Thirty Lessons for LivingCornell professor Karl Pillemer admits he’s an advice junkie.  Yet even amid the groaning self-help shelves at his local bookstore, he felt something was missing.

As he asks in 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (Amazon,, IndieBound), “Why, if we have so many professional advice givers, are so many people still so unhappy? The overflowing feast of advice seems to have left a lot of people pushing back from the table hungry.”

He began looking for “advice that is based in lived reality, has stood the test of time, and offers a chance of genuinely helping us make the most of our lives,” and found it right under his nose, in the collective wisdom of the very people he had been studying his entire career — senior citizens.

For five years, Pillemer surveyed and interviewed the savviest seniors he could find – over a thousand of them  — and from this material distilled thirty pithy lessons. I highlighted 30 Lessons for Living in a recent newsletter as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The book includes a chapter of career advice based on the wisdom gleaned from his subjects’ 50,000 years of work experience. (Try fitting that on a resume!) Here’s what Pillemer calls the “refrigerator list” of the five lessons gleaned from all that experience:

1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones.

2. Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy.

3. Make the most of a bad job.

4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind.

5. Everyone needs autonomy.

What intrigues me about this list is that it accords so well with what science tells us about motivation and happiness. But then, your grandparents could have told you that.

11 Responses to “50 centuries of work = 5 important lessons”

  1. Joe says:


    Love your books and your blog! These 5 make a great deal of sense. However, a lot of Americans today are just trying to put food on the table, provide an education for their children and hold a job with some type of security (which there are a shortage of.) How does a middle class person trying to make ends meet balance this goal of of finding a job which makes them happy while trying to stay above water?
    Would be interested in your thoughts.



  2. Great article! One thing: in the middle of reading, your subscription options popped up and blocked the article. Irritating, and I generally X out when this happens.

  3. Liz Mellon says:

    I love this advice, but as you say, it is familiar. and it’s all about work! What about play (or shall we just fall back on the ‘dance like no’one’s looking, love like you’ve never been hurt’? Liz (35 years of work experience last time I looked) Mellon

  4. Shirley says:

    I think your math is off, Dan.

    I think you mean 500 centuries of work..(50,000/100, unless you want to talk about millenia….

  5. Shirley, he says he interviewed over a thousand “savviest senior” for his info, so the math should be 50,000 divided by 1000, not 100. Thus, about 50 years’ worth each. That works.

  6. Shirley says:

    Ross, 50 years of work, I’d agree, but Dan’s headline says 50 centuries……

  7. Sean says:

    What’s most interesting to me is that when you step back from the advice – most of it seems to speak to work.

    So in a sense, the stuff most on people’s mind when you ask “what advice do you have”, is work related.

    Not marriage. Not family. Not friends. Not self-awareness (though you might argue EI here). As Liz put, not play.

    I wonder how the question was asked, or the context? Or the lens of interpretation?

    Not sure what to do with that observation…but it strikes me as interesting.

  8. Amelya says:

    “The book includes a chapter of career advice” out of which Dan highlights here Pillemer’s 5 work-related lessons. or, Sean, were you referring to the whole book?

  9. Many thanks, Dan, for your kind words about my book! The 1200 elders consulted for the book had great lessons for work (and more are available on our Cornell Legacy Project web site). One reason why these folks are such credible experts is that almost everyone had really bad jobs (jobs that make our bad jobs today look pretty good), but they still managed to learn from them.
    In response to the interesting comments here: Yes, Dan chose to focus on one chapter in the book, on work. Other chapters look at the elders’ advice for love and marriage, child-rearing, avoiding regrets, aging well, and being happy.

  10. mary says:

    Let’s face it, work is an inescapable and major piece of most of our lives. People who have found work that they are passionate about have a great deal of contentment just from that fact;and often that contentment brings them to a better, if not great, place in the rest of their life – their relationships with friends, family, spouses and children.

  11. Sean says:

    @Karl Pillemer

    Thank you for the clarification! I was under the impression that the five snippets Dan posted were a capture of the “top five” pieces of advice from across all possible categories.

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