If birth were destiny, Stuart Atkins would have been a shopkeeper. His mother ran a ladies hat shop in Philadelphia in the 1930s, and the family lived above the store. If the bell rang while shewas making dinner, she’d go down, make the sale, and come back up to finish cooking. “Work wasn’t some other place,” Atkins informed me over lunch in Los Angeles’Westwood neighborhood. “You worked where you lived and you lived where you worked, and that set the tone.”
As a boy he made movie money helping out in his uncle’s dry goods store, “selling bras and corsets to women who could have been my mother,” he recalls with a grin, boyish charm intact. “I loved being the center of attention.” He also worked behind the counter of his grandfather’s jewelry store, taking the Elevated downtown to deliver broken watches and rings, and pick up the repairs. When an idolized stepbrother got drafted, Atkins persuaded his mother to let him enlist at 17. The plan was to go overseas together, but his penchant for the spotlight ended up keeping him off the battlefield (and propelling him towards his 70-year calling in behavioral science).
It started when a drill sergeant took a cigarette break and told Atkins to take over demonstrating rifle positions. A captain happened by while the new recruit was strutting his stuff on stage, and promptly offered him a position as an instructor in a weapons school in Texas — although the only gun the boy had ever shot was a BB gun (through his mother’s new headboard). After the war, Atkins moved to New York to try his hand at acting professionally — until he got some advice on the stoop of his West 72nd Street apartment building, where everyone congregated in the summer. “All through my life there have been turning points, certain people who have pointed me in directions,” he observes. That day it was a psychologist who taught at Hunter College and who recommended a college degree. Psychoanalysis was in its heyday, Atkins loved the subject, and after marrying his college sweetheart, he moved west to pursue graduate work at the University of Southern California.
There a professor steered Atkins towards the nascent field of industrial psychology: studying skills and aptitudes in order to help individuals operate more effectively in organizations. He liked helping people find work; furnishing them with self-knowledge they could apply more widely felt even better. Ten years later, Atkins founded his own consulting company oriented towards sales training. When a client invited Atkins to participate in sensitivity training sessions with his entire sales force, Atkins had a revelation: he could apply his analytical training and talents in a group context. He reveled in the challenges of dealing with 15 people at once, assessing group dynamics to build an effective team. “That problem-solving was tremendously creative and exciting.” Atkins had found his passion. “It is me down to the bone marrow. I can’t imagine doing anything else, and that was, my God . . . 1964,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
The young businessman went on to get a doctorate in applied behavioral science with a focus on adult learning, and to develop a proprietary program called LIFO® (“Life Orientations)” Training. In 2001, he sold his business to a Japanese company that had been selling his training system for decades and wanted to expand. The buyout ensured financial security, but Atkins has been consulting for them ever since. He travels widely, and also promotes his system online and via teleconferences. “I’m still the figurehead, the founder, the ultimate word on what it means in the program,” he explains. He just finished his second book, Life in the Stress Lane.
When I asked about ageism, a quizzical look crossed Atkins’ face. He scanned back to his first encounter with a senior citizens discount, at the ticket window of a movie theater. At 55 Atkins qualified, but he asked for a full-price ticket. “Then I got brave and said, ‘Senior citizen please,’ he recalls. He credits owning his own business with helping him come to terms with getting older, along with clients who value experience. “They use words like ‘wisdom’ to describe the way I can distill and encapsulate what’s going on in a group,” he notes appreciatively. “I’m more sensitive about my age than they are. I don’t want anyone thinking that I am over the hill because I’m 84. Good Lord, I’m at the peak of my talents!”
As Atkins describes in the clip below, his problem-solving is “quicker now, alarmingly quicker,” because he can get right to the solution without being distracted by old thoughts, needs, or conflicts. “It’s a clear, straight shot,” he declares — and I don’t doubt it. The fatherless boy who craved approval has turned into a confident, empathic man who perceives the currents that eddy around people and shape their interactions. Though he aspires to be less cautious, Atkins has clearly tapped into the “comfort, confidence, and courage” that gerontologist Gene Cohen ascribes to neurological changes as we turn 80.
To Atkins, work means “ exercising my talents and helping people, the two most important things about life. There is nothing so enabling as meaningful work and meaningful purpose,” he declares. “How many games of golf can you play?” The psychologist has just two words to describe those his age who’ve stopped working: “poor souls.” A friend who’s retired from a big corporate job and no longer plays golf or tennis comes to mind. “He’s the one I get the most emails from,” Atkins notes wryly. He’d like to see his friend start teaching kids, may be from a disadvantaged area, how to become stockbrokers. ”He’s very good at it, so he would love it.”
What about the rest of us? “Find something to love — by being experimental.” Don’t expect it to land in your armchair, or to get it right on the first whack. Sample a whole variety of pursuits, until something excites you. “If your job is creative, if you really use your talents, no matter what they are, that creativity will enrich and inspire you and keep you alive.” Maybe the eternal LA sunshine has something to do with it, but this approach is definitely working for Stuart Atkins.