As anyone in their 50s or 60s can tell you, there’s still a lot of learning, exploring, growing—and, yes, mistake-making—to come.
Midlife is just another milepost, not a stop sign.
We asked Bernd Heinrich, 78, biologist, author, and ultra-marathoner, what wisdom he’d impart to his 50- or 60-year-old self. Given how his life turned out, what does he wish he’d known two or three decades earlier?
It’s good not to know how things will turn out
Now retired from the University of Vermont, Heinrich spent decades studying insect physiology and behavior and authoring more than 20 books about nature.
After taking up ultra-marathoning in his 40s—that is, races longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon—he set numerous American records at those distances.
“It is difficult for me to determine what I wished I had known in my 50s and 60s, mostly because I am happy and have few complaints or regrets,” he says. “Things turned out well often from my not knowing how they would turn out. This in itself is something that I didn’t know, and wished I had known then to give comfort.”
Heinrich says he has always been intensely focused, what he describes as “my lifelong desire and willingness to focus exclusively on my science and, later, the writing.”
Looking back, he says he wishes he’d known to make more of an effort to focus on relationships too, using the natural world to describe his evolution.
“I’ve learned how to retain that quality of focus while remaining connected to the person who loves me, and vice versa, by giving a little ‘peep’ now and then—something I learned from studying flocks of chickadees and kinglets,” he says.
“They all focus on foraging, looking for food, non-stop individually. But they keep together by uttering a little chirp now and then that says where they are. The surprisingly unexpected result is that the depth of my desire and the intensity of my focus is just as powerful because I am more strongly personally rooted, which creates confidence and connection—exactly as in the bird flock.”
This is part of a series of Interviews conducted by Max Alexander, Austin Kilham, Lynn Shattuck, and Emily E. Smith.