At an Impasse: Who is the Best Person to Ask for Advice?

At inflection points in life—when graduating from college, in between jobs, in between relationships—we do two things:

1. We engage in some form of soul searching.

The idea is to reflect and reach deep inside ourselves to figure out who we are and who we want to be. We read self-help books and talk to therapists hoping to gain insight and answers.

2. We talk to our closest friends and family.

The assumption is that they know us better than anyone we know and will offer the best advice.

While both self-reflection and guidance from people who know us well is helpful, Cornell University’s Karl Pillemer suggests a different strategy.

If you want access true expertise, Pillemer recommends searching outside of yourself and beyond your immediate circle. Specifically, he recommends seeking out an older person—a much older person – who embodies the “self” you would like to be.

Pillener cautions not to look for someone in the next generation:

You don’t want a 40-year-old if you are 20; you want someone in his or her 80s, 90s, or a centenarian if you can find one.

As Pillemer asks, who better to answer questions about the purpose of life than someone who has been living theirs for a long time? He recommends finding a “maven”—a trusted expert and reliable source of accumulated wisdom.

We know from research that people make better financial and ethical decisions when they are primed to think about their future self. Looking at computer-generated images of their 80-year-old self has been shown to increase responsible behavior. Unfortunately, time travel is not yet available so the next best thing is to speak to someone as close as possible to your imagined future self.

Debating a career in medicine? Find a doctor who loved what she did. Worried about whether you can balance your values with a career in the financial services industry? Find an older person who struck that balance and made it to the end of life without regrets. Planning to work on an undemanding day job so you have the energy to paint/write/act in your spare time? Some very old people did just that.

Yes, times have changed but the hope of living without regret endures. Mavens bring a timeless perspective to contemporary problems. Their insights may help you see the world with fresh eyes.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman