The Legacy of Wisdom

Erik Erikson was a 20th century psychologist who greatly contributed to our understanding of how humans develop—both socially and psychologically—and how they age.  He was the first to recognize the potential for growth and development throughout our lifespans, even into very old age.

Erickson taught us that the developmental task of old age is reflection—to thoughtfully review and evaluate our lives. The process of reflection not only helps individuals come to terms with their past, but also helps them come to terms with the end of their lives as well. He wrote that the successful outcome of this later life developmental milestone is wisdom—the ultimate gift to one’s self and to others.

In addition, feeling fulfilled and content with how one’s life has evolved is the most valuable legacy a person can leave their loved ones. However, Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell, felt the rich reservoir of older adults’ insight and life experience was largely untapped.

In response to this concern, he launched the Legacy Project in 2004, and began by simply asking study participants “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?” He and his research team systematically gathered the responses of over 1500 elders, “who have lived through extraordinary experiences and historical events.”

People from across the country in their 70s and beyond shared their wisdom for living. Their advice ranges from how to be happy on a day-to-day basis, the secrets to a successful marriage, tips on raising children, ways to have a fulfilling career, strategies for dealing with illness and loss, and growing old fearlessly and well.

Pillemer published two books based on the results of this study, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, and 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships and Marriage. In addition, he is still collecting sage advice from seniors via The Legacy Project website. Care to add your story? To find out more, visit:

Reprinted by permission of Money Quotient, NP