Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
About six months ago, as I walked into church I was warmly greeted by my two neighbors, Betsy and Howard Nielson. The two warmly shook my hand, gave me a weekly bulletin, and smiled as they politely moved to the people standing behind me. This charming pair in their late 60s had been appointed to the newly-created position of “greeters.” Each Sunday it would be their job to stand at the chapel door, smile, hand out church bulletins, and make small talk.
By profession, Howard had been a chemistry professor and Betsy a lawyer. Both had been retired for about five years. When I first met the two at a neighborhood gathering I discovered they lived in the Bay Area in the early 70s at the same time I had been stationed there in the Coast Guard. As we shared memories of the area and era, the conversation somehow turned to the marvelous regional theater. I enthusiastically explained that one of the highlights of my stay in California had been a local theater competition I had attended. The theme had been “One, Two, Three” and one of the ten-minute skits that competed was aptly re-titled “One-tooth Ree.” As you’ve probably guessed, it was about a poor fellow named Ree who had but one tooth and the challenges he faced trying to find a girlfriend. The music, lyrics, script, and staging were delightful and I gushed over its creativity.
“One-tooth-Ree!” Howard exclaimed. “Why Betsy wrote the play, the music, and the lyrics. I did the costuming, sets, and staging.” Then the two began singing the theme song as I stood there with my mouth agape. Somehow, after thirty years of moving about the country, I had run into the people who produced my favorite mini-musical of all time. The three of us laughed about the coincidence and I marveled that a chemist and lawyer had crafted such an incredible production. Both were modest in their response and eventually went on to talk about their other surprise talents—the books she had written and the photo contests he had won.
“Actually I’ve written quite a lot,” Betsy enthused, “but over the past few years nobody has asked me about my work.”
From there the conversation turned to the fact that aging, along with its physical challenges, was putting them out to pasture despite the fact that they still wanted to be yoked. It turns out both Betsy and Howard had been (in their own words) “given the bum’s rush” into retirement. And now within their own parish, two vibrant parishioners who had once run the church’s charity drives and led the youth camping programs had been politely released from their volunteer jobs and appointed “greeters.”
“It’s a token job,” Betsy explained with a sad smile. “You can’t exactly fire people at church so you make up some position and move them to that.”
“Not that people don’t need to be greeted,” Howard added. “It’s just that we have so much more to offer.”
Since talking with Betsy and Howard that day, I’ve made it a point to converse with each of the retired people in my environs to learn what it’s been like as they moved into their “golden” years. Some have loved the transition to a life of less stress and more free time, some report a hollow feeling they can’t seem to fill, and all allude to the fact that once you reach a certain age (or look), people don’t exactly view you as a cauldron of wisdom. Friends, family, and neighbors don’t seem to care a whit about the photos you shot back in the old days or the books you wrote back when the earth was still cooling, or for that matter, the advice you might want to proffer today.
What must it be like to be bubbling over with ideas and never asked for your point of view? How does it feel to stand on the sidelines and crave to be sent back in the game? “Put me in coach,” you think to yourself. “I can do it!”
But nobody calls.
At some level I understand why today’s senior citizens aren’t always valued for their years of priceless experience. Centuries ago, when people worked in jobs like saddle maker or silver-bowl master, it took years to learn the craft. Consequently, older people were quite likely to know more about how to complete a job than just about anyone. Two hundred years ago, skilled craftsmen remained rock stars right up until the day they died.
But things have changed. Today’s older generation isn’t going to pass on the wisdom of five generations of haberdashery or the finer points of millinery arts. Nowadays, technology moves so fast that almost no form of expertise remains relevant for very long. For instance, my folks learned how to sell radio advertising space and process black-and-white photos, but those fields have long since been replaced with new technologies. Nobody cares much about them any more.
But that doesn’t mean that today’s more senior and experienced citizens don’t still have a lot to offer. I know this is true because I took my cue from the Nielsons and started making it a point to talk to older people—no longer making small talk—but now making big talk. In church, between meetings, and after exchanging greetings, I ask: “What’s the most interesting thing you learned in your career?” or “What advice do you have for me as a new grandparent?” or “What’s the most important book you ever read?”
From there the discussion always turns lively and interesting. It’s like opening the door to a library. For instance, last week when my neighbor George (a retired geologist) stopped by to take a look at our remodeling project, I took him over to the new granite countertops and asked him to teach me about the stone.
“If I were still teaching Geology 101,” George enthused, “I’d bring my students by your place just to look at this! Examining this stone is like reading an ancient manuscript. The granite you see in the field is covered with dirt and even when it’s exposed it’s hard to examine. But when you slice and polish a massive piece like this, you can peer back into the very formation of the earth. For example, you see this dark brown scar that runs across this slab? The stone had a crack in it and millennia ago magma poured into the void. And you see these tiny marks that look like ancient writing, they’re called ‘glyphs,’ but they’re not made by man, they’re made by nature. It all starts when . . .”
After enjoying several equally enlightening conversations with several other friends and neighbors, I decided to ask Betsy Nielson to share some of her writing with me. She had suggested that nobody asked her about her work anymore, so I asked her. Within hours, Betsy appeared at our front door with a large book in hand. She reverently opened it to a picture of a smiling young man standing at attention in full flight gear. It was her brother Roy and he had just graduated from flight school.
“In this book,” Betsy explained, “I contributed a story about my brother Roy’s flight experience in World War II.”
Then I noticed Betsy cradling a letter in her hands—holding it more like a religious artifact than an epistle.
“It’s a letter Roy sent me,” Betsy said as she fought back a tear. “It starts out, ‘Dear Sis.'”
She then paused to regain her composure.
“Roy was eight years older than me, and kind enough to write his kid sister about once a month. Receiving a letter from him was the highlight of my youth. In this particular letter Roy makes small talk about his daily goings-on and ends by hoping that his flight scheduled for later that day will be successful. He and his crew were hunting down enemy submarines and that was always dangerous.”
“So what happened?” I asked.
“You’ll note the date on the letter.” Betsy answered. “You’re a bit young to know this, but it was the last day of the war.”
“And Roy’s plane was shot down. He and his entire crew were lost. My brother and his buddies were among the last soldiers to die—they may have been the last soldiers to lose their lives in the war.”
No wonder Betsy was cradling the letter. It was a poignant and tender piece of history. Tears ran down our cheeks as we discussed Roy’s sacrifice and Betsy’s feelings. It was a cherished moment for me and it had been the result of asking a simple question: “Would you share some of your writings?” I had called Betsy back into the game and both of us were blessed for my having done so.
And what did I do to get Betsy back into the game? How did I open the library door? First, I took the time to talk with an older friend. Second, I traded small talk for big talk. Third, I listened intently as my friend shared a story.
In Betsy’s own words, unlocking untold treasures had been as simple as One-tooth Ree.