How Much You Can Learn in Five Years

Matured wise woman on a couch with her husband

When I was 30, I was at my low point. Gone was the “I can do anything” arrogance of my youth. All I wanted was a job, a small income and an ounce of self-respect.

It was then that I formulated this very simple perspective shift that I trot out for clients who are making mistakes based on youth or inexperience.

“Think of yourself 5 years ago. What did you know then, compared to now?”

We are the accumulation of all of our experiences, and older is, in fact, usually wiser.

That sentence sets off a whirlwind of thoughts, upon which the client invariably realizes that you can live an entire lifetime in five years.

When I was 25, I was an optimistic screenwriter who had already gotten an agent. I had never been on an online date, but I believed in love because of my parents’ 30 year marriage.

By age 30, my dad had died and I had given up on screenwriting. After 100 dates, I still hadn’t fallen in love. I had never made more than $30K/year.

By 35, I had fallen in love three times. I had written two books and had two websites. I was earning six figures. I was happy for the first time as an adult.

By the time I was 40, I was married, had two kids, owned my own home, and was more successful in helping women than I ever could have imagined.

I’d like to think I’m not done, and neither are you. The point is that we are the accumulation of all of our experiences, and older is, in fact, usually wiser.

I thought of this because of a recent New York Times piece about The Science of Older and Wiser,” which refers to a study which illustrates that “the quality of the information in the older brain is more nuanced. While younger people were faster in tests of cognitive performance, older people showed “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences.”

True personal wisdom involves five elements, said Professor Staudinger, now a life span psychologist and professor at Columbia University. They are self-insight; the ability to demonstrate personal growth; self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history; understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and an awareness of life’s ambiguities.

People who blame others for their unhappiness are unlikely to find the internal resources to make themselves happy. And if you’re unhappy with yourself, you’ll be hard pressed to make any partner happy.

Wisdom in this sense is extremely rare, Professor Staudinger said, and research has shown that it actually declines in the final decades. As a coping strategy, it is better to be positive about life when you are older, she said, and the older people skew that way. They are more likely to look back on their lives and say that the events that occurred were for the best; a wise person would fully acknowledge mistakes and losses, and still try to improve.

True wisdom involves recognizing the negative both within and outside ourselves and trying to learn from it, she said.

Modern definitions of wisdom tend to stress kindness – even if it’s not on the order of Buddha, Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Wisdom is characterized by a “reduction in self-centeredness,” Professor Ardelt said. Wise people try to understand situations from multiple perspectives, not just their own, and they show tolerance as a result.

“There’s evidence that people who rank high in neuroticism are unlikely to be wise,” said Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California. “They see things in a self-centered and negative way and so they fail to benefit emotionally from experience, even though they may be very intelligent.”

As a recovering neurotic, I can vouch for that. People who blame others for their unhappiness are unlikely to find the internal resources to make themselves happy. And if you’re unhappy with yourself, you’ll be hard pressed to make any partner happy.

Wherever you go, there you are.

Your thoughts, below, are appreciated.

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  1. 1

    Well I guess I am a slow learner as I am 35 and have achieved any sort of success. I have gone back to school and hopefully I will have a meaningful, well paying career by the end of it and also be married. I have no prospects now but hopefully in the next 5 years, my life will be successful.

  2. 2

    Testing the comments… Why don’t people comment anymore?

    1. 2.1

      I’ve noticed a big drop in the comments as well since EMK switched to this new website. I have been experiencing many problems both with posting comments, clicking on a specific comment in the sidebar, and then not being taken to it. And not being to jump to a specific comment when it comes to my inbox, etc. etc.

      Also, I am getting burned out on dating advice in general and I’m trying to stay off forums for the love lorn, but I feel like a crack addict sometimes and can’t stay away completely. I’ve noticed that many of the commenters that used to be “regulars” don’t seem to post here any more, or at a much lesser degree. I hope it’s because they have made a strong connection with someone and no longer need advice and not like me, deciding that maybe it’s time to let go of finding “the one” or even “any one”.

      So between technical problem posting and dating burn out, I can see why there would be a drop off in the commenting section.

      1. 2.1.1

        @SE – Like you, I’ve given up on finding a romantic partner.   But like you, I return here often bc I find the discussions interesting and, I suppose, because I must cling to some vestige of hope.     In spite of the romantic pessimism I feel on my own behalf, I hear myself parroting Evan’s advice to friends looking for love.   I hope you will continue to visit this site and comment.     You are clearly a thoughtful, sensitive, engaged person and the blog would be poorer for your absence.
        Regarding this blog entry, I’m not sure how much I’ve learned in any 5 year increment.   I’m 44 and certainly don’t feel any closer to love and marriage than I did at 39 years-old.   If the decades have brought me wisdom, that wisdom has not helped me find a life partner; if anything, it has made it easier for me to accept that perhaps I’m just one of those many, many women who will grow old alone.

      2. 2.1.2

        I’m with you, Sparkling.

        The dream of finding “the one”, or “any one” is over. That bus left the station years ago.

    2. 2.2
      Karmic Equation

      I reported technical problems to EMK a week or so ago and it seemed fixed, for a bit. But has since re-occurred. I tried posting to a few comments yesterday and got error messages, so gave up.

      1. 2.2.1

        Hi Karmic, this just happened to me, and the worst part is, I had just read what you said! Sigh… do we have to now start selecting copy every time we try to comment on the blog? I’ll admit that is more of an enticing option than continually retyping if you have more to say than just two sentences.

        Evan, my favorite blogs and news letters are the one in which you first tell us a personal life lesson story, then you teach us a lesson about life. My bio-chemistry professor just asked me the same question yesterday after class because I was bemoaning the fact that it is going to be like ten years before I’m finally a surgeon, after all the medical school, internships, and residency. He asked me what was I doing ten years ago? I understood his point, ten years ago I would have said “ten years is TOO long to wait to go to med school (^_^)”

        It’s so much easier to look behind you then it is to walk forward that many us of take it for granted and forget to look back and see how far we’ve come.

    3. 2.3

      Not that I was commenting *that much* before but I realized that I comment less since the website has been updated. The main reason is that my favorite commenters comment less frequently. The second reason is that although I love the modern look of the new website I find it less convenient for reading/posting comments.

      (And yes, I’m also getting the “You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down” when I click “Post Comment”. Hilarious!)

      Interestingly the same happened on another website I occasionally comment on. The website was updated, it looks more modern, and yet the forum section became less compelling.

      Anyway what truly matters is the quality of the advice and how thought-provoking blog posts and comments are!

    4. 2.4
      Senior Lady Vibe

      EMK has changed a few things or so it seems to me. Navigating is more difficult… for me, or knowing where things are or when they were posted. But you can still read without commenting here. You can write your own thoughts elsewhere. Nothing stays the same forever. It’s just a different way of doing. The site is still interesting.

  3. 3

    Well I am a slow learner, I am 24 year old so Its good for me.. because I have a small small goals in my life and its really helpful and good for me, So yeah I have to achieve many things, not immediately but definitely…

  4. 4

    Nearly three years ago, I was terribly hurt/humiliated by someone who had strung me along for two years while having a rship with someone else all along. While dealing with that has been terribly painful (have to see this person often), it also led me to read up on lots of rship blogs, understand warning signs I missed, and while I have not been able to meet someone even remotely suitable (this area is the death of healthy, educated women of all ages), I have learned to recognize red flags right away, not emotionally invested too soon, and generally saved myself a world of hurt. I also unloaded a coupla toxic friends that were draining me. I expanded my farm, and since there is no reliable help here, have taught myself to learn to use power tools, build my own buildings, generally becoming super self sufficient. I also started a series of gatherings at my home so that the educated community here has options other than the bar / drug scene. Until I can leave the area, I understand that the pain of what this dude did to me is not going to leave because it is difficult to get away from him and his social circle without completely isolating myself. I have done a lot of work to see what my realistic options are; getting my house assessed, checking the high end rental market, even looking into super early retirement in two years. I have learned that the situation here is one where I was probably doomed from the start, that because of this I was vulnerable to the attentions of a serial cheater, more a matter of area values/demographics and distance rather than my being horribly ugly, undesirable, whatever. In short, even bad things can open up one’s eyes, make one stronger and a better person.

  5. 5

    About the comments: the site seems to have problems with we users of smart phones. I just posted once hit the send button, and the site said I am posting comments too fast. I posted once, am not a very fast typist. Methinks others comments are being treated similarly by the software, program, whatever.

  6. 6
    Dina Strange

    I think as people get older they get burned out. For example, when i was 25 years old, i still had some hopes to meet a guy i like, now that i am 35, it’s really becoming much harder. One thing as you get older you are less able to tolerate things you tolerated when you were younger. Also, you don’t wear rose colored glasses as much, you are able to judge a person faster, physical appearance and instant chemistry become less important and stability and support become number one (don’t know if the same is for men, seems with age they continue seeking chemistry and youth/beauty).

    Overall, i am thankful for my experiences even though so many of them were negative, but i really think that with age you just don’t try as hard. Not sure why…

    But you def. learn with age. And its up to you whether those learned experiences make you bitter or wise.

  7. 7

    Over the last five years what I’ve learned AND am finally putting into practice is to: (1) Live my life in the moment because tomorrow is not promised. (2) Turn relationships that were hurtful or negative into positives by asking myself, “What did I learn from this experience that will help me to be a better person in my next relationship?” (3) Stop looking for happiness from another individual, but to take responsibility for my own happiness. In other words, choosing to lead a happy and fulfilled life in spite of not having a husband or a boyfriend. (4) Take the focus off of not being in a relationship and redirect it towards doing uplifiting and positive activities that involve helping others in need. Example, volunteering feeding the homeless, sponsoring a child overseas, becoming a big sister to a young girl, and working with the blind and visually impaired. In fact, I just did a bike ride (with other riders) through the Napa vineyards on a tandem bike with a visually impaired student. He was SO happy that he was able to experience the wonderful feeling of riding a tandem bicycle for the first time! I had the opportunity to meet lots of friendly people who shared my passion, and I had a fabulous time!

    Engaging in these kinds of activities have made me so happy and content, most of the time I don’t even think about the fact that I am not in a relationship. With that said, I also am aware of the fact that engaging in activities that are meaningful and fulfilling to me, also increases my chances of meeting someone who is also on the same page.

    Humming to the song, “Happy” by Pharrell as I sign off….

  8. 8

    Henriette @2.1.1 “You are clearly a thoughtful, sensitive, engaged person and the blog would be poorer for your absence.”

    Thank you Henriette. I think when my “Hopeful” self posts here, I am a good contributer to this blog, when my “Cynical” self posts here, not so much.

    One reason (and I have many) that I do feel like I should stop reading and contributing to this blog, is I don’t want any of the “hopefuls” to be brought down with my “cynicism”

    The other reason, is reading the comments from the male cynics makes me want to join a convent.

    Mickey – Yeah, I feel like the bus left the station long ago as well, and if there is a great guy out there for me, he’s probably searching for me at the airport anyway.

    The worst thing I have read on this blog, that if you are 35 and older and not married, there is something seriously wrong with you. OK, so I know technically that the author (not EMK, but he referenced her work, & seemed to be in agreement with at least some of her points) only applies that to people who have NEVER been married, but really, I don’t think being twice divorced make me better than a never married. In fact, I don’t thing being married makes someone better than someone who is divorced or never married.

    But I thought to myself, telling a 35+ person that they are seriously defective because of their age and marital status is not only telling them that THEY are defective, but that pretty much their entire dating pool is defective as well. So pretty much most people in my boat (or bus, or whatever) thinks that WE are defectives, searching amongst a sea of defectives trying to find love. I can hear it in some of the questions I get asked, basically interogating me, trying to find out what’s “wrong” with me since I’m single and old. (Just like he is)

    Newsflash ! There is “something wrong” with ALL of us. Young, old, married, divorced, multiple divorces, never married, etc. It’s just a matter of finding someone with a set flaws you can live with and they yours.

  9. 9

    Sparkling said:

    “I think when my “Hopeful” self posts here, I am a good contributor to this blog, when my “Cynical” self posts here, not so much.”

    I wouldn’t necessarily agree. I’ve looked forward to reading your insights, even when we’ve had our disagreements and sparred on this blog (which I enjoy reading as well).

    Always remember, good bad or indifferent, one person’s realism will always be another person’s cynicism.

    Hope that helps.

  10. 10

    The thing that struck me most about this article, Evan, is that…you’ve hit 40??? Because u honestly look about 30. Thanks so much for letting us know that u struggled in some ways when u were younger, but managed to achieve various successes a bit later. That’s v encouraging. I really hope to improve my life over the next few years too.

    @Henriette 2.1.1: I think I read that u wouldn’t be on here for the time being, but just in case u see this, I wanted to say my aunt recently got married, and although I’m not sure of her age, she was around mid-50s. Many of us relatives were SO surprised; it just didn’t seem like it was gonna happen. She always seemed so independent and also didn’t really dress up–just simple clothes, short hair and glasses, little makeup; apart from her trim petite figure she wasn’t conventionallly attractive. Plus since she was religious, she didn’t seek out rships either (no way would she have tried online dating), religious pple tend to trust in ‘God’s plan’ and all that…Then suddenly she announced she was getting married; he’s a divorced man. They’ve been married for about a year now, he’s a bit old-fashioned but a very nice intelligent man who’s financially stable, alot like her actually. They’re happy together.

    I’d guess u’d have a lot better chance at finding an amazing partner than she had. 🙂 Assuming that’s what u want.   Good luck.

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