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'A life lived well’ – lessons for anyone over 50 from HRH Prince Philip

22 April 2021 By Victoria Tomlinson

Active, interested and interesting into his late 90s, HRH Prince Philip lived a life that many aged over 50 would like to emulate. And not much of it was to do with his privileged background – in many ways he had to work harder than most to carve out a role, both through his life and as he aged.

Listening and watching the coverage, here is what I think we can all learn from this polymath of a man. Research shows that his broad range of interests will also have contributed to his staying so healthy – the two go together.

1. Smile a lot

I know the Duke could be grumpy and tetchy, but in all the hours of footage that I saw, he was constantly smiling. Commentators observed that he was the one to put others at ease, he exuded warmth and provided a foil to the formality of royal visits.

But there is more to it than this. Dr Sarah Hattam wrote a blog for us about how smiling is a key ingredient for longevity. Smiling is energising and gives a positive chemical boost to our body (read her blog for the medical explanation of what happens!).

I know I started making a real effort to smile some years ago – I confess because of vanity as much as anything! I was doing a lot of public speaking with audiences sharing photos on social media. If I was listening or concentrating, I rarely smiled and gosh it was ageing! The same when you are on Zoom. So I have got into the habit of smiling, even when it feels a bit strange or maybe inappropriate, but it doesn’t come over as odd – and I can’t tell you how good it feels to do a lot of smiling. It definitely does something to your whole mental health and energy.

2. Know and use your skills

I was very struck by Prince Philip’s story of getting religious leaders together to take a leadership position on climate change.

He said, “I knew what my role was. I had the convening powers.”

We work with a lot of senior people who have spent their careers as lawyers, accountants, directors of corporates and more. As they come up to retirement, they find it hard to step out of their corporate mindset and evaluate what their skills are that have value to the outside world. Rarely is it their professional skills.

By the time people reach 50+, what they have to offer is very often to do with networks, instinctively knowing how to persuade people to take part in things, having skills at opening doors, judgement, knowing how to get things done, chairing meetings, asking the right questions, helping people to focus.

The Duke of Edinburgh had the contacts and knew how to put an argument together to persuade others that this was important. OK, he had an extraordinarily respected and exalted position, but to be honest you can have all that and still achieve little. He knew how to convene.

3. Zest and interest in life

The thing that blew most people away was just how ahead of his time the Prince was and the vast range of subjects he was interested in and became extremely knowledgeable in.

Just a few of the things included: helping young people develop skills beyond academia; engineering and good design (time and again he held up manufacturing visits because he wanted to know the details of how things were made and why); sailing; the Armed Forces; polo and carriage driving; the environment and sustainability; modernising the Royal Family; efficient running and cost-savings in the palaces; and of course the culture and issues of the hundreds of countries that he and the Queen visited. I know I will have missed out so many in this list.

And it was clear that his interest was rarely superficial. He read widely and was keenly interested in learning, but never saw himself as the expert. A problem-solver by nature he was still looking at how he could help and make a difference well into his 80s.

This interest keeps the brain active and makes you an interesting person – and relevant – to others.

4. More interested in others than himself

We all know people who, as they age, talk more about their past and themselves. Prince Philip’s mantra to his family was, “Don’t talk about yourself, it’s boring.” He was always more interested in others – which also came back to his wanting to learn from everyone he met.

However much people love you, they will want to see you less and less, if you only talk about yourself and aren’t interested in what is going on in the world and continuing to learn.

5. Staying active – adapting to constraints of age

A fit and active sportsman all his life, as Prince Philip hit his 50s he found arthritis made it harder to play competitive polo.

Instead of just giving up sport altogether he researched what he could still do physically. And took up carriage driving, which he continued almost until he died. It reminded me of Capt Sir Tom Moore who couldn’t run marathons to raise money for the NHS but instead set a goal to walk up and down with his walker.

We have to accept our bodies change as we age, but we just need to adapt rather than admit defeat.

So there you have my thoughts about why HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh was an inspiration on how to have an active and fulfilling later life.

Don’t we all want the phrase, “they lived life well” to be said about us? I can’t help feeling we shouldn’t mourn people who reach nearly 100 and are still active and contributing almost to the end (but of course, our hearts go out to the Queen for such a loss).

I just wanted to celebrate his life and for us all to learn from him.

Victoria Tomlinson

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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