A Significant Milestone

Today, I am 75 years old.  My first engineering job was 55 years ago.  I earned my PhD from MIT five decades ago.  I was a tenured full professor at the University of Illinois over four decades ago. I was elected to the National Academy over three decades ago.    I have been on the faculties of six universities and founded, built, and sold several companies.

These accomplishments are very satisfying, but they are not central to becoming 75.  I am still fully involved in my professional life, but priorities have substantially changed.  I am not focused on building my resume.  Instead, the resumes of less senior and junior colleagues and students, including high school students have become priorities.

I continue to publish books and occasionally research articles. I am much more into impact, how investments of my time can make a difference in terms of societal benefits, both broadly and narrowly.  This leads me to be impatient with endless meetings and plans that are not subsequently executed.

Of course, physical health involves a few challenges; mental health seems good so far.  Diet and exercise receive increased attention.  After several serious falls, I am a highly vigilant walker.  The coronavirus has presented exercise challenges, but brisk – not fast — walks outside are wonderful.

Another impact of the coronavirus has been much more time to read — 60 books in 2021.  Combined with online business meetings, I spend over 8 hours each day looking at my laptop screen.  This seems like too much to me.  I am not sure of the consequences of so much screen time, but there must be some downside.

On the other hand, all this reading has led me to encounter previously unseen connections and distinctions among phenomena.  History, politics, economics, psychology, sociology, and technology richly interact at multiple levels of people, processes, organizations, and society.  Complex problems abound.

Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal (Wellcome, 2014) provides pithy advice for successful aging.  These simple rules make sense to me, as well as to all my older colleagues with whom I have discussed them:

  • Retain a sense of purpose
  • Maintain social connections
  • Stay mobile

My purpose is to understand complex systems and communicate this understanding.  My social connections include family and friends, as well as a rich network of professional colleagues.  I frequently discuss complex problems with colleagues in this network, often by email and Zoom, but better yet in pubs and other social venues.  I stay mobile by walking everywhere, a necessity without a car.

All this is rather upbeat.  However, there are lessons learned over decades.  There are endless squirrels that, at first, seem worth chasing.  This consumes much energy and hardly ever succeeds.  Opportunities have to make sense within the priorities associated with your vision of where you are headed.  Potential funding is not at all near the top of my list.

Meetings that do not lead to an action agenda are interesting but seldom useful.  Sharing perspectives and insights is useful to a point.  At some point, however, the question is, “What are we going to try to do?”  As you get older, this question comes sooner rather than later.  How long are we going to talk about this?

Do I think this team can solve this problem or at least make significant progress?  Answering this question requires perspective and a sense of everyone’s batting average.  Are people committed?  Do they have a track record of delivering?  At age 75, interesting people are great.  Actual outcomes make everything much better.

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