David Mahoney Commencement Speech at Rutgers University

May 16, 1996

This speech is going to make you roll your eyes and smile. You’re going to wonder – what kind of super-optimist did they get to make this year’s commencement address? Okay, here comes a challenge you didn’t know you had: Each one of you is going to have to start planning now to live to be one hundred.

No, I’m not planning to live a hundred myself. Nor is my son, David Jr. – he’ll consider himself lucky to get to ninety. But his son, now age six, at the tag end of your generation, has more than a good chance to break a hundred. And sol do all of you in the class of ’96.

I’m not alone in making this prediction. A strange thing happened on Air Force One recently: The president of the United States sat on the floor of the aircraft, up against a bulkhead, and spoke to the traveling press pool for three hours. Not a word was on the record. The rules were “psychological background”– that meant the press could report what President Clinton was thinking, but could not say he was the one who told them. They could attribute his ruminations only to a mysterious source called “the highest authority”.

Some of us read the pool report with care because we like to know what’s going on in the head of the man who runs the country. And sure enough, there was a line in it that was, to me, a stunner. Quote: “He feels biology will be to the twenty-first century what physics was to the twentieth century. He believes people might routinely live beyond one hundred years.”

That comes to us from the “highest authority”– not God, but from the CEO of the world’s only superpower, who has access to the best scientific minds in the country. And he was not talking about one person in a thousand living to be a hundred, as happens today; he believes that people will “routinely” make it all the way to triple digits. Of course, the reporters were more interested in politics and scandal, and nobody followed up on the most intriguing notion of the day: an extra-long generation tacked on to the average human’s life.

Of course, the actuaries at the insurance companies look back, not forward, to report past life expectancy. Based on past history, the tables say all of you here can expect to live to only seventy-seven years and nine months. Don’t knock it – that’s a 10 percent longer life that Americans born fifty years ago, and it beats the biblical “three score and ten.” But the actuaries are careful to say they’re only historians, and they’re not making forecasts.

So don’t be fooled by an “expectancy” age that presumes we won’t get a cure for cancer – which we will. Don’t accept a presumption that organ transplants won’t become everyday operations, which they will. And then factor in the medical breakthroughs stemming from the Huan Genome Project, which is going to use genetics to cure hereditary diseases and bring down the death rate. And if we were able, in the past fifty years, to triumph over the microbe with antibiotics, isn’t it logical to assume that in the coming generations we will be able to conquer viruses Taken together, the medical advances in your lifetime are near certain to add a generation to your life. You will play a whole new fourth quarter.

Let me tell you what opened my mind to these possibilities. I am chairman of the Charles A. Dana Foundation, which supports research in brain science. Five years ago, I put a challenge to a group of the brainiest neuroscientist in the world, many of them Nobel laureates, including James Watson, the codiscoverer of DNA. I said: “Name ten brain problems you can solve in the coming decade if you get the proper support.” At first they were reluctant to go out on a limb, but they realized how important it was to offer realistic hope in order to get research support. They signed on to ten challenges – just ten – that together can beat dozens of neurological diseases in this decade.

We’re halfway through this decade – how are we doing? Well, the latest Dana Alliance progress report shows that we have found the gene for Lou Gehrig’s disease and the first drug for it is coming out this year. We’ve got not one but four genes involved in Alzheimer’s disease and twenty-two new drugs for it are in trials. We have the first really good medication for schizophrenia and more in the pipeline, and just this year the FDA approved the first emergency drug that can protect against disability if someone having a stroke receives it quickly.

Next on the list: treatments that will block the action of cocaine. Brain tissue transplants – and not with human fetuses, either – that will cure Parkinson’s disease. At least one and probably more genes that cause manic –depressive illness. And the first drugs that can induce injured spinal cord cells to reconnect – so that people will have a better shot at recovering movement. These aren’t my predictions; they are the estimates of the best minds in the field, who have a track record of delivering the cures they talk about.

That’s why I agree with “the highest authority” in Air Force One about your generation living to a hundred. Get your minds around that: Most of you, now in your early twenties, might well have the chance to be centenarians. What does that mean to you right now?

You think of centenarians a toothless old geezers doddering around if they’re lucky, confined to wheelchairs if they’re not. You think of the line of George Burns when he reached one hundred: “At my age, you don’t’ buy green bananas.” Or you’re thinking of the gag about Senator Strom Thurmond – that when he willed his body parts to a hospital, the doctors saw a list of parts that they weren’t even using anymore.

You think of extreme old age – if you think of it at all – as a time of being a liability to society and a burden to the family. Of falling apart physically and losing your marbles mentally. Of making no contribution. And – worst of all – of having no fun. As Ira Gershwin wrote in Porgy and Bess: “Methusaleh lived nine hundred years. But who calls that livin’, when no gal will give in, to no one who’s nine hundred years.”

But what if brain scientists are able to keep pace with the scientists of the body? Let’s assume that immunologists will be able to prevent or cure everything from cancer to AIDS, and organ transplants and bloodwork and genetic engineering will cope with most other ailments and diseases. Without an active brain – without a working memory and the ability to learn ‘ “who calls that livin'”?

I’m here to tell you that neuroscience is keeping pace with , even setting the pace for, all other medical disciplines. This year, as you can learn from our heavily hit Web site on the Internet, we’re expanding the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives on a global scale. Here’s our guarantee: as body scientists keep you alive to a hundred, brain scientists will keep your life worth living.

What do you do with this information? I submit that you throw out all previous notions of one career followed by a lazy retirement. That was the strategy of your grandfathers and it’s strictly wheelchair thinking. You need a new strategy for a lifetime of alertness that lasts a whole century.

The Centenarian Strategy delivers a swift kick in the head to the current idea of hitting the ground running, working your youth into frazzle, taking every better offer as it comes, making a pile as early as you can and then coasting on that momentum until your last downsizing company forces you into retirement.

The Centenarian Strategy also runs counter to the planning of idealistic young people who look to a life of public service, of social work or environmental action, setting aside money for psychic income and expecting the government to care for them in old age.

Keeping that active fourth quarter in view – remembering that brain scientists have already found that you are much less likely to vegetate if you stay active and keep exercising your mind as well as your body – then here are the five fundamentals of the Centenarian Strategy:

1. Diversify your career from the very beginning.

Stop thinking of jobs in series, one after the other; instead, think of careers in parallel. That means planning your vacation along with your avocation, and keep them as separate as possible. If you want to go into business, plan an avocation of music or art; if you are inclined toward the law or the media, diversify into education or landscaping. If you want to be a poet, think about politics on the side, and study it seriously.

Don’t confuse an avocation with recreation. Watching basketball on television, or surfing the Internet for the latest interactive game, can be a lively part of life, but it’s not creative avocation. And don’t confuse a serious avocation with a hobby; do-it-yourselfing is fund, and so are clay modeling, and gardening and fiddling with old cars. Hobbies are ways to relax and to make friends, and everybody should have some; but a real avocation is a subtext to a career, and a part of your working week to pursue with a certain dedication. Why? Not only because it gives balance to your second quarter, but because it positions you for the time that will come, in the third or fourth quarter, to switch gears. And then switch them again – you’ll have the time, and public policy will change to give you incentives to keep working or avocating.

The point is to not be singleminded about career. Be double-minded, or triple-minded; to keep a pot or two on your back burners.

2. Take advantage of your opportunity to wind up a millionaire.

Financial independence will take a lot of pressure off that fourth quarter and make it something to look forward to. The Age of Entitlement is coming to an end. The baby boomers who count only on Social Security and Medicare will be disappointed. You in the post-boomer generation should not rely on society’s safety net and think more about your own personal nest egg.

The trick is to use the new tools the government is giving you to save, to avoid taxes in your IRAs and 40I (k) accounts, and to invest in broad index funds that are sure to grow. To the centenarian, credit-card living is out, leveraged saving is in. Use your tax leverage to make your savings grow exponentially. In this savings race, the tortoise beats the hare; by taking full advantage of the plans out there now, and more sure to come in the next decade, you need not be a rocket scientist to become a millionaire – in real terms – by your fourth quarter. Especially if you’re part of a two-income family. About that family –

3. Invest in your family dimension.

As life gets longer, young people are getting married later. Fine; that deliberation about a big choice should ultimately reverse the divorce rate. But make a commitment early in your second quarter; the smartest thing you can do in diversifying your life is to stop playing the field.

The wave of the future, in the Centenarian Strategy, is to frame your life in traditional family settings. Do your market research in singlehood, choose for the long term and then commit to marriage; have kids; a void divorce; raise your likehood of having grandchildren. Following this course, you can expect at least a couple of great-grandchildren to enjoy, to work with, and to help as you approach the century mark. If you plan properly now to protect your wallet and your intellect, you can be a family asset, not a liability, later; and your family, with all the headaches, will enrich your life.

4. Pace yourself: it’s a small world and a long life.

The centenarian thinks about success differently, with a longer view. He or she measures success in getting to personal satisfaction, which does not always mean getting to the top of the heap. Making money is important, never derogate building an estate that you and your progeny can use. But developing long –term loyalties in all the strands of your career and avocation and hobbies and recreation pays off in that satisfaction. Those loyalties also make life easier later; you can get things done across the different strands, helping someone in your avocation who has helped you in your career.

Ask yourself along the way: Whose approval is important to you? Whose is not? The centenarians do not stop to smell the flowers; they carry the flower along.

5. Plan for at least one thoroughgoing discombobulation in your life.

This can be a good shock, like meeting someone amazing, or developing a talent you never knew you had, or finding an opportunity that takes your career or avocation in a wholly new direction. Or you can find yourself, after years of success and loyal service, out on your ear in a merger or a downsizing or a hostile takeover.

It happened to me. I was running a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, doing just fine, but when I tried to take it private, somebody beat me to the punch. I wound up with a big bunch of money, which meant I got no sympathy from my friends, but I was out of a job. No airplance, no executive support system, no daily calendar full of appointments with big shots – not place to go in the morning.

Did I let it bother me? You bet I did. I plunged into the deepest blue funk imaginable. But luckily – and this was not part of any life strategy – I had an avocation to turn to. It was philanthropy, the Dana Foundation, and it had long been leading me into supporting the field of brain science. So I threw myself into that, applying what I had learned in marketing and finance to a field that needed an outsider with those credentials. And for the past ten years, I’ve gotten more sheer satisfaction out of marshaling the force of public opinion behind research into imaging, memory and conquering depression than anything I ever did as a boy wonder or a boardroom biggie.

But it would not have happened if I did not have that anchor to windward – the other, wholly unrelated actvitiy to turn to. Success, or a resounding setback, in one career can lead to success, of another kind, in the parallel career.

That, in a nutshell, is how to cope with a challenge no graduating class has ever had – the challenge of a life with an active fourth quarter. Medical science will give most of you the body to blow out a hundred candles on your birthday cake, and the brain scientists will give you the life of your mind. That active memory will be their gift to you.

Unlike most of today’s centenarians, you will be able to remember and use what you’ve learned in your century. You will be able, in the poet’s words, to enjoy “the last of life, for which the first was made.” It’s up to you to make sure you have a varied life that’s worth remembering.

Good luck. Happy commencement. And a happy hundredth birthday.

From Ben Casnocha’s Blog: http://casnocha.com