David A. Shapiro: “Less is more”

We’ve all heard the quote, “Less is more;” I’m going to take draw upon that as something I wish someone had told me when I first started, and follow that advice for this question. As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David […]

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We’ve all heard the quote, “Less is more;” I’m going to take draw upon that as something I wish someone had told me when I first started, and follow that advice for this question.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Shapiro.

David Shapiro is co-author, with Richard J. Leider, of Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging. Shapiro is a philosopher, educator, and writer whose work consistently explores matters of meaning, purpose, and equity in the lives of young people and adults. He is a tenured philosophy professor at Cascadia College, a community college in the Seattle area. Richard J. Leider is the founder of Inventure — The Purpose Company, whose mission is to help people unlock the power of purpose. Widely viewed as a pioneer of the global purpose movement, Leider has written or cowritten eleven books, including three bestsellers, which have sold over one million copies.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I had a pretty typical middle-class American childhood; two parents, two children; I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1970s. I was a nerd before the term was coined; I was a voracious reader as a child; I was into model rocketry as a teen, and my friends and I liked to go spelunking on the weekends. I began to get interested in philosophy in high school; I had a History teacher who introduced me to the works of Descartes and Spinoza, and the political philosophy of Mao Tse-Tung; from there on out, I know that I wanted to pursue the study of philosophy as a lifelong effort. There have been some twists and turns along the way, but that central interest has been abiding all along.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

When I was about 11, I read a book called The Teddy Bear Habit, by the writer, James Collier. It’s what would be called a “Young Adult” novel these days; back then, it was just a book. It tells the story of a 12-year-old kid who lives in Greenwich Village and is an aspiring guitarist, but who, much to his embarrassment, can’t go on stage without his beloved childhood teddy bear hidden somewhere, usually inside his guitar. The kid gets embroiled in a diamond heist (the criminals hide the jewels inside his teddy bear), and the ending of the book is so heartbreaking, that I cried out loud reading it. That was the first time I realized the power of literature; I’ve had numerous opportunities to cry or laugh while reading since; that event set me on the path to doing so.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I’m not exactly sure that this is a mistake, but it’s a kind of ironic happenstance that led me to work closely with Richard Leider, with whom I’ve co-authored half a dozen books. In 1987, I was working at a corporate training company in Santa Fe, New Mexico, writing scripts for management and sales training courses. I liked the job pretty well, but had a vague sense of dissatisfaction about where my life was and where it was going. Richard came to present a workshop on “Finding Your Purpose in Life,” which was intended, by the leaders in the company, to help employees find a greater sense of purpose in order to apply that sense more effectively in support of the company’s mission. The workshop was great; I developed a much clearer sense of my life’s purpose, but it was immediately obvious to me that this purpose didn’t involve working at a corporate training company. So, within a few months, I left the company, and my wife and I moved to Paris where I tried to live the life of the expatriate writer, a la F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. It’s didn’t quite work out that way, but the effort was certainly far more in keeping with my life’s purpose than management and sales training.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

We hope to inspire readers to look at and live later life with a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Our focus is not just on getter older but also on how to grow as we do so. Everyone is getting older; not everyone is growing older. This is a book about growing whole as we grow old and how the later years of our lives can be as fulfilling and meaningful as those that led us here — if not more so. We see aging as a liberating experience, one that enables us to live with greater purpose.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

There are, we hope, lots of interesting stories in the book, but to name just one, let me tell you about our friend, Ed Rapp.

For Ed Rapp, then group president of Caterpillar Inc., “life happened while he was busy making other plans” when he was diagnosed, at age 56, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Not surprisingly, he immediately retired from his position; somewhat surprisingly, he was completely transparent with others about his reason for doing so.

Extremely surprising, though, at least for Rapp, was the outpouring he received from colleagues and friends who came forth to offer their encouragement and support. Dozens of messages he received concluded with the admonition, “Stay strong!”

And staying strong is exactly what Rapp has done, having embraced a new challenge and become a leader in the global effort to research, treat, and find a cure for ALS.

Rapp’s stated purpose for decades had been “to positively impact the people and responsibilities experienced through life.” After his ALS diagnosis, his purpose never wavered. He founded Stay Strong vs. ALS, which as of the end of 2020 raised over 11 million dollars for ALS research, a good portion of which came from the networks of colleagues and friends he built while at Caterpillar.

He likens his ALS work to “building haystacks in the hope that research will find the needle.”

At Caterpillar, Rapp recalls, they used to say, “The road to progress starts with a road.” Rapp’s road began on a farm in Pilot Grove, Missouri, where he graduated from high school in a class of 30 students. Small wonder that when he enrolled at the University of Missouri, he felt out of place and left behind. In response, he took a leadership class where he embraced a “daily prescription” of goal setting and purpose-based affirmations.

Today, he uses that same prescription, which drove his success at Caterpillar, to counsel ALS patients when they first learn of their heartbreaking prognosis: two to five years to live. Rapp draws upon his own experience in doing so. “The only times I cried,” he admits, “was telling my kids and telling my parents.” When his father-in-law expressed sorrow over Rapp’s condition, lamenting that it was “such a sad story,” Rapp responded, “If I can make a difference in ALS, it will have been a good life.”

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

There’s a story in the introduction to the book that explains how Richard and I began work on it. It’s a story about a conversation — a long conversation. And the event around which it centers was actually a nonevent: a rained-out baseball game. What’s relevant, though, is that something that didn’t happen turned out to be an occasion for something to happen. As with growing old, absence led to presence. What may have seemed empty filled in with possibility.

It’s like what happens as we age: having less that we’re required to do means we have more freedom to choose to be. Having fewer outward responsibilities allows for greater inward growth. We’re playing a different game in later life, one in which the game itself becomes secondary and what really matters are the relationships among the players and the choices we make about how to play on purpose.

In this case, the absence of a baseball game led to a long conversation, communication from the heart, without holding back, revealing our true selves — real conversation that deepened our understanding of ourselves, of each other, of our longtime friendship, and of how, contrary to one of the dominant messages of our culture, older can be better.

In the summer of 2018, we had spent a couple of days together at Richard’s house on the St. Croix River, about an hour from Minneapolis, catching up with each other as we have done every couple of years over the years and brainstorming about what our next project together might be — discussions that eventually led to this book. Having worked hard for 48 hours, and as a way to connect over a shared experience at the end of our time together, before Dave flew back that evening to Seattle, we were treating ourselves to a Twins game. Richard had used his connections in and around the Twin Cities to get us some fantastic seats — front row, field level, right by third base. We arrived at the park a good half-hour before the first pitch, got ourselves some refreshments, and settled into our seats, ready to enjoy the game.

But things didn’t go as planned. As soon as the starting pitchers finished their pregame warm-ups, it began to rain. Tarps were brought out to cover the field, and over the public-address system the announcer said there would be a delay. We looked at each other, shrugged, and figured, what the heck — Midwest weather in the summer; just wait twenty minutes and it will change.

So, we rose from our seats and began to take a walk, undercover, around the stadium’s concourse. There was an exhibit, among the other historical exhibits, about the Twins’ World Series victory in 1987, some 30 years before. It reminded us that we had known each other for even longer than that.

What we noticed, watching the rain come down, soaking the infield and outfield, was that when our culture conceives of something old like a friendship, the older it is, in most cases, the better. Like fine wine, it improves with age. It becomes more valuable, more honored. An old friendship like ours is seen as something special, beautiful, to be treasured.

By contrast, the dominant societal narrative about the old friends themselves is not so positive.

By and large, old people are often portrayed by contemporary society as less than, as in the way, as a drain on society. Getting old is a condition to be avoided at all costs.

So, as we formulated our ideas for this book, we explored ways to overcome that gap between old as valuable and old as problematic. Somewhat to our surprise, the rainout at Target Field (the game was eventually called) provided a metaphor for us to draw upon.

In a rainout, the event you expect to happen never happens. The one thing you’re waiting for — the game — never takes place. But at the same time, everything happens. Life, and especially the opportunity to connect and converse, present itself ever more clearly.

Aging is much like that. For most of us, the “game” changes; action on the field plays less of a role in our day-to-day living. Now, it’s more of an inward game. We have the time to be more reflective and contemplative about how we want to play that game for the rest of our lives.

As such, we have greater freedom than ever before to finally become the person we’ve always felt we were meant to be. [PQ]That is the singular promise of growing old — that we will experience freedom in our lives that we’ve never before fully experienced.

Above all, it’s about unlocking a sense of purpose and growing old in accordance with it.

Our day together at Target Field was not what we originally had in mind for it. As with life, it didn’t turn out the way we had planned, but also like life, it afforded us the opportunity to grow more whole together. What didn’t happen — the ballgame — led to what did happen — a long conversation — and through the unfolding of this conversation, we are able give you this book from our hearts, on purpose.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I will name a name, and it’s me, Dave Shapiro. The writing of this book, working with Richard to think about how later life can be a time of real fulfillment and meaning, has made a huge positive difference in my life. Richard’s support and mentorship has pushed me on a number of occasions over the years to step up my game as a thinker, writer, and educator — most recently as we began the writing of this book. After returning from a sabbatical in India, I hit a sort of low point where I was feeling like the best parts of my life were over, that I had peaked and accomplished all I would ever do, and that from here on out, it would pretty much be all downhill. The conversations and interactions that led to this book, however, reinvigorated me about the prospects that lay ahead. Now, I feel incredibly hopeful about what’s next. Richard’s gift of inspiration has made all the difference — not just for now, but for many tomorrows as well.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  • Change the narrative of later life as a time of decline to one affording greater opportunity for a heightened sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment
  • Society valuing, rather than discarding or discounting older people
  • Universal health care

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is all about authenticity and truth-telling. To be a leader means that a person has integrity — they keep the small promises they make with themselves and are the same person when they’re alone as when they’re others. A leader, models for others how to be in the world, is compassionate, caring, curious, and courageous. A case we make in the book is that old people are natural leaders, because, more than ever, in late life, we have the opportunity to be the person we always meant to be. Being that person is what being a leader is all about.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

We’ve all heard the quote, “Less is more;” I’m going to take draw upon that as something I wish someone had told me when I first started, and follow that advice for this question.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

How about this one from the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, from his essay, “How to Grow Old;” it’s relevant to me in my life as it perfectly encapsulates how I choose to think about old age and death: “In an old man who has known human joys and sorrows, and has achieved whatever work it was in him to do, the fear of death is somewhat abject and ignoble.

The best way to overcome it — so at least it seems to me — is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue.

And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Not really; I’m trying to live in a way such that private breakfast or lunch with is equally meaningful; I hope I could learn something new from anyone I sat down with.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

This is Richard Leider’s website, where readers can follow our work online: https://richardleider.com/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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