What is a “Ulyssean adult,” and how can you become one?

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:

Quiet desperation

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.

Personal responsibility and initiative are good things, but so are empathy and understanding.

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:

  1. Learning, insight and creativity
  2. Exploration of the self
  3. Growth and development in the later years
  4. Meeting change pro-actively
  5. 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.


Related posts

The lessons of nostalgia (2011)

What’s your legacy work? (2011)

Does life begin at 46? (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Hat tip…

…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.

One response

  1. Good points about empathy. There are many reasons why someone might have wound up in those first three categories, and many are NOT “stupid,” “lazy,” or “cowardly.” You never know what obstacles people faced, what burdens they carried, what they gave up out of sacrifice for someone they loved.

    Still, nice inspiration for those of us Of A Certain Age (TM).

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