Wisdom//

Thoughts on Turning 70

We all know what matters in life — so why do we wait to act on it?

Next week, on July 15, is my 70th birthday, coming after four months of sheltering in place and more — much more — time than usual for reflection. 

My daughters, my sister and I have spent this time at our family home in L.A., and while cleaning out the garage I came across dozens of old journals and notebooks filled with pages and pages of my thoughts and goals and worries and dreams from my 20s on! 

And as I read back through half a century of notes, I’m struck by four things. First, by how early I knew what really mattered in life. Second, how bad I was at acting on that knowledge. Third, how draining and depleting all my worries and fears were. And fourth, how little those worries and fears turned out to matter. 

Now, with 70 almost here during lockdown, I see how much easier it is at 70 than it was at 30 to live the life I always wanted to live. And that, to me, is the real gift of aging. When you don’t think of death as the end — and I never did — getting older is about liberation. It’s about the non-essentials falling away, about not looking over your shoulder for approval and about not making up scary fantasies about the future. Because I have finally learned, as Montaigne put it, that “there were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened.”

I was one of those children who was born old. I’ve never understood the attitude prevailing in much of the western world, where aging is treated like a disease to avoid — like a party we’re all desperate to be invited to but alarmed the minute we walk through the door. 

As my decades-old notebooks reminded me, I always yearned for the wisdom of old age. It was easier for me, since I come from a culture, after all, that reveres old age. I always loved, for instance, how in Greek monasteries the abbot and the abbottess are referred to as geronda and gerondissa — “old man” and “old woman” — even though they are often just in their 40s or 50s. “Old man” and “old woman” are titles bestowed on them not because of their age, but because of their wisdom and closeness to God. Indeed, aging is associated with wisdom in nearly every spiritual and philosophical tradition.

“Do not fear the aging of the body,” wrote Lao Tzu, “for it is the body’s way of seeking the root.” In The Analects, Confucius depicts the cycle of life as a journey that takes us closer to the divine and to our own hearts. “At 15 I set my heart on learning,” he writes. “At 30 I took my stand. At 40 I came to be free from doubts. At 50 I understood the decree of heaven. At 60 my ear was attuned. At 70 I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line.” 

In Job, we’re told that “wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old.” And remember that Moses was 80 when he led the Israelites out of Egypt! In Hinduism, life, like the seasons, is divided into four. The first is that of a student. The second is about raising a family. The third is the beginning of retreat, and the fourth is complete detachment from worldly things. The paradox of the good life is how to be detached from worldly things while being fully engaged in the world. 

In fact, that’s what I love most about turning 70: being fully engaged building a company around one of the coolest challenges we are facing changing human behavior so that we can lead healthier and more productive and empathetic livesalongside amazing people, many of whom are less than half my age. And doing it with more joy, less stress, less sweating the small stuff, and without being frenetically obsessed with every hourly result.  

What sums it up is moving from struggle to grace — finally recognizing that life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen, and never forgetting that no matter how caught up we are in the world, life is shaped from the inside out. 

And of course, there are the ancient traditions of my own home country. For the Greeks, philosophy wasn’t an academic exercise — it was a manual for daily life. “Practice death daily,” Socrates said. And the Romans would carve “MM,” memento mori — remember death — on statues and trees, not out of morbidity but because death is what gives purpose to life.

The problem with thinking of aging as only a progressive loss is that we lose sight of all that we gain. And if we’re lucky and remain healthy, there’s no reason we can’t continue to build and create. I founded The Huffington Post at 55, and Thrive Global 11 years later at 66. And I’ve never been more eager to keep learning — and unlearning!

On his 89th birthday, Nelson Mandela announced the formation of The Elders, a group made up of leaders from business, politics and nonprofits brought together to solve urgent global problems. “This group derives its strength,” Mandela said in his launch speech, “not from political, economic or military power, but from the independence and integrity of those who are here. They do not have careers to build, elections to win, constituencies to please. They can talk to anyone they please, and are free to follow paths they deem right.” 

This kind of independence and wisdom are of course available to us at any age. But they are so much easier to tap into when we’re liberated from our fears of failure and disapproval. “Courage,” Plato said, “is knowing what is not to be feared.” And that’s what I love about turning 70: knowing what is not to be feared has me feeling more myself than at any other time in my life. Maybe because there is much less time ahead of me than behind me, I don’t squander it on things that don’t matter, living in the shallows and letting life’s mystery pass me by.

As I paged through my old notebooks, I wanted to shout advice at myself across the years — telling the younger me not to worry or doubt so much, or to just go ahead and take that risk. My hope is that we will collectively come to see aging not as something to be avoided but as something to be embraced. And instead of looking at those fearless and wise elders among us and thinking, “I want to be that way when I’m old,” tapping into what is wisest, boldest and most authentic within us and living each day from that place, however young or old we may be.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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