How Passion and Purpose Keep This 74-Year-Old Scholar Sharp

A Life-Changing Moment

Wright never intended to become a lifelong academic. Faced with the choice of the Army or college during the Vietnam War, he chose school  and worked his way through. At first, he struggled.

“I was a pretty mediocre student,” he says. “Until I had this one professor of psychology — and I’ll never forget this man. At the end of class one day, he said, ‘Why don’t we get a cup of coffee?’ And I’d never had a teacher do that.”

He says his professor told him, “You’re much smarter than what you’re living. You deserve to be a better student,” and his entire perspective changed. After that talk, he went from a C student to an A student.

“We never know the power of one conversation to change,” he says. “It was one of those life moments.” 

The Magic Wand

In addition to a supportive wife and colleagues, a regimen of Omega-3 vitamins and his general predisposition for staying busy, Wright says there’s one thing that keeps him always reaching for the next thing — his magic wand question.

“‘If you had a magic wand and could change anything, what would that be? If you had a magic wand and you could do it all over again, what would you do?’ And then I say, ‘Why not do it?’”

It’s this question that convinced him he had to go back to school for his PhD in interdisciplinary learning at the age of 72. 

“I do everything I can to keep my brain alert and working,” he says. “This is a part of a completion that I started much younger in my life. I love learning because that’s one of the great keys of survival. Learning, learning, learning.” 

Going back to school has had its challenging moments — like learning how to write papers again — but for him, it’s completely worth it. 

“I’m almost finished with my coursework and I’m going to be starting my dissertation,” he says. “It was very humbling at first. I hadn’t written over in 30 years. That first semester was a rude awakening.” 

According to Wright, it was “very humbling and also very confidence-building,” but he kept on. His perseverance is due to his belief that most things in life that are worthwhile are difficult.

“We don’t need to give up when we get frustrated,” he says. “When I’m confused or frustrated, it means I’m about to learn something. I don’t see it as a reason to give up.” 

Passion and Purpose

For anyone else looking to pursue something new and out of their comfort zone, Wright’s life is a shining example. In his peer group, he especially advocates for staying active, having creative outlets and finding ways to contribute. Not doing these things can lead to despondence, he’s noticed. 

“It’s about finding new purpose,” he says. “Build some fire within you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal; it can be whatever you want. It can be a life completion, a new adventure, doing things you’re afraid of. All kinds of interesting things, but find that purpose.”

As for his future plans, there’s no slowing down any time soon. Whenever he needs a reminder to keep going, he has a card with a George Burns quote nearby.

“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old,” he says. “...And I’m planning on a lot more years of contribution, because it’s part of my passion and purpose.”

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