world with wonder because everything is new. I see the world with the same wide-eyed wonder because everything is different than it was 25 years ago. Or 50. Or 75. I can't wait to find out what happens next. Every day I look around, and I'm still surprised.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership by Warren Bennis.  Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved.


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