Nicolae Tanase: Prof. Sternberg, what is the meaning of life?
Robert J. Sternberg: When I was 29, my wife at the time and I started our family. We eventually had two children. I was very involved in my work at that point—determined to change the world with research I had hoped would be ground-breaking. I don’t know whether the research was ground-breaking, but I know it didn’t much change the world. Today, at age 66, I am still trying to change the world, but much less sanguine. As the years went by, I saw faculty members at my home institution at the time (Yale University) come and go. When they retired, it was as though they were erased from the record books. Really, as soon as they announced they were retiring, they were treated as though they did not exist.
When I was 61, I was blessed with my wife to start a second family—we had triplets! What a difference those 30 some odd years made. I’m a much better father the second time around. I have long felt that the meaning of life is to leave the world a better place than it was when you entered it, and I now realize that the main way you make the world a better place is through your children.
My first two children are now grown up—happily married, with their own families and their own successful careers. And I hope to see our triplets grow up to be happy, successful people who try to make the world a better place. I think my work as a faculty member and then as an academic administrator and now as a professor again—first at Yale, and then after 30 year at Tufts, and then Oklahoma State, and now at Cornell—has made some little difference. But much of the future difference will be in terms of my students. And in terms of making the world a better place, nothing beats having kids and thinking about their kids and all the future generations who will carry on long after you are gone. Through them, you can find the meaning of life—to leave the world a better place than when you entered. And given all the bad things going on in the world, making the world a better place is no small order.
~Robert J. Sternberg, psychologist and psychometrician, is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. He has been President of the American Psychological Association and of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Science, as well as IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale.
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