Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart

Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now


By Gordon Livingston, MD

Foreword by Elizabeth Edwards

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The beloved bestselling collection of common sense wisdom from a celebrated psychologist and military veteran who proves it’s never too late to move beyond the deepest of personal losses

After service in Vietnam, as a surgeon for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in 1968-69, at the height of the war, Dr. Gordon Livingston returned to the U.S. and began work as a psychiatrist. In that capacity, he has listened to people talk about their lives–what works, what doesn’t, and the limitless ways (many of them self-inflicted) that people find to be unhappy.

He is also a parent twice bereaved; in one thirteen-month period he lost his eldest son to suicide, his youngest to leukemia. Out of a lifetime of experience, Gordon Livingston has extracted thirty bedrock truths, including:
  • We are what we do.
  • Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good.
  • Only bad things happen quickly.
  • Forgiveness is a form of letting go, but they are not the same thing.
  • The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.

Livingston illuminates these and twenty-four other truths in a series of carefully hewn, perfectly calibrated essays, many of which focus on our closest relationships and the things that we do to impede or, less frequently, enhance them. Again and again, these essays underscore that “we are what we do,” and that while there may be no escaping who we are, we have the capacity to face loss, misfortune, and regret and to move beyond them–that it is not too late.

Full of things we may know but have not articulated to ourselves, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart offers solace, guidance, and hope to everyone ready to become the person they’d most like to be.


Acclaim for Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart
"[Gordon Livingston] gets reality, which is how things are, frequently not how we wish or hope they would be.... This is not, in any conventional sense, one of those kick-butt, get-real motivational guides from best-selling life coaches. Livingston is the sadder but wiser man. He is more Job than Dr. Phil, painfully aware of life's losses and limitations, trying to spare you a little hurt. He thinks in paragraphs, not in sound bites."
—ROXANNE ROBERTS, Washington Post
"Gordon Livingston has been through many kinds of hell and come back with wisdom and kindness that are to be revered. To read him is to trust him and to learn, for his life has been touched by fire, and his motives are absolutely pure."
—MARK HELPRIN, author of A Soldier of the Great War and Winter's Tale
"The gentle, even-keeled warmth of Livingston's prose distinguishes this slim book of 30 inspirational 'truths.' . . . Livingston offers the kind of wisdom that feels simultaneously commonsensical and revelatory. . . . Livingston's words feel true, and his wisdom hard-earned. Among the many blithe and hollow self-help books available everywhere, this book stands out as a jewel."
Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Life is a predicament, so read this book. Gordon Livingston is an experienced, not old, and a wise, not just a smart doctor. Listen to him and you will be smarter and probably happier."
—J. RAYMOND DEPAULO, M.D., The Henry Phipps Professor
and Director, Department of Psychiatry
and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins
University School of Medicine.
"These 'Thirty True Things . . .' are not detached musings from a psychiatric throne. [Livingston] plays personal warmth against steely professional insight, reminding readers that 'We are never out of choices, no matter how desperate the circumstances.'"
Dallas Morning News
"[Livingston] has learned most from his patients, from listening to their stories, from seeing the way they have organized their emotional lives, from the catastrophes that have unfolded, from their determination to put things back together."
—SUSAN REIMER, Baltimore Sun

About the Author
GORDON LIVINGSTON, M.D., a graduate of West Point and the John Hopkins School of Medicine, has been a physician since 1967. He is a psychiatrist and writer who contributes frequently to the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Baltimore Sun, and Reader's Digest. Awarded the Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam, he is the author of three other books, And Never Stop Dancing: Thirty More Things You Need to Know Now, Only Spring: On Mourning the Death of My Son, and How to Love. He lives and works in Columbia, Maryland.

Also by Gordon Livingston
Only Spring: On Mourning the Death of My Son And Never Stop Dancing: Thirty More True Things You Need to Know Now How to Love

To my patients
Who taught me most of what is in this book.
And to Clare
Who, beyond all reason, chose to love me.

By Elizabeth Edwards
For the past eight years, Gordon Livingston has been one of the most important people in my life—and yet I have met him only once. Neither of us is young, but we are the beneficiaries of the communication mode of the young: we met on the Internet, in an online community of bereaved parents. He and a handful of others were just what I needed when my child died, people who truly understood the chasm into which we were all falling, trying—sometimes halfheartedly—to grab hold and stop the fall.
There are no words to explain what Gordon's steady eloquence meant in those days. It was a hard truth, unfathomable even to those of us mid-chasm, that Gordon had made this fall twice. I was blessed that I was able to grab hold of Gordon Livingston and his unapologetic directness and his embracing compassion. And as sure as his words were, Gordon did not preach or judge: he illuminated where I stood so I could better see myself and the world around me, and then he took that light and held it out so I could see the footholds and ledges I would need to reclaim a productive life.
What the years have taught me about Gordon is that it doesn't matter whether the fall is into the deep chasm we shared or more like Alice's fall into Wonderland—"I am too small, I am too big, nothing is what it should be"—Gordon's sensible voice expresses a wisdom greater even than what his extraordinary life has provided. The essays in this book give every reader the window view that I have been fortunate enough to sit near for the past eight years. It is a book for which we can all reach when we need that thoughtful voice, just as I often reach for the folder in my desk marked "Gordon"—a collection of his e-mails and posts—when I need a voice that is at once stern and reassuring, hopeful but unwilling to proffer any guarantees. For he knows, as well as anyone could, that life will have its way with us and that all we can hope to do is to keep ourselves in alignment for the bumpy ride. He once wrote to me: "All I know is what I feel and what I hope." It was classic understatement by Gordon; he seems to know also what I feel and hope and what you feel and hope, and which of those feelings are honest and which of those hopes are attainable. Gordon, who is also a pilot, continued, "I hope that when the airspeed indicator reaches sixty that I can pull back on the yoke and the thing will fly. I've had the physics explained to me a hundred times. Bernoulli was fortuitously correct. But it still seems like a miracle." And those words ring true because, despite his experience, Gordon has somehow managed to retain the faith of the innocent, the uninitiated.
As I read his essays, I was reminded of a trailer for a self-improvement television series: "Your friends won't tell you . . . but we're not your friends and we will." Well, maybe that's what real friends do: say the hard things that we need to know if we are to be stronger, better, more generous, more courageous, kinder. It might not always be comfortable to hear what Gordon has to say. He will push you out of the easy chair in which you expected to sit and watch television until the lights go out—for your own good, of course. At the same time that he warns us how little we control, he reminds us that we are never stripped of all our choices. Like a wise parent, he shoves us in the right direction . . . with a velvet-gloved hand.
Gordon and I come from different worlds, and on many things we have different perspectives. Even when we disagree, as we do on some things—even some matters covered in these essays—I appreciate that he has expressed so cogently his argument without the rancor and incivility that has come to mark so much of contemporary dialogue. And—to my chagrin when we disagree—he makes the best possible argument for his side.
I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to write this foreword, to introduce Gordon Livingston to those who don't yet know his grace. And most of all, I'm grateful for the chance to repeat to Gordon the words of his son Lucas, who at six was awaiting death as the bone marrow Gordon had donated failed to work the medical magic they both deserved: "I love your voice."
A passionate advocate for children and an accomplished attorney, ELIZABETH EDWARDS is active in a variety of community and charitable efforts, including the March of Dimes, University of North Carolina Board of Visitors, Books for Kids, and the Wade Edwards Foundation. She is married to John Edwards, with whom she is the proud parent of four children: Wade, who died in 1996, Cate, Emma Claire, and Jack.

If the map doesn't agree with the ground, the map is wrong.
Once, a long time ago, I was a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, trying to orient myself on a field problem at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As I stood studying a map, my platoon sergeant, a veteran of many junior officers, approached. "You figure out where we are, lieutenant?" he asked. "Well, the map says there should be a hill over there, but I don't see it," I replied. "Sir," he said, "if the map don't agree with the ground, then the map is wrong." Even at the time, I knew I had just heard a profound truth.
Over the many years I have spent listening to people's stories, especially all the ways in which things can go awry, I have learned that our passage through life consists of an effort to get the maps in our heads to conform to the ground on which we walk. Ideally, this process takes place as we grow. Our parents teach us, primarily by example, what they have learned. Unfortunately, we are seldom wholly receptive to these lessons. And often, our parents' lives suggest to us that they have little useful to convey, so that much of what we know comes to us through the frequently painful process of trial and error.
To single out an important life task about which most of us could use some instruction, we might look at choosing (and keeping) a mate. The fact that upward of half of all marriages end in divorce indicates that collectively we are not very good at this task. When we look at our parents' relationship (s), we are usually not reassured. I find few people who would be satisfied with what they have seen in their families of origin, even when their parents' marriages have endured for decades. More often, those whose parents are still together describe them as living a boring or conflicted coexistence that makes economic sense but lacks anything one could describe as excitement or emotional satisfaction.
Perhaps predicting what someone will be like (and how much we will like them) in five years, much less fifty, is impossible, and we must accept that society is moving toward a kind of serial monogamy, an acknowledgment that people change over time and that it is naive to expect the love of our youth to endure. The problem is that serial monogamy is not a very good model for child rearing, since it does not provide the stability and security that children need in order to begin to construct their maps of how the world works.
So what is it exactly that we need to know to decide if someone is a suitable candidate for a lifetime commitment? Perhaps one way to approach this screening process is to learn more about who is evidently not suitable. To make this judgment, one needs to know something about personality.
We are accustomed to thinking about character in the most superficial ways. "He has a lot of personality" is usually a statement about how engaging or entertaining someone is. In fact, the formal definition of personality includes our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others. Most of us understand that people differ in certain characteristics, such as introversion, fondness for detail, tolerance for boredom, willingness to be helpful, determination, and a host of other personal qualities. What most people fail to realize, however, is that the qualities we value—kindness, tolerance, capacity for commitment—are not randomly distributed. They tend to exist as constellations of "traits" that are recognizable and reasonably stable over time.
Likewise, those attributes of character that are less desirable—impulsivity, self-centeredness, quickness to anger—often cluster in discernible ways. Much of our difficulty in developing and sustaining personal relationships resides in our failure to recognize, in ourselves as well as in others, those personality characteristics that make someone a poor candidate for a committed relationship.
The psychiatric profession has taken the trouble to categorize personality disorders. I often think that this section of the diagnostic manual ought to be titled "People to avoid." The many labels contained herein—histrionic, narcissistic, dependent, borderline, and so on—form a catalogue of unpleasant persons: suspicious, selfish, unpredictable, exploitative. These are the people your mother warned you about. (Unfortunately, sometimes they are your mother.) They seldom exist in the unalloyed form suggested by the statistical manual, but knowing something about how to recognize them would save a lot of heartbreak.
What would be equally useful, I think, would be a manual of virtuous character traits that describes qualities to nurture in ourselves and to seek in our friends and lovers. At the top of the list would be kindness, a willingness to give of oneself to another. This most desirable of virtues governs all the others, including a capacity for empathy and love. Like other forms of art, we may find it hard to define, but when we are in its presence, we feel it.
This is the map we wish to construct in our heads: a reliable guide that allows us to avoid those who are not worthy of our time and trust and to embrace those who are. The best indications that our always-tentative maps are faulty include feelings of sadness, anger, betrayal, surprise, and disorientation. It is when these feelings surface that we need to think about our mental instrument of navigation and how to correct it, so that we do not fall into the repetitive patterns of those who waste the learning that is the only consolation for our painful experience.

We are what we do.
People often come to me asking for medication. They are tired of their sad mood, fatigue, and loss of interest in things that previously gave them pleasure. They are having trouble sleeping or they sleep all the time; their appetites are absent or excessive. They are irritable and their memories are shot. Often they wish they were dead. They have trouble remembering what it is to be happy.
I listen to their stories. Each one is, of course, different, but there are certain recurrent themes: Others in their families have lived similarly discouraged lives. The relationships in which they now find themselves are either full of conflict or "low temperature," with little passion or intimacy. Their days are routine: unsatisfying jobs, few friends, lots of boredom. They feel cut off from the pleasures enjoyed by others.
Here is what I tell them: The good news is that we have effective treatments for the symptoms of depression; the bad news is that medication will not make you happy. Happiness is not simply the absence of despair. It is an affirmative state in which our lives have both meaning and pleasure.
So medication alone is seldom enough. People also need to look at the way they are living with an eye to change. We are always talking about what we want, what we intend. These are dreams and wishes and are of little value in changing our mood. We are not what we think, or what we say, or how we feel. We are what we do. Conversely, in judging other people we need to pay attention not to what they promise but to how they behave. This simple rule could prevent much of the pain and misunderstanding that infect human relationships. "When all is said and done, more is said than done." We are drowning in words, many of which turn out to be lies we tell ourselves or others. How many times do we have to feel betrayed and surprised at the disconnect between people's words and their actions before


  • "The slim book by Columbia-based psychiatrist Gordon Livingston has been a source of inspiration for many."—Baltimore Sun
  • "The author creates an aura of wisdom about a great many things."
    Deseret Morning News
  • "Delightful."—Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
  • "A book I not only like but respect."
    Palm Beach Post
  • "[Livingston] underscores our capacity to face loss, tragedy, and regret, and our ability to move beyond them."
    Senior Digest
  • "[An] excellent self-help book."
    Palm Beach Post

On Sale
Mar 4, 2008
Page Count
192 pages

Gordon Livingston, MD

About the Author

Gordon Livingston, MD, a graduate of West Point and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who was awarded the Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam, was a psychiatrist and writer who contributed frequently to the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Baltimore Sun. His books include Only Spring; Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart; And Never Stop Dancing; How to Love; and The Thing You Think You Cannot Do.

Learn more about this author