Trading Up: From a Vocation to my Avocation

by Michael C. Patterson with Roger Anunsen

I frequently think back to 1999 when I read a piece of advice in “The Longevity Strategy” by Richard Restak and David Mahoney: To have a successful retirement, you need to have an “avocation.”

An avocation is not a job; that’s a vocation. And it’s much more than a hobby. An avocation is a deep and passionate engagement in an activity, one that has meaning, gravitas, breadth, and depth. If we are lucky, our paid job is deeply engaging. When we retire, we need to find a passionate life work that can replace the structure of the workplace and the incentive of a weekly paycheck.

My first real passion as a young adult was the theater. My current (retirement) passion revolves around the evolving sciences of brain and mind. I keep asking myself: How did my passion for theater lead to a fascination with neuroscience?

My life’s through-line (a wonderful theater term) is built around a fascination with human behavior. What a piece of work is man and woman! We are a species capable of producing breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring creations, yet also capable of brutal oppression and mindless destruction. At their core, both theater and neuroscience are disciplines that strive to understand the complexities of the human mind as expressed in human behavior.

I agree with Mahony and Restak that having an avocation gives retirement (or any stage of life) greater meaning and purpose. But I have come to realize that an avocation alone is not sufficient. At least not for me. Perhaps it is the actor in me, but I’ve come to realize that I also need “an audience.”

A good avocation should connect you to a broader community and to a grander enterprise. My quest to understand human behavior is connected to a desire to amplify our creative and artistic achievements, while diminishing our propensities for greed, violence, and hatred of those we deem as “others.” These desires connect me with a variety of different communities, including artists, creators, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists.

I can tap into these communities and feel some comradeship, but the relationships remain somewhat abstract and distant. Full disclosure: I’m an introvert and tend to find group interactions exhausting and depleting. So, when I say I need an audience, I’m talking about a smaller, more intimate relationship. I find that I need at least one individual who shares my passions and is willing, even eager, to discuss ideas, raise questions and offer the kind of speculations that keep my vocation alive and growing.

My colleague, friend and buddy, Roger Anunsen, has been my valued (brain sciences) audience for the past two decades. It’s a reciprocal relationship that’s confirmed each time my thoughts and feelings reverberate in Roger’s musings. The echoes confirm that I exist and am being heard. Without this audience of one, the products of my mind would simply float into the ether and dissipate without any lasting impact. In this sense, having an audience is an essential aspect of my sense of SELF.

And, together, Roger and I strive to convert our thoughts and ideas into action. We translate our research into practical programs that help people live long and live well. With Roger as my initial audience, I find the courage and self-confidence to share my thinking and my passions with larger audiences.

Roger’s route to our shared avocation was different from mine. He started as a public defender, helping farmers keep their farms, and protecting animals. Unable to turn away a client in need, Roger eventually burned out.

After months of inactivity, his wife showed him a help wanted classified. An assisted living community needed a part-time van driver. Roger loved his own “Nana,” and his wife pointed out that the job would surround him with potential Nanas. Roger took the job. The Nanas were immediately delighted by Roger’s ebullience and enthusiasm.  He made sure that very passenger on the van was involved and had fun.

Then, a couple of weeks later, the activity director suddenly quit. Roger was offered the full-time job. He pointed out that he had no training but was told that all he needed to remember was the Three Bs, “bibles, birthdays and bingo.”

Needless to say, the Three Bs was a woefully inadequate strategy for engaging the minds of Roger’s new nest of Nanas. So, he began inventing games, activities and events that were nun and, more important, were mentally stimulating. He became fascinated with figuring out what kinds of mental activities improved mood and cognition and why. He quickly developed a program called MemAerobics that was shown in a published, peer-reviewed clinical trial, to improve mood and memory as well as lessen the symptoms of depression.

I met Roger at the American Society on Aging conference in 2006. I was running the nationally recognized Staying Sharp brain health program for AARP and attended each of the seven sessions in ASA’s first ever “Brain Health” track. Roger was at every session as well and gave the track’s final presentation. During his session, my mind shouted: BINGO! Roger was just the person I was looking for. I hired him as a consultant for the Staying Sharp program.

Roger and I developed, and pilot tested, AARP’s Brain Health Ambassador Program, only to be derailed in 2009 when the entire Staying Sharp program was discontinued in the wake of the Great Recession. I suffered a forced retirement at age 62 because of the economic downturn and downsizing at AARP. My vocation was gone. So was Roger’s. We both thought: “Let’s do this.” So, we took a leap of faith and started our own organization called MINDRAMP to continue to pursue our shared passion for brain health.

MINDRAMP and Roger have provided me with two essential components of what I consider to be my successful retirement. I have an avocation and I have someone who was happy to share my journey of exploration and adventure. I consider myself lucky and very fortunate on both counts.