There’s always a pearl of wisdom to learn from the elders. This is something that most of us tend to discount, but not for David Romanelli. Best-selling author of Life Lessons from the Oldest and Wisest, David talks about combining meditation and storytelling as the key to finding joy in your life. Creator of an ongoing series of events called Drinks With Your Elders, he uncovers what’s inside his book as he shares the healing power of a great story, how to find more time, what cures loneliness, and how to screw, laugh, and celebrate at funerals – all of which he learned from interviewing elderly people. On the side, discover how David combines meditation and storytelling, the conditions we attach to our happiness, and the reality behind social comparison.
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Life Lessons From The Oldest And Wisest with David Romanelli
Our guest is David Romanelli, who’s a best-selling author and international speaker. He’s your guide to bringing old wisdom and ancient healing practices to your modern life. David initiates connection and conversation between the old and the young. Our elders in their 80s, 90s and 100s fought in World War II, survived the Holocaust and marched for civil rights. He believes they are our most precious resource of wisdom and history. Most elders lack a voice in popular culture and live out their final years in isolation. He believes we can and have to do better. He’s created an ongoing series of events called Drinks with Your Elders, bringing the old together with the young. This inspired his third book, Life Lessons from the Oldest & Wisest, which shares elders’ advice on parenting, marriage, loyalty, the all-important resilience, and having a sense of humor through all the ups and downs. David, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, John. It’s great to be here.
I’m always curious to know how did someone get into what they’re doing, your own story of origin. You can go back as far as childhood, high school and college. How did you get into this whole mindset of, “There’s some wisdom to be learned here from the elders?”
I was deep in the yoga world. Some friends and I opened the first chain of boutique yoga studios in the ’90s. We were deep in yoga, the wisdom of the yoga tradition and studying with the yoga gurus. My last surviving grandparent was in a senior living facility in Los Angeles. It was a nice senior living facility. I saw how depressed she was and how it felt like everybody in that senior living facility was put out to pasture, not connected or integrated into the surrounding community. It wasn’t right because here you have these 37-year-old yoga gurus spouting wisdom on Instagram and the 89-year-old Holocaust survivor in the old age who’s dying a lonely death. Something seems out of whack. I shifted from yoga into the wisdom of the elders. I’ve been embracing that for several years.Let the joy in. Click To Tweet
Tell us a little bit about what caused you to want to write this book.
I was finding that older people were not even on people’s radar. Nobody considers that they might have the wisdom or the missing piece to their puzzle. They weren’t relevant to business and growing their business. What could they possibly have to learn from an old person? You can find it on the internet. I found that when you engage with them, the wisdom is so profound. It’s deeply healing and incredibly relevant to every part of your life. I was like, “I’ve got to spread this.” I figured a book was one of many ways to get this message out there.
Do you have a story from your book or your research on the book of some wisdom you learned from a senior person that people could apply for their business?
First of all, the greatest story was from my previous book called Happy Is the New Healthy, which is a lady I met. I was working with this charity in New York City that helps old people in need. Their oldest client was 111. They call that a supercentenarian. There are about seven billion people on the planet. There are only about 60 people we know about who are 110 or older. A part of that is genetics. The part of that is the attitude. When you get to be well over a hundred, chances are you’ve lost it. You’ve probably lost a child at that point. You’ve outlived your own children. There’s a lot of pain. It takes certain strength for somebody to turn the corner on 100, even 105 and keep going. A lot of people are cashing their chips and they’re done. To live to be that old, you have to be able to have a certain strength.Stories allow us to pass on wisdom. Click To Tweet
This 111-year-old lady, I asked her like, “What are your tips on health and longevity? How are you managing to get to be this old?” Her three tips were sex, vodka and spicy food. She had this joie de vivre that I have found is common amongst the oldest and wisest. Through the pain and the madness of life, we all have to take a moment to push back from our computer and loosen our grip and let the joy in, let the magic in. Everybody in business is grinding so hard. There are so much stress and such an excess of stimulation and information. The entire days go by where we don’t remember a single thing that happened. Do you want to live like that? Push back, take a breath, loosen your grip. Live in this moment.
Many of us are either rehashing the past or worried about the future. There’s no joy there. It’s anxiety or fear happening for the most part. One of the chapters in your book is The Healing Power of a Great Story. Can you tell us about that?
My guru’s name is Dr. Carl Hammerschlag. He was a medical doctor on the Indian Reservation for many years. He thought he was this highly certified and educated doctor. He would go into the hospitals to work with the Native Americans. Healing for them was much than art. I asked him questions like, “You know how to give me medicines, but do you know how to dance?” At first, it didn’t register. You have to be in touch with the rhythm of life to be a healer. It’s not just about the mind and the medicines. It’s how do you touch the spirit. Dr. H has these sweat lodges, which I’ve gotten a bad rap on the news because people have had dangerous experiences.
When they’re done correctly in Native American tradition, the idea of a sweat lodge is to go into this hot teepee. It’s so hot that you have to stop thinking and breathe. It’s almost like you remove your head from your body and let your spirit breathe. He says that the thing that’s missing from our culture is that we have to be telling better stories. You can’t pass along wisdom and teach our children how to live a good life if we’re not telling them good stories. He said, “We have to be telling better stories.” Whenever I learn from Dr. H something about heartbreak, resilience and what it means to heal my own anxiety, he always wraps it in a story and in a ceremony. He doesn’t just give me the information. That’s missing from our culture.
Another chapter in this great book, Life Lessons from the Oldest & Wisest, is How to Find More Time. Everybody of every age is looking for that, except maybe if you’re a kid and you want to get older faster. Most of us are looking for ways to find more time. What’s the story there?
There was a lady who’s 93 years old. At the end of our conversation, I asked if she could send me a picture. She said she’d put it in the mail. I said, “That’ll take a week. Can you just email it to me?” She didn’t have an email. She had to write down my email address to give it to her granddaughter to send me the email of the picture. It took five minutes for me to spell out my email and for her to write it down. At first, I was so frustrated. Who has five minutes in their day to give your email? Who wouldn’t get frustrated? At a certain point, I started realizing, “This is ridiculous, that I don’t have five minutes in my day for this lady to have this conversation. What better am I going to do those five minutes?” I started laughing. We had this great moment. She said she was an old fart. I realized that she had this spirit of a much younger person. The joke was on me, not on her. It’s ridiculous that we’re so efficient with our time that you give up a minute or two in your day that you didn’t expect. That should be a chance to laugh and loosen your day.
One of the other chapters that stand out for me is A Cure for Loneliness. We might assume that people get lonely as they get older and isolated, but there’s a lot of research that a lot of entrepreneurs feel isolated and can feel lonely at the top. What cures for loneliness did you learn in interviewing these elderly people?
Everybody’s lonely. We spend ten hours a day looking at screens. Everything is on a screen. Everybody’s longing for human experiences. We call it the matrix. You get sucked into. You can look at screens all day. You can go from your tablet to your television, laptop, iPhone and to your desktop. There’s no shortage of screens. I found this lady in New York City, who was the guest at one of my intergenerational events. She lives in a high rise in New York City. She said people don’t even see her. Her neighbors don’t even see her. She feels invisible. She’s had horrible health problems. She was bankrupted by the medical system. She’s got a bleak existence.You have to be in touch with the rhythm of life to be a healer. Click To Tweet
She came and she spoke. People in the audience were crying because everybody realizes that they would probably not have seen this lady. We walk right by her on the street. We’re looking at our phone. If you have an elderly neighbor, a lot of people would not take the time to engage with them or are too busy. You come together and it felt so good to hear her story, hear her pain and give her a chance to share. People are living lives of quiet desperation. That’s true for everybody. To come to an experience where you can sit in a circle and say, “Here’s what hurts,” and listen to one another is an incredible experience. It’s not something that can happen on technology.
That’s the secret. Don’t be looking in the wrong place for your answers to feel connected. You would think, “I’ll hop on social media and feel better.” Research has shown that the more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to be depressed because you keep comparing yourself to the best moments in everyone else’s life and thinking, “I do not have that much fun.” You also talk about how to feel instantly successful. I’m curious to know how to do that.
This guy in the book said he was a 90. He didn’t make more than $27,000 his whole life, but he found the value in being engaged, purposeful in his work and passionate about living and his faith. He is a widower, but he goes to old age homes and plays country music. He has a little country music band. There are a lot of people who’d be like, “I didn’t make any money my whole life. It’s been hard. It’s been a grind. I worked my ass off. What do I have to show for it?” Here’s a guy who put his emphasis on the intangibles. He was working in the fields on the tractors in the blazing heat. He cranks the country music, loved, found a way to his heart first and love what he did. He has lived a great life. Your accomplishments in older age are not what you have to show for yourself, but who are showing up for you. The investments that you make in people, love and relationships.
Nobody wants to hold up their plaques or awards at a memorial service. In fact, you talk about how to screw, laugh and celebrate at funerals. Everyone fantasizes, “What will people say about me at my funeral?” What’s going on in that chapter?
There’s this lady Lorena who is in her 80s. She spoke at one of my intergenerational events in Dallas. She told a story. Her first husband died of ALS. It was brutal. She got married again and had this incredibly blissful life. Her second husband died of a heart attack. She’d been through so much pain and loss. She was at the funeral for her second husband. She tripped, fell over one of the grandkids and broke her femur bones. Everybody was listening to her story. People stopped drinking their wines. You could pierce the silence in the room, which is sadness. She had to get rod and screws inserted in her leg to heal the break. She says to everyone, “I got screwed by Rod and I did not like it.” It was so funny. It was such comic relief that this lady could come to the pain in her life and find some humor. If she can do it, then so can you and so can I. Find a way to loosen our grip and laugh about our challenges, not take life so seriously.
You are combining meditation and storytelling together. Can you explain how that works?
I like to tell stories about the elders that I speak with. They are a great resource for great stories and life lessons. I lead these guided meditations and have these meditation programs. Meditation is something that we silo, that separates us from life so that we can find our peace, quiet, go off in a corner and listen to a guided meditation. I found that meditation is better in my experience when it integrates everything that’s going on in life, instead of separates from everything going on in my life. I lead these meditation programs. I share stories from the elders and stories about what’s going on in the pop culture. Every moment offers us an opportunity to meditate. Every moment throughout our today, stuck in traffic, screaming kids, running into someone that stole your fiancé. Every moment if we can resist and push back against it, life becomes exhausting or we can embrace, find the lessons and move deeply into the emotional experience of life moment by moment. I try to make my meditations integrating, everything that’s going on around us and within us so it feels more whole.
You have gotten some interest from Netflix on what you’re doing, and possibly turning that into a show. How did that come about? How are you pitching what you’re doing?Everything is on a screen and everybody's longing for human experiences. Click To Tweet
The work I’m doing with the elders is interesting because 10,000 people are turning 65 every single day. We’re segregated by age. I don’t think businesses are recognizing how important it is that we learn to engage the aging population. There was this article I saw in Fast Company Magazine. The headline was, “It’s time to pay attention to the $15 trillion business of growing old.” It said it’s the most significant demographic shift in recent history. America has always been about being sexy, young and glamorous. We’re getting older. There’re going to be more old people than young people. It’s going to be much more about being seasoned and wise as much as it is about youthful and glamorous. I’m coming up with different ideas on how you can show the relevance of the elder population. How you can take them out of social isolation and bring them back into the mix. That’s an idea that I’m working on.
Congratulations on that. Tell us a little bit about the keynote talks you’ve given. Who hires you to give them?
I’ve been giving a lot of talks. My second book was called Happy Is the New Healthy. It shares the message of joie de vivre and the ways that we can loosen our grip. My new book, Life Lessons from the Oldest & Wisest takes the joie de vivre and the message of happiness. It also talks in depth about how it’s hard to see the future and the future trends if we’re not rooted in the past. It’s important for companies to be able to honor and share everything that they’ve learned from their past. The mistakes that they’ve made. When you talk to somebody who’s 80, 90, 100 years old, they weigh in on their regrets and the things that they didn’t do right, that’s almost as meaningful as the things that they did do right.
You don’t have to make the same mistakes over and over through every generation. We can learn from people. For instance, this one guy told me his wife passed away from Alzheimer’s. He was married to her for many years. He sat by her bedside and held her hand as she lay dying. He relived with her all the moments that he enjoyed in their life. He was grieving. He was sad. Hearing him tell a story was like a wake-up call because we all take our partner for granted. You wake up next to the same person every day and the same stories, issues and challenges. One day, we’re going to have to say goodbye or they’re going to have to say goodbye to us. There comes the point where you wake up and wish that you appreciated them more than we do, especially in the prime of our life when we can go places, travel and we’re not old yet.
It’s important for people to hear that message. You don’t want to look back and wish that you were more grateful for somebody you love deeply. It’s not a pleasant regret to have. That’s why it’s important to recognize and listen to the regrets that people have, and for companies to realize, “These are the mistakes that we’ve made. Let’s honor these mistakes and grow from these mistakes.” When you have a lot of history, you’ve been around for a while and you’re able to share from that place of vulnerability that speaks highly to our ability to nurture great relationships.
You talk about people being so focused in the future that, “As soon as I fall in love, as soon as I have this much money, as soon as my career takes off, whatever it is, then I’ll be happy,” as opposed to, “I can’t possibly be happy now because I don’t have everything I need in order to be happy.” You have a lot to say on that.
There are all these conditions that we attach to our happiness. I had a great trip to Alaska with a friend. We were in rural Alaska. We had to get a taxi to take us back to our car. It was such an awesome trip. My friend said, “I bet you this taxi driver has a message for us.” Sure enough, we got in the car and the taxi driver tells us he just left hospice and his father passed away. We said, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” He said, “Don’t be sorry. I got to spend every day with my dad for the last six months of his life.” We caught up on so much. We did so many deep, rich conversations. He said, “What was I thinking? Why did I wait for the last six months in my dad’s life to get this close to him? What was I waiting for?” When he says goodbye, he always tells people, “Enjoy your journey.”
That was so true. We’re always waiting for something in order for us to allow ourselves to be happy. Most old people that I meet, they’re not like that in 111 years old. There are a lot of old people who are worried. There are a lot of old people who are resentful. Those conditions follow them into old age. If you’re a little bit worried when you’re 42, you’ll be a lot more worried when you’re 52. You’ll be really worried when you’re 82. If you’re a little bit resentful when you’re 37, you’ll be quite resentful when you’re 47 and resentful when you’re 67. There comes a point where you have to make a decision to set yourself loose from these conditions that we place upon our lives and free ourselves. There’s something you can do to be happy. I talk about in my books, especially in my speeches, the simple things that you can do right this second to turn up the volume on your level of joy, presence and quality of life.There comes a point where you have to make a decision to set yourself loose from the conditions we place upon our lives and free ourselves. Click To Tweet
That is what meditation is all about, being in the moment, letting go of everything else, being comfortable with the silence, and not comparing yourself to other people is a key path for being happy. Whatever the journey is, you’re in it, as opposed to being so frustrated, especially in the entrepreneur world or business in general, “We have to hit this milestone.” There’s always another milestone to hit. Nobody ever gets to be in the joy and celebrate what they’ve accomplished. What you’re doing is so important to everyone of all ages, but also to remind us of the importance of spending time with people who aren’t going to be here forever.
I appreciate you saying that.
Is there any last thought you want to leave us with, David?
One more story about what you said about comparing ourselves. I interviewed this lady, Linda Jones, an elder. She’s in her 80s. Her dad was this iconic Chuck Jones, who created the Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny, etc. Linda told a great story. When she was young, she felt bad that she wasn’t living up to her dad’s legend. She wasn’t as successful as she thought her father was. She felt bad about herself. We’ve all been there in some way. She wrote her dad a letter. Back then, people wrote letters. They didn’t type. They didn’t email. She said, “Dad, I want to share with you that I feel lousy about myself. You’re so successful and I’m not. I’m in the dumps.” Her dad wrote back. He said, “Linda, get off my mountain. You have your mountain to climb. I have mine.” She said it snapped her in a place. She recognized that she does have a lot to be proud of. Her dad wasn’t looking to her to compare and to hold up to his height. She has her own life to live.You got to be proud of the mountain that you're climbing and the life that you're living. Click To Tweet
How can you avoid looking through social media and feeling bad about all the likes this guy gets? 100,000 downloads that my friend said she posted about her podcast or the place that this couple is traveling. It inherently makes you feel bad. At a certain point, the whole thing with social media, it’s not sustainable. Nobody feels good using social media and something’s not in the long run is going to give there. You’ve got to be proud of the mountain that you’re climbing and the life that you’re living. I saw this great quote that I want to end with. It’s a quote by Lao Tzu. He says, “Because one believes in oneself, one does not try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one does not need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts her.”
I can’t thank you enough for being a guest on the show. If people want to find out more about you, what’s the best website?
David, thanks so much for being with us and sharing your joy and wisdom.
Thank you so much, John.
- David Romanelli
- Drinks with Your Elders
- Life Lessons from the Oldest & Wisest
- Happy Is the New Healthy
- Dr. Carl Hammerschlag
- It’s time to pay attention to the $15 trillion business of growing old – article on Fast Company Magazine
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