Fall, Projects and The Meaning of Life at Harvard
Gearing Up for La Rentree
My ALI class is pulling back together from across the globe, after a summer spent advancing projects, pulling treaties and courses and podcasts out of hats. Or just travelling to each other’s home and countries. There’s been a lot of fishing and sailing and trips to the music extravaganza in Tanglewood too. Our fall semester is focused on implementation, and last week’s class with professor Frank Hartmann, was aptly named: Implementation - What Am I Trying To Do?
He was inviting us to focus. Homework was to identify and write down a short, clear simple explanation of our ALI projects, along with our top three goals for the next 18 months. Insisting, to a group of serial over-achievers, that self-knowledge and learning to say ‘no’ were at the heart of dialling up on impact. He quoted Lim Siong Guan, a Singaporean leader and professor, claiming that 50% of successful project implementation is about managing oneself. Peter Drucker would agree.
Some of my classmates’ projects are taking off, others are just coming together. The range is as varied as the participants. Two rather archetypal announcements this past week came from Paul Salem and Elayne Whyte. One will save the oceans, the other will use negotation to save… humanity! Paul, inspired by our very first ALI Deep Dive on climate change, has been appointed Chair of the Board of Trustees of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute a non-profit dedicated to saving our seas.
Elayne Whyte, who was Ambassador of Costa Rica to the United Nations and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, has launched a fascinating 4-part study group on The Challenges of Negotiating for Humanity in the 21st century. After a lifetime spent in international negotiations, she’ll explore how to “negotiate effective and innovative agreements addressing the global problems facing humanity today that are of transnational nature and affect humanity as a whole, both current and future generations.”
Humbling stuff. I’m awed by a number of my classmates, whose visions, energies and determined dedication are immense. I’m just trying to write a few things down…
Are you able to list - off the top of your head - your top 3 priorities for the year ahead?
I’m wrestling with at least half a dozen. I buy the idea, but struggle with the implementation. I usually feel I have a few too many things on.
My ALI project definition
Unleash the old. Rebrand ageing as a time of self-actualisation, fulfilment and purpose. Make noise, build awareness, write, and role model a new way of ageing. Explore and share the impacts of embracing a new narrative around the positive impact of ageing on careers, couples, companies and countries.
I’ve spent part of the summer on the Making Noise front. Here’s what I’ve been up to so far:
4-QUARTER LIVES PODCAST: I’ve been recording a new podcast going live October 5th! It will feature experts in all things longevity, ageing, work and love. As well as profiles of role models of new ways of ageing, people redefining what the Third Quarter can look like - including many of my colleagues on the Harvard ALI and STANFORD DCI programmes. I’m excited about this project and hope you will enjoy it, participate in it and give me lots of feedback about it. We’ll hear from Paul and Elayne, above, as well. It’s been a joy to meet and listen to all these people. I love podcasting. A bit like writing, it gives a purpose and a wider impact to all the fascinating conversations one has in life and shares the brilliance of the people who inspire me.
UNIVERSITY MIDLIFE PROGRAMMES: I prepared a report on all the universities around the world now launching new midlife programmes based around the two pioneering programmes at Harvard and Stanford. We’ll be publishing in September and hope to raise the volume on the potential and impact of these sorts of programs - on participants, but also on younger students, faculty and universities themselves. I’m also becoming an Ambassador to evangelise these types of programmes to universities around the world - especially in my home stomping ground of Europe. You’ll be hearing more about this in the months to come.
CORPORATE AGEISM: I wrote a FORBES piece that went viral about the Canadian television newscaster who seemingly got fired for letting her hair go grey during Covid. Called Companies Beware: Grey Hair Rising. Fire the Old(er) at Your Peril. It seems to have hit a nerve. There were certainly many reasons they let Lisa LaFlamme, a star-journalist and 35-year tv veteran go, but the company never expected the huge anti-ageism backlash they got. The guy who fired her is off on ‘leave,’ and other companies, like DOVE and WENDY’s, didn’t hesitate a day before jumping on the name-and-shame bandwagon by creating a #keepthegrey campaign. A harbinger of the swing in public sentiment on ageism? Probably, given the fast-ageing populations around the world. Whether companies will change their ageist ways as quickly will be something I’ll be tracking.
What better way to go back to school than with a couple of life’s big questions being wrestled to the ground with two of Harvard’s more knowledgeable and popular faculty. After a summer full of family, research and writing, fall is predictably likely to sprinkle its autumnal leaves across my life with death, dying and the end of my Harvard year. I felt like I need a bit of expert support to be prepared. A course on Dying Well should help me cope with letting go. Another on The Meaning of Life should inform my ongoing research on how to mindfully design next chapters at midlife.
The first is taught by Harvard Medical School professor Jacob Silverstein. The second by philosophy professor Matthias Risse who I already admired in last term’s Deep Dive on AI and Human Rights. I will, of course, be sharing tidbits and takeaways from both. But here’s a couple of quotes to help us get to grips with the meaning of it all this fall.
It’s reassuring to know that midlife has long been a time of rethinking and re-invention. It isn’t a Boomer invention. Dante, back in 1314, at age 35, wrote The Divine Comedy, already complaining of the confusions and fears of midlife in language that may sound familiar to many of us.
“Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.” Dante
Leo Tolstoy, was in his fifties when he fell into a midlife depression which sucked the energy from his spirit - for several years (most midlifers I work with want a solution and clarity in six months). He wrote about this problematic pivot in a short piece entitled ‘My Confession.’
“The questions were not waiting, and I had to answer them at once; if I did not answer them, I could not live. I felt that what I was standing on had given way, that i had no foundation to stand on, that that which i lived by no longer existed, and that i had nothing to live by…”
But just in case you think this is all starting to sound terribly serious, I’ll throw in a concluding quote from American philosopher Thomas Nagel:
“Many human efforts, particularly those in the service of serious ambitions rather than just comfort and survival, get some of their energy from a sense of importance - a sense that what you are doing is not just important to you, but important in some larger sense: important, period. If we have to give this up, it may threaten to take the wind out of our sails. If life is not real, life is not earnest, and the grave is its goal, perhaps it’s ridiculous to take ourselves so seriously. On the other hand, if we can’t help taking ourselves so seriously, perhaps we just have to put up with being ridiculous. Life may be not only meaningless but absurd.”
So here’s to doing something meaningful, absurd or simply entertaining this fall. My homework helps put the seasonal challenge of extracting oneself from the warm embrace of August to gear up for September into context. My FORBES editor asked me to write a piece about August as the Sunday Night of Summer, a notion I could relate to. Getting ready, going back, rising to the occasion makes me feel like a mutt emerging from the water, shaking off the droplets of BBQs, margaritas and long evening dinners on the terrace. What the French famously refer to as La Rentree. It’s an excuse for almost anything.
Here’s wishing you and yours a good return into the fray. See you again soon in the woods, drinking some elderberry juice.
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Annette Young of French television station France24, has her own opening salvo for September. She’s done a report on the Scottish Parliament efforts to clear the names of the many (mostly) women accused of being witches over two centuries. In these days of false truths and virulent accusations, it may be good to remember that there are moments where humanity as a whole seems to enter into a dark wood, wandering off the straight path…