What kind of person do you normally think of when I ask you about "role models"? Chances are you think of someone who is successful, at the peak of their career, well-connected, mentor-esque. If you are much younger – let's say a student – you might think of someone in their late 20s/30s who is ±10 years ahead of you and whose career path you'd like to replicate for yourself. When we think of role models, we often think of their success and career as the "model" that we aspire to achieve.
I don't know about you, but I never thought of a role model being old. Like very old. Also, I never considered my definition of a "role model" to go beyond elements such as success and career. But life taught me a pretty cool lesson about this.
Upon my return from Iran last year, I was on the search for a venue to host my pictures and share the stories we had experienced in Iran. After many conversations, applications, visits and disappointments, I finally found a gallery and an owner who did not respond with "smartphone pictures from Iran? You are nuts!"... well, actually, he *did* say that, but he also said that it's great and that we should do it. That one person is Zach, a 86-year old architect who has become one of my best friends here in San Francisco.
Zach is magic. Zach is a well of energy and inspiration. Zach has become my role model.
He is someone who is in complete disregard of his age. He comes to work (his gallery space) riding his bicycle. He writes emails like a boss and has taught me one or two things about technology. Zach went to Yale and studied architecture. As a matter of fact he co-worked on the design for the campus Stanford. I also learned that Zach fought in the Korea war from 1950 – 1953. He is full of life lessons, wisdom and experience. And each interaction with him has become a true delight.
I remember with how much excitement I would come to the gallery space to discuss the logistics of my exhibition. Not because I was getting closer to the event, but because each visit was an opportunity to learn from Zach. Like the one time he pulled out his iPod Touch and showed me this amazing App which was WiFi-connected to the lamps in his gallery. He started changing the lights and said: "look, they even have disco mode" and suddenly the entire gallery turned into a dance floor as the lights were switching from one color to the next. Another time I saw Zach holding a Nest thermostat in his hands with a letter that was "I don't know if the SFFD approves this, but if they do, I want 8 of these!"
I had rarely met someone so full of life. So energetic, sharp, passionate and curious. At that age especially. And in the weeks after the exhibition, I couldn't stop thinking about how much I wanted to be like him once I would be his age. Not sick and tied to a bed, but full of life and energy, doing something I truly love. "Art keeps me alive" he once said – knowing that life is limited and that he needed to keep doing the things that gave him a sense of meaning and purpose.
As I was thinking about this, I realized that we need more old people as a source of inspiration. Not just role models who are successful in their careers, but role models who show us that nothing should stop us from doing the things we love, especially not our age. That we can and should take risks and be open to the unknown. Similarly how Zach invited me to do a smartphone exhibition about Iran – two things he wasn't familiar with.
Every time we come together to drink a coffee, he asks me about my stories and travels and then often reacts with a flattering line along the lines of "Amazing how you are maximizing your life." Lost in words, I sometimes wish I had a mirror in my hands because that's exactly what *he* is doing with his life – maximizing every second of it. Thanks Zach.
Seeing Zach being so active and energetic reminded me of an ad that I had once seen and which thematizes this topic.