When I Look At Older Athletes I Don't See The Past, I See Our Future

The master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which; he simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.

These are the words of Lao Tzu, a Chinese writer and philosopher born 604 BC.

Looking back on an eventful year, I came across a couple of books which capture the essence of this philosophy today. They also resonate with an event I am helping to organise later this month; in the spirit of the season I thought I would share.

The Japanese believe that everyone has an ikigai—what might be called a raison d’etre in French. And according to the residents of Okinawa, the Japanese village with the world’s longest-living people, finding it is the key to a happier and longer life. Having a strong sense of ikigai—the place where passion, mission, vocation, and profession intersect—means that each day is infused with meaning. It’s the reason we get up in the morning. It’s also the reason many Japanese never really retire (in fact there’s no word in Japanese that means retire in the sense it does in English): They remain active and work at what they enjoy, because they’ve found a real purpose in life—the happiness of always being busy.

In their insightful book Ikigoi: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life co-authors Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles suggest that a strong sense of community and a clearly defined ikigai are just as important as the famously healthy Japanese diet- perhaps even more so. According to Garcia, recent medical studies of centurions from Okinawa and other so called Blue Zones – the geographic regions where people live longest – provide a number of interesting facts about these extraordinary human beings:

  • Not only do they live much longer than the rest of the world’s population, they also suffer from fewer chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease; inflammatory disorders are also less common.
  • Many of these centenarians enjoy enviable levels of vitality and health that would be unthinkable for people of advanced age elsewhere.
  • The rate of dementia is well below the global average.

Although there are many factors that may contribute, including a healthy diet and lifestyle, research clearly indicates that the Okinawan’s focus on ikigai plays an important role in their health and longevity.

The book concludes with ten rules distilled from the wisdom of the centurions. I will only reveal one, which happens to be top of the list:

Stay active; don’t retire. Those who give up the things they love doing and do well lose their purpose in life. That’s why it is so important to keep doing things of value, making progress, bringing beauty to others, helping out, and shaping the world around you, even after your “official” professional activity has ended.

Another of my favourite books of 2017 Racing Age by Angela Jimenez documents photographs and essays about competitive track & field athletes aged sixty plus, who clearly have their own sense of ikigai.

According to Jimenez: “These athletes are literally redefining the limits of the ageing human body and providing data about the evolution of human ability. What I saw defied visual stereotypes. It’s not what you are used to seeing an older person do. It is inspiring and brave, but also uncomfortable. When I look at these older athletes, I don't see them as representing the past: They represent our future.”

Which brings me to the aforementioned event:

January 25th Brussels. The Agile Ageing Alliance, Enterprise Europe Network and Innovate UK are bringing together trans-disciplinary researchers, health practitioners, technologists, entrepreneurs, developers, large corporations, NGO’s, public health organisations and other unusual suspects. Our objective is to forge a European ‘A Team’, to co-create digitally enabled services and solutions that will enable people to remain actively involved in professional and personal life related skills and work well into later life. By way of incentive, the European Commission is offering between 3 and 4 million Euro’s to fund collaborative proposals which would allow this challenge to be addressed appropriately.

We see this as an exciting opportunity to rethink the very notion of work life and retirement. Entry is by invitation only, (no cost involved) and there is still have some space left for imaginative stakeholders. If you are interested in participating contact info@agileageing.org and tell us why you should be involved.

Wishing you a healthy and ikigai New Year.

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