Back in the day I had an activity planned for almost every moment of practically every day. And I usually had something ready to take up the slack in case there was a change. In those days I prided myself on being flexible and able to adjust on the fly.

But I occasionally fantasized a not-too-serious something happening to clear the decks so I could pause, take a deep breath and reflect on life and the direction I was heading. Too often I was going through the motions of fulfilling my agendas, but my heart wasn’t really in what I was doing. I had a constant nagging feeling that things weren’t quite right.

Remembering and thinking about those times reminds me of an experience in pharmacy school with George Wells, a professor who had a profound effect on my life. Moderately obese with perfect posture, George was an imposing figure with a reputation for being picky and stern. A fly fisherman, he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d choose to go on a fishing trip with.

After my sophomore year, when I was a very active in campus activities, I had only slightly above average grades, I took George’s Bacteriology class that included handling some potentially dangerous disease-causing bacteria, like typhoid fever. Every student was given a job to help keep the lab clean and safe.

George knew I was thinking about medical school and that I was overbooked with activities. He took me aside and said he knew I was constantly thinking about one thing while doing another. Multitasking in today’s parlance.

Instead of a small lab job, he assigned me the task of seeing that everyone else did their job satisfactorily.  Showing up wasn’t enough. I had to be fully engaged in what I was doing. If someone didn’t do their job right, and I didn’t fix it, I was the one who would be downgraded.

I liked him as a teacher, took his advice to heart, and did much better academically from then on. These days I still have to be on guard for trying to do too much. Over scheduling and multitasking seems to be the order of the day. Some considered it a badge of honor. I see it as simultaneously not being fully engaged in more than one thing at a time. Even if it could be continuously, successfully done I don’t see how it can lead to a satisfying lifestyle.  

Last summer I volunteered at a music competition for select college music majors and high school students. I had the good fortune of having breakfast and visiting a few other times with a world-famous professional musician who is a principal player in one of world’s top symphony orchestras and professor of music at a major university.

Both raised in tiny farm towns, we hit it off immediately. An overachiever, he’s also in obviously good physical condition. He had tanned arms and white wrists from wearing gloves while riding bicycles long distances for exercise.

I learned that he was on his way home from an overseas multi-week tour and hadn’t been to bed in over 48 hours. Without an orchestra and teaching schedule, he had an overflow summer schedule of performances, clinics and appearances at places like the competition.

Old enough to be his father, I was a little saddened by his story. I wondered who is in charge of his life. Is it his agent? Like assembly-line workers who are physical labor commodities, it seemed to me that he was a commodity of the elite music world.

He was exchanging his summer for first class treatment in the elite music world. When he can’t or is no longer willing to continue the rigor someone else will take his place as the commodity.

Virtually by reflex, I asked him how satisfied and content he was with his life. He paused and said he’d never asked himself about that and didn’t know. People ask him to go places and do things professionally. And he goes. I couldn’t see how he could be fully engaged in his peripatetic summer. It wouldn’t be satisfying very long for me.

Success in a career requires showing up for work and being engaged enough to satisfy the bosses. I’ve always also sought personal satisfaction from professional activities. But I don’t think that’s necessary for everyone.

For me, success in retirement is more complicated. It requires not only showing up but also being engaged. It means sharing experiences of changing interests and abilities and feelings with others, and appropriately describing my states of joy, anger, fear and sadness. In that way I see myself as a role model and teacher.

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