On the one hand, you’ve got the famous quote that Anna Quindlen attributed in a commencement address at Villanova to a friend of the late Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts: “No one ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office.” On the other, you’ve got the immortal words of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
If it’s true, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then I must be smarter than I look. As I close in on the mandatory retirement age of 65 in my adopted country of Switzerland, I find myself walking a tightrope, with those two contrary perspectives on either side.
No one in my family in my parents’ generation worked past 65. Some stopped earlier. The exception was my Uncle Harry, a self-taught manufacturing engineer who loved his work and never wanted to retire.
As I approached 60, I felt I was reaching a respectable retirement age and an appropriate moment to end my 30-year career in corporate communications at Roche. The Swiss healthcare company had hired me in 1982 at its then-U.S. headquarters just west of Manhattan and then transferred me in 2001 to its global headquarters in Basel. But 60-30 slipped by, and before I knew it, I was on to 65-35. And with that latest planned retirement milestone suddenly upon me, I’m still walking that tightrope, balancing myself between the urge to kick back and the desire to keep on.
Freedom to choose
Somewhere along the way, I realized that on the other side of the finish line I couldn’t wait to cross was not retirement, exactly, but the freedom to choose how I spent my time: what I wanted to do, and how much. And just as I was pondering that question, I got an email at work announcing that effective this month, by mutual agreement with their managers, employees can work after retirement, starting from age 60, or continue working from 65 until 70, with deferred retirement benefits. Just like that, the range of what I could consider doing past my 65th birthday had a whole new dimension – one I never imagined I’d even consider. In the end, I may not re-up for another tour of duty at my company, but I can’t say I don’t find the sudden option to explore the idea a pleasant surprise.
My two mentors
It’s got me thinking about the two great mentors in my life, both gone now. Each enthusiastically worked past 90. Nothing could stop either of them, except the diminished capacity of old age and failing health.
First, there was my graduate school journalism professor, Hillier Krieghbam. By the time we met he was already well into his 70s, but he still loved teaching his profession to students like me. He’ been chairman of the Journalism department at New York University in 1951, the year I was born. The university gave him a lifetime office on Washington Square, where we’d meet to discuss my master’s project and then go out for Chinese food in the Village. After serving in the military, he’d had a successful career as a newspaper reporter and editor, and then he became an expert in science writing. He wrote a seminal textbook on the subject called “Science and the Mass Media,” and then taught for many years until his sudden death at 91 of an aneurysm after slipping on ice and fracturing his hip. He always loved journalism and enjoyed passing his knowledge and experience on to future generations of professional communicators.
Then came my serendipitous meeting with the man who’d become my second life mentor. I couldn’t have been at Roche for more than a couple of weeks in the summer of ‘82 when I was assigned to manage the public relations for an event honoring the great medicinal chemist, Dr. Leo Sternbach, who had invented the benzodiazepine class of pharmaceutical compounds that spawned Librium, Valium and other drugs to treat anxiety, seizures, sleep disorders and other conditions. He and I became fast friends almost from the moment I knocked on his door on one of the upper floors of the sky-scraping Roche research tower they called “the house that Leo built.” That was despite the fact that a less likely pairing would be difficult to imagine: the 76-year-old eastern European scientist and the 30-year-old American journalism school graduate who didn’t know the benzodiazepines from the Philippines.
What I did know, though, from the moment we connected, is that Leo Sternbach loved chemistry. Like Professor Kriegbaum at NYU, Dr. Sternbach had a lifetime office at Roche, and he came there to stay current in the chemistry he loved until he could no longer drive himself to the company campus. After that, his wife Herta drove him to work every day at 8:00 in the morning and picked him up at 5:00 in the afternoon. He visited Basel when he was 95 for an event at Roche celebrating his birthday and the launch of his biography, “Good Chemistry: The Life and Legacy of Valium Inventor Leo Sternbach,” which I project-managed and arranged to have published by McGraw-Hill. He died at 97, still loving the mystery of molecules, as he had since his days as a child experimenting with chemical combinations on the windowsill of his bedroom in his parent’s home in Opatija, on the coast of Croatia.
Thinking of my two great mentors makes me lean toward the Confucian view of work, which, when well-chosen from the depths of one’s soul, can become a lifelong labor of love. And that made me think of the words of a patient whose life was saved by one of Roche’s drugs.
It’s about time, and how you spend it
At a communications workshop I ran a few years ago in San Francisco, a middle-aged man whose multiple malignant tumors shrunk after treatment with a Roche cancer drug, talked – as so many cancer survivors I’ve met have – about finding a whole new perspective on life after looking death in the eye. “Time is our most important resource,” he said, “not money and stuff. After getting sick and getting well, you don’t want to waste your time. The lesson is, you don’t have control over anything – except the way you spend your time.”
After recovering from cancer, this man quit his old job and started his own business dealing in environmentally friendly cars. As far as I know, he’s still spending his time the way he wants to and will for absolutely as long as he can.