Mr. Cubbington provides garden fertilizer during the pandemic

Sh*t as Fertilizer: Lessons from the Pandemic

We added to our family during the pandemic: we got a bunny. A Holland Lop to be exact. His name is Mr. Cubbington, an unusual name created by our teenage son. Mr. Cubbington is cute and irresistible with his big floppy ears, soft coat of hair and diminutive size. I wasn’t as taken with the idea of being responsible for another pet, but I was overruled. (Our family governance structure has turned into a democracy where my vote counts less over time.)

A key argument for adding Mr. Cubbington was that we could use his poop pellets to fertilize our vegetable garden. And he has complied. I challenge any bunny to poop as often as he does; no joke, every little hop seems to produce a pellet. Rabbit manure is packed with nitrogen, potassium, minerals and micronutrients, and has four times more nutrients than cow or horse manure. We are going to have one healthy garden.

It’s odd that we can take the excrements of an animal and use them to add nutrients to soil. I guess there are opportunities to turn things seemingly worthless into something valuable.

Garden nourished by Mr. Cubbington's fertilizer

A garden being nourished by the nutrients of Mr. Cubbington’s manure

The Pandemic has Changed the World, but How Will it Change You?

The negative impact of COVID-19 is almost incalculable. According to Johns Hopkins, we have lost more than 3 million lives to COVID-19 and are approaching nearly 600,000 pandemic-related deaths in the U.S. alone. Many of us have spent a year in lockdown with limited physical connection, creating pangs of social isolation and loneliness. Millions of students are “learning” remotely with concerns that many are not learning, but simply falling behind. Weaknesses in our country’s long-term care infrastructure have been exposed. Some of us have missed key moments in life: a graduation, wedding or final goodbye. According to an annual happiness study, our happiness levels at all ages have dropped. It’s been pretty crappy.

The pandemic has also barreled us into the future. Technology stocks have boomed as more of our world becomes digitized. Zoom is an accepted communication tool as an alternative to in-person meetings. Hybrid work structures will likely be more common. And telehealth proved its value. Products and services delivered to home became the default approach during the pandemic, and now the infrastructure has been built to make this more widely possible and cost-effective. These trends have accelerated the move away from high-cost, high-density areas such as San Francisco, New York and Boston.

Thankfully, with widespread vaccinations in effect, we can now see an end to the pandemic in our country. While the world around us has changed, an important question remains: how will the pandemic change you? For some, the level of trauma will take time to process. For others, the pandemic may be viewed as a crappy lost year to be forgotten. For those who had a tough year, but without significant personal trauma, it could be a moment that leads to a different, better you.

Sh*t as Fertilizer

A friend recently quipped that we have an opportunity to see this pandemic sh*t as fertilizer. He’s right. We can take note of how Mr. Cubbington uses his manure pellets to help a garden flourish. What would it look like to take the crap from the pandemic and make our lives better?

For one, it may mean being more intentional about spending time with people you care about. My parents are in their 70s and some of their closest friends are spread across the country. They started a weekly Zoom call on Sunday afternoons. Maybe this is a tradition that can hold post-pandemic. I’m sure it would enrich all of their lives. This is sh*t as fertilizer.

Maybe it’s being ruthless about prioritizing your time and energies in general, to make sure they align with what’s most important to you. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, makes a compelling case that when we say ‘yes’ to too many things, we’re implicitly signing ourselves up for mediocrity in everything. A friend was laid up in hospital for three days during the pandemic and used the time to create his post-pandemic list of priorities. He’s recovering with a renewed vigor for what’s next. That’s sh*t as fertilizer.

Zoom screen

Many of us faced “Zoom Fatigue” during the pandemic, but it will remain a valuable tool post-pandemic

The Case for Having a Plan for Successful Aging

There’s a broader opportunity here, too. The pandemic exposed how many of us are unprepared to age successfully during this time of extended of longevity. Are you really prepared to live to 100? Research tells us that healthy aging is more about our lifestyle than our DNA. Do you have purpose? Are you socially connected? Are you physically active? Are you in good financial shape? These and other lifestyle questions are good to ask in this moment.

Not to be overlooked is the role of place. The right place adds to our health and overall well-being just as the wrong place takes away from them. Did the pandemic reveal that you are in the right place for you? Keep in mind that place includes not just your built environment and physical dwelling, but region of the country, metropolitan area and neighborhood.

Don’t forget the role of community to contribute to and be supported by. Websites like Zillow can miss this element. Community is where we can find our A-team. For us, the pandemic has crystallized who we can lean on and who we can actively support. Our family has quasi-adopted an elder in the neighborhood – driving to errands, putting up holiday lights, sharing meals – to the benefit of everyone involved.

Turning a New Leaf

I’m not much of a green thumb. I have a history of killing plants. The most recent victim was in my office. I meekly swapped my dying Fiddle Leaf fig for a Pottery Barn special. This change has not gone unnoticed on Zoom.

Post-pandemic, I’m hopeful that I can turn a new leaf. I plan to use Mr. Cubbington’s pellets to grow peppers in our garden while, at the same time, to redouble efforts to become more rooted in my community. I hope to use sh*t as fertilizer on multiple accounts. Stay tuned.  


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Start with Why

Start with Why

Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk, Start with Why, has been viewed over 50 million times. He argues that for leaders to inspire action, articulating the why of the movement is far more important than the what or the how.

It turns out the same is true in the context of successful aging. Since thriving over a long life depends more on good lifestyle decisions than our genetics, we need to be motivated to consistently make the right decisions. Understanding our own why can be instrumental in this process.

Purpose is important at any age and is one of the best predictors of happiness. In this context, purpose is defined as the sources of meaning that are both goal-oriented and motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world beyond one’s self. People who have a defined purpose tend to be both psychologically and physically healthier than those who do not. Individuals without purpose are more likely to suffer from depression, loneliness, and anxiety.

One of the challenges is that living with purpose can get harder with age. For many of life’s earlier stages, purpose is more clearly defined and socially acceptable. Find a fulfilling career. Provide financial security for family. Raise kids. But as we approach midlife and beyond, purpose can be elusive, particularly if some of the earlier goals were met. Retirement can add fuel to the fire. The word “retire” means to withdraw. A move to retirement can be a move away from purpose, particularly the type of purpose that is goal-oriented and motivated to make a difference beyond one’s self.

A grandfather’s reward for a year of hard work

A grandfather’s reward for a year of hard work (Source: Supplied)

Doc Morris, a European pharmaceutical company, highlights this lesson in a recent holiday season ad called “Matters of the Heart” that has already been viewed over 15 million times. The two-minute clip features an older man who lives alone and becomes motivated to lift weights every morning to strengthen his core and arms. His initial struggle to lift a kettlebell alarms his nosy neighbor and perplexes other passersby. His mission propels him through early challenges and he gets stronger. His purpose is to be there for his extended family, his granddaughter in particular. He wants to be strong enough to lift his granddaughter to put the star atop the tree at Christmas.

Start with Purpose But There’s More

It’s important to start with purpose, but it’s not enough, argues BJ Fogg, behavioral scientist at Stanford, in his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. In his research, BJ finds that motivation, or one’s why, is powerful, but it’s unpredictable. Some days you’re motivated to exercise or avoid the ice cream in the freezer; other days you’re not. Relying solely on motivation is generally not a recipe for sustained behavioral change.

BJ’s research points to two other key areas that help define behavioral change: ability and prompts. If the older gentleman was incapable of getting stronger, if he had a degenerative disease for example, it would be unlikely he could have been able to do the exercises to get stronger. However, he had the ability to get stronger and, further, he did not let the stereotypes of aging, often referred to as ageism, prevent him from doing exercises for which he was capable.

Prompts play an important role, too. He develops a daily routine. When the alarm goes off – much earlier than one would expect for a retiree, he takes a look at the picture of his granddaughter and this propels him to take action. He brings her picture with him as he works out as a constant reminder of his purpose. This prompt helps him stay committed in what appears to be a full year of sustained effort.

Fogg Behavior Model

The Fogg Behavior Model: Focus on where motivation, ability and prompts align (Source: BJ Fogg)

Make It Easy – Even Tiny

He starts small. His first accomplishment is to find his kettlebell in the shed and drag it a few feet. Over time, he lifts it. He has setbacks – at one point he drops the kettlebell and grunts in pain – but he keeps progressing. He gets stronger.

He raises the ante. He wakes up earlier and dons an exercise outfit. He assumes an identity as someone who regularly exercises and is not deterred by his skeptical neighbors. He becomes able to do repeated squats with his kettlebell.

Success begets success. He builds momentum and confidence. He is soon able to do what others would not have imagined and perhaps what he would have doubted initially. Ultimately, he lifts his granddaughter without trouble to everyone’s surprise and joy.

Consider the Role of Place in Behavior Change

Place has an important role in his success. The pictures of family hanging on his walls serve as the initial impetus to get stronger. He lives in a physical dwelling where he is able to exercise and on his schedule. He transforms his shed from a storage receptacle to his exercise room for all seasons; he uses the outside entry when the weather is nice.

Importantly, no one stops him from his dreams. The nosy neighbor shoots looks of disapproval and his family expresses concern but does not intervene. At one point, his granddaughter even mimics his squats with him. His environment enabled his success.

What’s Your Why for 2021?

2020 was an awful year by many measures but we can hope that 2021 will be better. Our behaviors will have a key role in our outcome for the year. What do you want your 2021 to look like? Do you have dreams you would like to realize? Is there a new challenge you want to take on? Do you want to live closer to family and loved ones? Do you want to help others in a more proactive way? Are there intergenerational relationships you would like to form and nurture?

Start with why.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Intergenerational Fatherhood - SmartLiving 360

Intergenerational Fatherhood

I am a few years into the teenage kid stage of fatherhood and I’m working my way up the learning curve. I’m finding that the timeout is not an effective punishment, my jokes aren’t as funny (or funny at all) and my IQ has plummeted. I have changed my approach. I seek out one-on-one time and say ‘yes’ to almost any offer to hang out that comes my way, even if it means risking my life with a driver in training. Doling out punishment has changed, too. I’ve focused on essay writing as a mechanism to prompt self-reflection and deep thinking. It seems to have had some impact. One of my kids, commenting on his frequent essay writing of late, shared in his Father’s Day card to me, “I may not enjoy it, but I know it’s good for me.”

But, whatever my strategy, it’s clear that just me won’t be enough. I need some reinforcements. I need intergenerational fatherhood. And, the thing is, I think elder fathers need it, too.

We’re living in the Age of Longevity where people are expected to live longer than ever before. That’s great in many respects – so long as our health and financial well-being match to a longer life – but it also comes with challenges. Chief among them may be finding continued purpose in life. Purpose, particularly the type that finds meaning in making a difference outside of oneself, has been shown to improve overall wellbeing. This is an opportunity for our elders.

At the same time, it couldn’t be more clear that our youth need help navigating today’s world. And their fathers – people like me – can’t do it alone. We don’t have all the answers and often don’t have enough time. Heck, if our current times are the 1960s part deux, we can’t offer a comparable parallel. My generation read about times of intense racial tensions, but elders lived through them. That brings credibility and perspective.

Erickson on intergenerational fatherhoold - SmartLiving 360
Erik Erickson, a 20th century psychologist, introduced generativity as the 7th step of human development

Collectively, there is an opportunity for generativity, a theory created by Erik Erickson, a legend in the arena of human development. As Marc Freedman describes in his recent call for a Generativity Revolution, Erickson’s theory suggests that we have a drive to contribute what we’ve learned from life to future generations. The well-being of future generations becomes part of the legacy of elder generations.  

A number of organizations, like Generations United and Encore.org, help connect the young and old. They do great work and can point to countless inspirational success stories. But what would it look like if we did a better job of connecting the young and old within our own families? What would it look like to truly father our grandkids?

A mentor of mine once said that your values are not expressed by what you say but how you budget your time, resources and energy. Following this logic, if you want to be an intergenerational father, you need to make sure that your actions back up your intentions.

So, what can you do?

Start with a plan. If you live close to your grandchildren, determine how often you can reasonably connect in person. Understand their age and stage and what activities and conversations are most appropriate. Identify shared interests that help bring you naturally together.

If you don’t live close, it can be more difficult. Find opportunities to connect regularly on the phone or on video. Prioritize travel schedules to visit and be intentional with your time together. Try to forge one-on-one times for greater connection and impact. Make strong memories in your time together.

Intergenerational fatherhood - fathering your grandkids - SmartLiving 360
Effective intergenerational fatherhood may require moving close to grandchildren

If intergenerational fathering becomes a high priority a question emerges: does my current home allow for me to engage with my grandchildren in the way that I would like? For some, this may require a relocation to be closer to grandkids or creating more of a seasonal schedule, if life permits, to visit for longer periods of time. I was fortunate that my mom’s parents spent a month of the summer with us and it allowed me to have significant time with my grandfather. In fact, Eric Erickson and his wife moved in their 80s across the country to be a part of their grandchildren’s lives. Place can make a big difference in nurturing these relationships.

Be prepared to be more tech savvy, too. A smartphone is a pre-requisite and texting may not be enough. Instagram. HouseParty. TikTok. You may have to download them all.

When looking to do intergenerational fathering, it’s important to get buy-in from the father, too. Odds are he will welcome the involvement with open arms. I’ve given my two fathers the green light. Each has embraced it. One has started an unofficial reading club for the summer. He and one of his grandsons alternate choosing books and then discuss and compare notes over Zoom and email. I think they also use these sessions to concoct practical joke ideas, often at my expense. My father-in-law has made special efforts to see his grandkids and adventure seek with them, imparting lessons of life along the way. Be careful – greater engagement can come with greater risks. A three-hour horseback ride at the age 76 was never part of his master plan but he toughed it out to get more time with his grandkids.

For some families, what I’m envisioning is nothing new. It’s a way of life, particularly for extended families that live together. As our society has become more affluent and assumes a greater reliance on the individual, this type of intergenerational fathering has become less common. It’s probably made us all more lonely, too.

Are you ready for fatherhood part two? The teenage parenting years really aren’t that bad. Especially if you’re the grandfather this time around.

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Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

An Antidote to Social Isolation and Loneliness

In recent years, much has been written about the increase in social isolation and loneliness. While, historically, social isolation and loneliness have been most strongly associated with older adults, recent studies indicate the loneliest generation may be Generation Z, the oldest of whom are in college. Loneliness, it seems, is age agnostic. Research indicates nearly half of Americans are sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.

Much less has been written about what has caused it and what can be done about it. David Brooks, best-selling author and long-time New York Times columnist, offers both theories and solutions in his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

In short, Brooks believes our society has shifted too much toward individualism over commitments to one another. He describes it as a shift from the “We’re All In This Together” moral ecology of the post-war years to the “I’m Free to Be Myself” mentality. The pressures of social conformity of the 1950s had huge drawbacks, not the least of which was limited acceptance and rights of women, minorities and LGBTQ groups. However, a shift to hyperindividualism has lead to a society where people live further and further part from one another – socially, emotionally and physically.

Brooks antidote is a rebellion against the rebellion of the ’50s. He argues that each of us needs to make a commitment to those around us. In so doing, we can reinstitute the social bonds of prior times with a more accepting view of those who are different than us. If enough of us do this at an individual level, the argument goes, this will become a seachange for our broader society that creates new norms.

Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

Brooks argues that while happiness is good, joy is better. The first mountain, in his view, is about satisfying the ego and achieving worldly success. The second mountain is about a shift in thinking to others and is inherently relational. Summiting the second mountain creates a legacy and an enduring purpose.

The Age of Longevity creates opportunities for us to summit multiple mountains.

One of the questions is whether you wish to challenge the traditional three stage life model:  grow up – work – retire. This is the first mountain mindset. One of the problems with this model can be finding sustained purpose, particularly in the retirement phase. We know purpose is key to long-term health and well-being: Having purpose has been linked to a number of positive outcomes, including better sleep, fewer strokes and heart attacks, and a lower risk of dementia, disability and premature death.

Bethesda Row, Bethesda, Maryland: An example of a walkable mixed-use development that naturally brings people together

The Importance of Place in Ascending the Second Mountain

If you choose to challenge this existing three-stage life model, one of the next questions becomes are you in the right place to climb the second mountain? We are all impacted by the prevailing culture around us. Are you around others who are climbing their second mountain who can help and encourage you? In the case of David Brooks, when he decided to climb the second mountain, he realized he needed to broaden his circle of friends that shared this interest and he was fortunate to be able to find them in his existing metropolitan area.

Physical space matters, too. Do you reside in a home that is too far removed from connecting with others? Are you in a place that naturally brings you in contact with others? We have seen the benefit of creating spaces that make it easier to connect people, including across ages.

Tips on Creating Community

Brooks concludes his book with a series of recommendations to help build community. These steps include:

  1. Make a Commitment. Building a community, like a relationship, is a slow, complex process and requires that you are present and engaged.
  2. See Neighborhood as the Unit of Change. Building community involves seeing the neighborhood, not the individual, as the essential unit of change. Here, a swimming pool metaphor fits: You can’t clean only the part of the pool you are swimming in.
  3. Convene. People need to get together regularly to get to know one another. Potlucks, front porch gatherings, block parties and weekly gatherings over meals are good examples.
A Weekly Meal organized by All Our Kids, a D.C. Based Organization (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

A Transformative Decision

Baseball Instruction

What Will Be Your Legacy?

You Don’t Write Your Legacy

Legacy happens whether we want it or not: those who come after us will do the writing; the best we can do is provide the raw material for what that story will be. That’s what is so distressing about the recent college admissions bribery scandal: more than 750 families are implicated in a vast overreach to craft a false narrative and legacy of academic success.  I actually worked for one of those charged, so this story really hits home. But it gets me thinking about what really drives us to be the best version of ourselves. In this sense, purpose serves as a precursor to our desired legacy. How we purposefully spend our time, treasure and talent – and its cumulative effect –forms our legacy.

College Scam
William Rick Signer and the College Admissions Bribery Scandal: He will not be writing his desired legacy

Are you using your time, talents and treasures in a way that is consistent with the outcome you desire? If not, how can this be changed?

Planning a Legacy is a Relatively New Invention

The Age of Longevity allows us to plan in a way our forefathers could not. Frankly, for generations before us, success was simply furthering the human race. Now, many of us have the privilege to find the intersection of our talents and opportunities to make a living and an impact.  It is the cumulative impact of our decisions that help create our legacies. Purpose drives it. 

Common Areas of Legacy

The domains of legacy are boundless, but family is often cited. This helps explain the investment parents and grandparents make in their progeny. Barry, one of our close family friends, has been the baseball coach of his grandson’s teams from t-ball through preteen years. This investment has rewarded them with an especially close relationship. 

For others, it may be youth in general. Harvard’s Robert Putnam wrote Our Kids as an opportunity and need for more people to see their kids as their bloodline but also those in the greater community. Marc Freedman of Encore.org has answered this call with the launch of Gen2Gen and his new book, How to Live Forever, a book about creating legacy through enriching younger generations.

Creating Legacy is Open to All Ages

While legacy may be discussed more often among older people, focus on creating a legacy is independent of age. I have seen this first-hand getting to know some of my peers as part of the Encore Public Voices Fellowship:

  • Joy Zhang, a Millennial, is passionate about intergenerational relationships and is currently helping to facilitate such connections around caregiving through her start up Mon Ami
  • Karen Lincoln, a GenXer, is on track to create a legacy about elevating our awareness about the high incidences of dementia among the African American community and harnessing resources to combat it
  • Mick Smyer, a baby boomer, has founded Graying Green, an effort to improve our environment by inspiring specific actions by people to help show they can make a difference

Role of Purpose in Health and Extended Longevity

It turns out having an articulated purpose greater than yourself is linked to a number of positive health outcomes and holds true for people across the lifespan. 

“Having purpose is linked to a number of positive outcomes, including better sleep, fewer strokes and heart attacks, and a lower risk of dementia, disability and premature death,” notes Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a physician and researcher at the Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research.

Purpose can be elusive for older adults, but the impact can be significant. Older adults with purpose are more likely to invest in preventative care, such as cholesterol tests and cancer screenings, keeping them healthy longer. All in all, lifestyle effects, including the role of purpose, adds six to seven years from age 65 and four years added survival at age 85.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates sees technology creating tools to help us craft meaningful lives

Tools Today and On The Horizon

Books abound on strategies to live a purposeful life. Even design thinking principles – in vogue in corporate innovation circles – are being applied to help make the most of life’s opportunities, as discussed in books like Designing Your Life (a previous SmartLiving 360 blog looked closer at the opportunity to design thinking for your life).

Associating with others who value purpose increases the odds you will prioritize purpose. In this sense, the power of place is significant. You can root yourself in places where purpose, including your type of purpose, is common.

Technology promises to help, too. Several years ago, AARP launched a set of ageless tools under the Life Reimagined brand to help people navigate the possibilities afforded with longer life, including harnessing purpose. Technology visionaries, like Bill Gates, see an emergence of technology tools in coming years to help us craft a meaningful life.

No matter your age, whether you’re a Millennial like Joy, a GenXer like Karen or Baby Boomer like Mick, finding a sense of purpose can help create a lasting legacy. And while none us us will write our legacy, there’s no harm in giving them some good stuff to work with.