18 rules for ageing well

Dec 17, 2023
This article has been written by James Gruber, assistant editor at Firstlinks and Morningstar Australia

I recently happened upon a practical and often humorous book about how to age successfully; Rules For Ageing by Roger Rosenblatt, a literary overachiever who’s had success as a Harvard lecturer, newspaper editor and columnist, and is the author of 21 books and six plays.

His book has 58 rules for ageing, of which I’ve picked the best.

  1. It doesn’t matter

“Whatever you think matters – doesn’t. Follow this rule, and it will add decades to your life. It does not matter if you are late, or early; if you are here, or if you are there; if you said it, or did not say it; if you were clever, or if you were stupid; if you are having a bad hair day, or a no hair day; if your boss looks at you cockeyed; if your girlfriend or boyfriend looks at you cockeyed; if you are cockeyed; if you don’t get that promotion, or prize, or house, or if you do. It doesn’t matter.”

I can relate to a few of these examples. For instance, I’ve been a stickler for time for most of my life. It probably came from my parents. Over time, I’ve changed my ways. I’m never deliberately late, it’s just that I don’t have a panic attack if I'm not.

Taken to the extreme, Rosenblatt's rule is nihilistic. Though it’s a good reminder to keep things in perspective.

  1. Nobody is thinking about you

“Yes, I know, you are certain that your friends are becoming your enemies, that your grocer, garbageman, clergyman, sister-in-law, and your dog are all of the opinion that your have put on weight, that you have lost your touch, that you have lost your mind; furthermore, you are convinced that everyone spends two-thirds of every day commenting on your disintegration, denigrating your work, plotting your assassination. I promise you: Nobody is thinking about you. They are thinking about themselves – just like you.”

It's funny how we’re one of eight billion people in this world, yet in our own minds, we’re at the centre of the universe. And everyone else thinks the same way.

I’ve tried to explain this to one of my children, without success. This rule comes with maturity.

  1. Yes you did

“If you have the slightest question as to whether or not you are responsible for a wrongdoing, you are. As soon as you think, “I really didn’t do it” – you did. Come to this conclusion early, act to correct it, and live a lot longer. Don’t come to it at all, never act to correct it, and … how are you feeling?”

Too true. Psychiatrist Scott Peck in his book, The Road Less Traveled, suggests the meaning of life comes from solving problems. If you don’t solve them, they can compound and get worse. That speaks to this rule.

  1. After the age of 30, it is unseemly to blame one’s parents for one’s life

“Make that 25.”

Guilty as charged. You may have noticed that I blamed my parents in response to rule no. 1 above. As Rosenblatt says: stop.

  1. Swine rules

“A swine is not a swan. Over a lifetime, one will encounter several swine – true lowlifes – and one is sometimes tempted to treat them kindly under the theory that, if shown kindness, they will be less swine-like and, perhaps, even reform … this is the sort of optimism that ought to be criminalized. A swine is a swine is a swine.”

I admit to still struggling with this one. I was taught to ‘always see the good in people’, yet life has taught me that this is hard, as Rosenblatt suggests.

  1. Pursue virtue but don’t sweat it

“The pursuit alone is sufficient to establish your qualities, and if you fail once in a while, your guilt will remind you of the right path you didn’t take.”

I like this rule. It suggests trying to do the right thing and if you don’t on occasion, then it’s ok because no one is perfect.

  1. Do not go to your left

“Going to one’s left – or working on going to one’s left – is a basketball term for strengthening one’s weaknesses. A right-handed player will improve his game considerably if he learns to dribble and shoot with his left hand and to move to his left on the court. What is true of basketball, however, is not true for living. In life, if you attempt to compensate for a weakness, you will usually grow weaker. If, on the other hand, (the right one), you keep playing to your strength, people will not notice that you have weaknesses. Of course, you probably do not believe this. You will want to take singing lessons.”

It's probably my favourite rule. Who hasn’t wanted to be the well-rounded renaissance person who’s good at many things? It usually doesn’t end well. Though it may not stop me from taking those singing lessons…

  1. Male and female compatibility rules

“a. She’s right. b. He’s really thinking about nothing. Really.”

As Charlie Munger is famous for saying at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meetings: “I have nothing to add”.

  1. Do not keep company with people who speak of careers

“Not only are such people uninteresting in themselves; they also have no interest in anything. They often form cliques, putatively for social pleasure, actually for self-advancement and self-protection.”

When younger, I remember going to a party with a friend, and it just happened that he was an Oxford University graduate and so were most of the people at this soiree. One came up to me early on and asked the standard: “So what do you do, then?” When I started to talk about my job, he stopped me and said: “No, not boring things like work, I want to know what you do for fun”.

The lesson - that work should never define you - has stuck with me.

  1. Envy no one – ever

As Charlie Munger similarly said: “Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at. There’s a lot of pain and no fun. Why would you want to get on that trolley?”

My experience is that this is a hard rule to stick by.

  1. Believe everyone – always

“I realise that this rule seems to contradict the spirit of so many others. But when one gets down to it, life’s basic choice is either to live cynically or innocently. I would choose innocence.”

As would I. A related theme is whether to live life with optimism, pessimism, or realism. Many would choose realism, though that can easily veer into pessimism. I’d rather lean into optimism.

  1. The unexamined life lasts longer

“A certain amount of self-examination is useful, but even that should be directed toward what to do in a given situation and not at who you are. However full your nights are with self-recrimination, you are probably all right as person (most people are).”

It was Socrates who once said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. As someone who has made introspection an art form, I tend to side with Rosenblatt over Socrates on this one.

  1. No they don’t – and so what?

Rosenblatt creates this rule for people who are over 50, now working for younger bosses, and don’t feel they are getting the respect that they deserve: “Don’t they realize how very special you are, how gifted, how distinguished?” And Rosenblatt’s answer is, “No, they don’t – and so what?” He says while that may bruise your ego, it could be what you need to produce even better work.

  1. Abjure fame but avoid obscurity

“If, instead of seeking fame, you are more interested in simply meriting the approval of peers, the chances are better than you will accomplish this by drawing attention to the things you do rather than to some shimmering persona that you have manufactured for public inspection.”

  1. Fast and steady wins the race

“Steady excellence is one of the hardest things for Americans [and Australians] to recognize because it is the antithesis of newness, revolution, and excitement. Yet those who achieve steady excellence lead contented lives, which are in fact a lot more appreciated than they may know. Excitement is a reasonable standard only for the young, who know what to do with it.”

This rule hit home. I think steadiness with everything in life is a good credo to live by.

  1. Change no more than one-eighth of your life at a time

“The trouble with most people is that when they do decide to change their lives, they tend to think of changing everything all at once. Even if this were possible – it isn’t – it would lead to disaster. When you are certain that it is time to become the novelist, sculptor, or watercolorist, change your shoes. See how the new pair fits … That’s plenty for the moment. In a few years, change your glasses.”

I feel seen. Meanwhile, I’m going to change that pair of shoes.

  1. Never do it for the money

“I mean it.”

  1. The game is played away from the ball

“I used to teach this idea to journalism students to make the point that the more interesting things in the news occur without making a big noise.”

I remember being taught in journalism such things as “if it bleeds, it leads”, and “in news, one Australian dying is equivalent to [insert number] Chinese [or any other people living overseas] lives”. Sad, but true.

This rule extends to markets too. High growth companies whose share prices skyrocket and then crash make all the headlines, though often the best stocks are the ones that are slow and steady achievers.

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