What kind of life do you want to live? And as age creeps up on you, how do you want to spend the rest of your life?
I recently discovered an intriguing book about adult development, The Ulyssean Adult: Creativity in the Middle & Later Years (1976), by the late John A.B. McLeish, a Canadian education professor. Unfortunately it’s out of print, but if you’re interested in this topic, it’s worth hunting down a copy.
Judging from The Ulyssean Adult, McLeish was not a warm and fuzzy self-help writer. His observations can be sharp-edged and may cause discomfort, as he was not one to pull punches. Take, for example, how he gets to the core concept of his book:
Three common types of adults
McLeish wrote that we tend to encounter older adults who fall into one of three categories:
First is the “older adult to whom life always seems to have happened, rather than he happening to it.” Though typically a decent person, his life has been a series of negatives, as in “don’t rock the boat, don’t step outside the limit, don’t get involved, don’t explore yourself too much, don’t disturb your years with dreams because someday from unfulfilled dreams may come ‘disgust and despair.’” Such individuals, McLeish noted, often “live lives of what Thoreau called ‘quiet desperation.’”
What might have been
The second kind of adult “at least seems to have gone through some attempts at identification of self,” but “there is an air of pathos and defeat” to this individual. Often this person laments the man “he might have been” and sees no chance of becoming anything greater.
Days of yore
The third type of adult “has been consummately successful in his or her chosen field,” but now has “opted out of the ‘creativity game.’” She lives, at best, with a sense of “cheerful resignation and passivity,” and, at worst, with a sense of “despair and frustration” over no longer living an engaged and creative life.
…and then there’s the “Ulyssean adult”
Thankfully, there’s another kind of individual, one who “brings light with him, the light of creativity retained or regained, and the surging joy of human powers confidently held and used.” McLeish called this individual the “Ulyssean adult”:
The title comes, of course, from Ulysses, the adventurer and hero of the early Greek classical world who would have been about 50 when the great series of adventures described in The Odyssey was coming to an end, and perhaps close to 70 when he began his last adventures.
Yikes! McLeish pities the people who fall into the first three categories, without taking into account their life circumstances. Maybe someone made a misstep here or experienced a mishap there. Perhaps some of those lost dreams are due to personal sacrifice, such as caring for a sick child or a family member in need.
Keys to becoming a Ulyssean adult
That said, I do like the idea of the Ulyssean adult. A website devoted to McLeish’s work draws upon a later book, The Challenge of Aging (1983), to identify five factors that nurture the development of a Ulyssean adult:
- Learning, insight and creativity
- Exploration of the self
- Growth and development in the later years
- Meeting change pro-actively
- A zest for living
Easier said than done
Especially if life has dealt you some frustrations, blows, and setbacks, this may seem like an elusive ideal. Life sucks and then you die, right?
However, what other choice do we have? For the vast majority of people, a life of growth, exploration, and zestfulness isn’t simply handed to us. We can either pursue it or opt out.
Gen Yers, this is for you, too
Of course, those most likely to benefit immediately from these insights are those in their 40s or older.
But Gen Yers, take note. This stuff isn’t just for those of a preceding generation (or two or three). If you want to absorb the wisdom of those ahead of you, grab these opportunities to learn from others. As late Boomer, I am deeply appreciative of the lessons shared by folks a generation ahead of me. There’s no reason why you cannot do the same.
…to Ronald Gross, The Independent Scholar’s Handbook (1981, 1993 eds.), for pointing me to McLeish’s book. I’ll have more say about this remarkable book in a later post, but suffice it to say that it’s a classic that keeps on giving. Ron is a defining pioneer in the field of lifelong learning, and his work continues to inform and inspire me.
All too often, we think of work-life balance as (1) work and (2) everything else. That “everything else” includes family and friends, perhaps some socializing or watching television, and attending to necessary chores. (I hasten to add that for many stay-at-home parents, work and everything else may be one in the same!)
Let me add a third pillar to our model, that of avocations and hobbies, which can be sources of considerable satisfaction, especially when work and home bring more stress than balance.
Two summers ago, I wrote in praise of avocations:
I am beginning to believe that our avocations will save us, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines an avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.” That’s a good start, but I want to add a few other qualities that separate avocation from a pure hobby, such as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the broader community.
Let me add similar sentiments for a good hobby, which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.”
A hobby may not result in a tangible something along the lines of many avocations (books, music, art, etc.), and it typically does not break even in terms of monies spent. Nevertheless, it can be a tremendous source of personal satisfaction and a way to build community.
What Google tells us
If my Google searches are any indication (using “work-life balance,” “hobby,” and “avocation”), we link hobbies with the concept of work-life balance much more than we do avocations.
The commentary on work-life balance regards hobbies as healthy release valves for the stressors of work and life. I agree; they allow us to lose ourselves in an enjoyable pastime.
Release valve vs. flow
University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997) (pp. 28-29), urges us to seek states of flow in our lives, those experiences when “heart, will, and mind are on the same page.” In these moments, “what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.”
This is where many avocations enter the picture. They allow people to pursue a meaningful activity resulting in that elusive state of flow — one that may elude them in their working lives. Avocations typically are more than release valves from life’s pressures; rather, they offer our lives a different dimension.
On this blog, I know that I talk a lot about improving work and creating better workplaces. But the reality is that for many, work remains an means to an end, rather than an end in itself. For those who harbor unrealized passions, the avocational route may provide deep satisfaction.
Why this stuff is important
I believe these third places in our lives are going to become ever more significant. They will provide us with outlets for pent-up creativity, some of which we can share with others. They will allow to do, collect, sort, feature, and make things that bring us satisfaction. In sum, they will help to give our lives meaning.
Will our avocations save us? (2010)