George Vaillant (2012) Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Many books have been written about the different developmental stages through which men and women travel during their lifetime. Some of these books are filled with rich insights that have great relevance for professional coaches. Certainly the work of Frederick Hudson and his colleagues at the Hudson Institute qualify as insight-rich and implication-rich. I recommend Hudson’s The Adult Years to all of my coaching colleagues. The work of Erik Erikson, Jane Loevinger, and Daniel Levinson certainly are important, as is the groundbreaking and perspective-changing work of Carol Gilligan and the writings of Stone Center authors.
There is one author, however, who offers insights that are rare and quite illuminating. This author is George Vaillant—who headed the Harvard Grant Study for many years. The remarkable thing about this study is that it involved extensive investigation of more than 200 Harvard University men over a 70 year span of time. While most other adult development studies require that participants reflect back on their life and changes that have occurred in their life, the Grant Study uniquely involves participant’s perspectives on their lives right in the midst of living them. Several books have been published, based on the extensive interviewing and assessment done of these men over the years – the most notable of these publications being Vaillant’s Adaptation to Life (focusing on the participants during their 50s). The Triumphs of Experience book however is special because it not only traces the lives of these Grant Study men over 70 years, it is one of the first books to portray the life of men during their “elderly” years. Erikson, Erikson and Kivnick’s Vital Involvement in Old Age certainly offers a vivid portrait of growing old, but Vaillant can uniquely offer a perspective on old age as it relates to all of the earlier stages of life.