9 Lessons from My (Octogenarian) Father * CoveyClub

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9 Lessons from My (Octogenarian) Father

My father worked passionately until his 90th birthday. He showed me the joy and passion of believing age is just a number

By Kathryn Sollmann

The last time I spoke to my Dad I asked him about his business. He told me he had a bunch of new marketing ideas and that he had been researching new venues for his jazz band to perform. A couple of weeks earlier he had proudly sent me an impressive new brochure he had created. 

He was always busy and it was hard to catch him by phone. On this particular afternoon, he rattled off a long list of business things he had to get done right away and said, “Can’t talk now, see you soon.”

When I got off the phone, I shook my head in awe. My father’s 90th birthday was just days away, and I thought, “he has more energy and career passion than many professionals decades younger.”

A week later, his entire family was waiting for him in New York City to celebrate his milestone birthday. We thought he was trying to pack too many things into one day and was late as usual, but this time he never showed up. He was very independent and lived alone—and we learned that he had had a stroke and passed away while getting ready for his big party.

To get this sad news while our entire family was together seemed an orchestrated ending to Dad’s more than two decades of full-speed-ahead “non-retirement.” While many of his peers sat idly in chairs for hours on end, my father never took his foot off the gas pedal. Twice a week he drove to New York City from Connecticut to sing at jazz clubs. Another two nights a week he went to social dances with friends in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. And every waking hour he was on the phone making tons of calls to get his band new gigs.

What was his secret sauce for reaching his 10th decade? Looking back he was teaching by doing, and these are the tips he passed on to me for a long interested and interesting life:

  1. Follow your passion, not what others think you’re supposed to do. Dad came to this realization late, after a successful, but less fulfilling career as an early technology executive. He was stressed out in the corporate world, mired in political jockeying for the next big role and wistful about the fact that he allowed army buddy banter about future business pursuits steer him away from his training in art and opera singing.
  2. Don’t think it’s ever too late to sing a different tune. All was not lost because in his late 60s my father did a complete 360 reinvention: he returned to his creative roots and became a jazz singer and bandleader as a second career. He didn’t spend any time wondering if it mattered that he had little recent or relevant experience. He made up his mind, got some additional voice training, researched jazz trends, networked with club owners, surrounded himself with great musicians, formed a band and made adjustments as he learned along the way.
  3. Aim for the high notes—and take the stage with confidence. “Oh that’s so cute,” people would say when I told them my octogenarian father was a very active jazz singer. That was before I told them that his piano player also toured with the Lionel Hampton band and that many of Dad’s gigs were high-profile events for top New York City law firms. He just put on his blue blazer, believed all opportunities were fair game and never lowballed his aspirations by pursuing local bars down the street.
  4. Believe you’ll have a very long run and always set new goals. My father lived in the moment, didn’t dwell on the past and believed he had lots of time to accomplish more and more. After any success, he was fond of saying, “there’s always another level.” He didn’t rest on his laurels—right up until the end he was in conversations about producing a series of jazz events at huge public venues and scheming about how to get standing-room-only crowds.
  5. Continually build your audience. In the music business, Dad networked his way onto stage after stage. He made lots of valuable corporate and entertainment connections and kept himself visible by hobnobbing with jazz musicians from around the world. 
  6. Keep perfecting your art. Dad never said, “good enough”. He continued to take voice lessons and try out new and more complex musical arrangements informally at many of the leading jazz clubs in New York City.
  7. Be generation-blind. Knowing he could learn from musicians of all ages, Dad cultivated relationships with many younger jazz singers who had a different take on the jazz greats. Though he had a classic Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett sound, Dad knew the benefits of respecting tradition but embracing innovation.
  8. Resist any temptation to act your age. Well into his 80s, Dad looked good for his age. But there was no mistaking the fact that he was indeed in his elder years. It was his spirit, enthusiasm, energy and good humor that kept him young. He once had a short stint in an assisted living community after a sudden illness, but checked himself out ASAP because “there were too many old people”.
  9. Remember it ain’t over til it’s over. Though 60 is the new 50, 70 is the new 60 and youth is the perpetual holy grail, there are still plenty of people who let themselves spiral downward into a more sedentary stage. We learned that my Dad kept many secrets about his health: prostate cancer, skin cancer, heart conditions and more. He was seeing lots of doctors, but he never let any diagnosis dictate the tempo and substance of his life.

When death finally caught up with Dad, we had the difficult task of clearing out the reminders of his vibrant life. While cleaning out his apartment my siblings and I found lots of clues to the whirlwind activity of his final days. Binders filled with lists of corporations that sponsor events. Recent correspondence with the United States Copyright Office to claim ownership of his band’s name. Notes on things he wanted to suggest for marketing my book. Sheet music he had marked up with ideas, and stacks of articles on vitamins that promised to lengthen life.

In among the papers, there was also a draft of the speech he intended to give at his 90th birthday celebration. His words at the end spoke of his love of both life and work: “My gift to you is in the form of a wish. May each of you celebrate your own 90th birthday and feel not only the love of your family but the joy of finding your true passion and purpose—and many interesting chapters of lifelong work that illuminate, not just fill your days.” 

Kathryn Sollmann is a career coach, speaker and the author of Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead. Taking her father’s cue, she is planning many professional chapters for the decades ahead.

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