Live in a Constant State of Surprise
Insights from 97 year-old Betty Reid Soskin, America’s oldest park ranger.
“I sell out like Hamilton,” says Betty Reid Soskin, of the three to five presentations a day she gives to an audience of about 48 people in a small theater, five days a week. At 97 years old, Betty is America’s oldest park ranger in the National Park Service. She gives tours and talks, sharing her own story and the experience of being an African American worker during World War II.
Throughout the near-century that Betty has lived, she’s been a poet, singer, songwriter, blogger, social activist, and a Black Panther. Betty served in a Jim Crowe segregated union hall during World War II, experienced redlining and death threats in Berkeley in 1952 when she tried to build her first house, and made a career change at 85 years old to become a full time park ranger. At 94, she was asked to introduce President Obama at the National Tree Lighting Ceremony.
Betty sat down with Chris Hall, Adobe VP of Customer Experience, at our recent Adobe For All Summit, to share how she’s constantly reinvented herself, her thoughts on divisiveness and inclusion, and her secret to living a long life. Read on for insights from Betty’s Q&A session:
1. Live your life in a constant state of surprise
“I’m still having first time experiences at 97,” Betty says. She spends very little time regretting yesterday and almost no time planning tomorrow. When asked what fuels her to keep reinventing herself over and over again, Betty says that if she had known that her life would entail going through countless transitions, she’s not sure if she could have done it. But she recognizes life is unpredictable, and she’s always sensed that changes will come about every decade. Because of this, she’s been able to take those changes as they come.
2. Every generation has to recreate democracy
Betty believes every generation has to recreate democracy in its time, and that it’s an ongoing process instead of a promise.
“I know I helped to create the world you are now living in, back in the ‘60’s,” she says. “I created that future along with millions of other people. And because of the grand sweep of history that I’ve lived, I know that I am now responsible for the creation of the future that my grandchildren are going to live in. I have more of a sense of where I am positioned in space more than I ever have in my life.”
Having almost lived a century, Betty has a deep understanding of the impact of history because she’s lived through it, and she can now see patterns that she couldn’t see while she was moving through it. “I now know that these periods of chaos are cyclical, that they’ve been happening since 1776, and that we’re in the middle of one of them now,” she says. “It’s in those periods that democracy is redefined, when we have access to the reset buttons.”
Betty has a vision that we’re on an “upward spiral,” and that we keep touching the same places in history at higher and higher levels. There have always been people throughout history trying to get it right, and there are enough of us so that the spiral continues to lift us higher and each time we hit one of those places of chaos, we’re setting the stage for the next generation. Betty says, “Being part of this is what I’m privileged to have lived through, and to have lived long enough to have a sense of this, is a gift.”
3. Trust yourself and your intuitions
Betty has learned at a very young age to trust her intuition, and it’s what has led her through life. She believes she’s had her basic truths since she was six years old, and these are the things she always reverts back to, instead of the experiences she’s layered on since then. These basic truths have given her the power to move even more into herself to become the person she is today.
Betty says she’s always been ‘contemporary’ her whole life. She’s been using a computer for 30 years, and she’s been blogging since 2003. “I’ve always been now. There’s never been past or future Betty.” Betty says she didn’t discover the person she is until she stopped being externally defined as a daughter and wife and mother, and this is when she found another Betty, who is even more powerful than those who had been before. “I think there’s always been an unfolding. I don’t know who’s in there now, but I trust her.”
Betty’s secret to living a long life? She believes it’s because she has always stayed present, and it didn’t occur to her until recently that it’s not the way everyone lives.
Betty’s wisdom is encouragement for all of us, that it’s truly never too late to reinvent ourselves and make an impact on the world.
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