I had the pleasure of interviewing Lia Jill Levitt. Lia is the Founder & CEO of Ain’t She Sweet, LLC, a company dedicated to intellectually inspiring seniors and those who care for and about them. Lia left a successful corporate career in Leadership Development, Change Management & Executive Coaching after working in global roles in insurance, financial services & engineering companies and has taught courses such as Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communication and Argumentation & Debate at the college level. Lia is a lifelong learner and global citizen, having traveled to over 50 countries who most recently completed her formal education with her second graduate degree, from the University of Pennsylvania in Organizational Consulting & Executive Coaching.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My grandmother told me that I wasn’t destined for an average life and that statement became the spark that ignited a fire of confidence. I quit a six figure corporate job to write the world’s first happy (and true) story about skilled nursing facilities, which features my witty, blind grandmother. Luckily business is booming and I spend my days and nights driving from nursing home to assisted living to senior center and I’ve never felt happier or more fulfilled.
What does it mean for you to live “on purpose”? Can you explain? How can one achieve that?
Living on purpose is synonymous with living with intention and joy. This is individual in nature, but has an incredible impact on community and society when achieved. I found my Grandmother to be the greatest example of this. When she broke her hip a few days shy of turning 90, had an unrelated emergency gallbladder removal in the same hospital stay and then got pneumonia and her prognosis was bleak. She told me on one of our many overnights together in the hospital she was not ready to die. She had still had goals, desires, dreams and purpose. She lived nine more years against all odds, continuing to excel as a blind painter, as President of her nursing homes Resident Council, holding her twin great granddaughters after they were born and celebrating with her first limousine ride, which I surprised her with on her 95th birthday. Finding the joy in life, relationships and even once again after tragedy, is living “on purpose”.
Do you have an example or story in your own life of how your pain helped to guide you to finding your life’s purpose?
I always thought my life’s purpose was to be an exceptional granddaughter. When my last and closest grandparent died at 99 I had to reevaluate the role I felt most comfortable and comforted in. I was sure I’d never be as good at anything in life as I was at being a devoted granddaughter. As I climbed the corporate ladder, I yearned to feel as impactful as I had as a granddaughter and so I choose to take the risk and not only begin my own company, but create a relatively nonexistent concept as an intellectually inspirational speaker for seniors. The loss of my Grandmother was monumental and each time I enter a skilled nursing, memory care, assisted living or senior center I feel as though I am harnessing the happiness I felt interacting with her and spreading it to a larger audience. The center of my business is dedicated to bringing joy to this often stigmatized population, but the joy I’ve received from seeing the participants of my program smile and remember distant memories, far supersedes what I believe I am giving them.
The United States is currently rated at #18 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low?
I believe that particularly due to the current political state in this country, happiness is not as easily obtained for many. Since the massacre in Sandy Hook, CT, where I am proud to live, there have been 1917 more mass shootings. Kids are growing up fearing gun violence in schools, movie theatres and malls. People dread the call that they know someone is a victim of these heinous acts. Mental health is also a very real and challenging issue in our society and there’s increases in teen and young adult suicides, depression and anxiety. Without a more tolerant, accepting society, common sense gun laws and greater availability and access for mental health, I fear our country will continue to diminish in happiness. I am hopeful that above all, people who choose to have or be around children, teach tolerance and the beauty of diversity. A line from a song in South Pacific says, “You’ve got to be carefully taught”. No child in born to hate.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I work with what I believe to be the two most undervalued populations in society (age wise), teens and seniors. With teens, I advise them every step of the college admissions process, often weekly for many months. I foster a mentoring based relationship, which though the precipice is to get them into college, is my opportunity to work with them on confidence. I sprinkle very frank but I believe helpful, guidance into our meetings on topics from writing to dealing with social anxiety, feelings of exclusion and fears of growing up. I too, faced these life issues and as many said, if I knew then what I know now, life would’ve been vastly different. That is what I want for my clients. With seniors, I encourage them to embrace aging with real and often humorous anecdotes from the 19 years I spent along side my Grandmother in a nursing home. To those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s I work tirelessly to draw out memories and support caregivers. This is actually my favorite group to speak to and whether it’s focused on achieving a glimmer of eye contact or painting a mental picture for someone who is blind, I believe there is goodness in compassion.
What are your 6 strategies to help you face your day with exuberance, “Joie De Vivre” and a “ravenous thirst for life”? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- I always say there are two types of people, those who wonder what if and those that already know. Be the latter. If you are constantly wondering if you should quit your job, book a trip, ask someone out, or even try a new food, you’re more likely to be anxious and feel unfulfilled. By being in the know on things you’re interested in, whether they’re anxiety provoking or not, you are never left wondering “what if”.
- Create your ideal life by literally creating opportunities. Grandma always said, “If you don’t ask, they can’t say no.” Ask to stay with others who live in amazing places, but be a generous and gracious house guest. Don’t apologize for asking for a raise or for the organization to create a new role based on your skills and their needs. If your dream job doesn’t exist, make it up! I decided to be an inspiration speaker for seniors and my popularity is slowly catching on. It’s a completely made up job, but the job of my dreams!
- Do not live a life of obligation. I don’t care who you are, what your relationship to me is, blood or no blood but if you don’t continuously earn your place in my life, you’re simply not a part of it. I don’t believe in going to events I am not interested in, being guilted into spending money I don’t have or don’t want to spend on something, or pacifying people to make them feel good, which results in me feeling bad. Guilt is a time waster and has lengthy consequences so I eat a guilt free life, which includes lots of pasta, cupcakes and never leaving my bed prior to noon on both Saturday and Sunday (except for, for a flight).
- Always be planning the next thing to look forward to. People deserve a reason to be excited! For me, it’s about travel but it also can be as simple as waiting for the new movie schedule to come out Wednesday evenings. I generally go to a movie each week, preferably solo, to completely immerse myself in someone else’s story. I get very excited about the movie and the magic movie bars, which have coconut, chocolate chips and a buttery crust. When I am on vacation, I’m always planning the next trip. I just returned from Zimbabwe and South Africa and already have a new trip to six countries booked this summer. No, I can’t afford this and have no help financially or from my family.This leads me to my next point…
- Don’t die with money, but live a debt free life. I wrote my first iteration of my will a few years ago. I am in my thirties, but I still wanted to ensure my generous corporate life insurance policy (I no longer have) was spent on exactly what I wanted- my nieces’ and nephew’s education, as well as the education of my closest friends kids. While I’m making barely enough money to survive in an affluent suburb I have never really been able to afford to live in, I’m still here. I save and spend and repeat. I’ve had zero in my bank account but I don’t believe in being in debt. I won’t deny by virtue of the educated family I was born into, I have had easier access to education. I believe in spending to enjoy life. If you are smart, savvy and not lazy you can always make more. Book that trip of a lifetime, go back to school, treat yourself to something luxurious because someone else will when you die, if you don’t. Spending and enjoying your own money is so liberating!
- Finally, don’t feel guilty for enjoying life. You have no one to answer to but yourself. I was harassed endlessly in corporate America for my constant vacations (this after multiple companies gave me multiple weeks). They should’ve taken it away if they didn’t want me to use it. When people said, “Fiji, that must be nice. I’m just going to North Carolina with my kids” I’d say, “You know what, it is! Have a wonderful trip”. Everything is a lifestyle choice! Never apologize for your lifestyle. Have kids, and travel, don’t have kids and don’t travel. Go to the spa twice a week or spend three hours in the bubble bath until your skin wrinkles so much it seems dangerous (like I do). One should never apologize for living exactly the life they want.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?
I was inspired most by, “Being Mortal” by Dr. Atul Gawande, a phenomenally thought provoking book on how physicians and society handles conversations on dying. Though at the surface, many will fixate on the topic of death, the book does a wonderful job of encouraging people to live the life they want and to think through important decisions before they are critical. It’s a must read and inspiring to be brought along on the authors journey, both personally and professionally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that relates to having a Joie De Vivre? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world.” This quote exemplifies how I feel about my Grandmother and her undeniable profound impact on me. I also had a brilliant mentor, also a senior, who encouraged me to take risks in writing, which led me to hundreds of pages. These people took their wisdom in life and in character and bestowed it upon me. The latter was focused on bridge building and I believe a thirst for life comes with creating and maintaining connections through building bridges and being the person someone looks up to as if they know all of the answers in the world.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on submitting topics to speak at national conferences and one in particular I have a great deal of passion around is a talk I designed called, “How to speak with, not at seniors”. I believe this will help people realize the many microinequities in how they treat older people and how much judgement occurs, which may be damaging to seniors sense of self. I also believe this presentation, scaled at a national and hopefully one day international level, will heighten familial, workplace and physician/ patient relationships.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My memoir, which I hope I can focus more on getting published soon, is meant along with my company, to “redefine the conversation on aging”. As a teen, I watched an inspired group of seniors live lives that looked fun in a place I was too young to understand most of society had an aversion to. I want to spread a message that skilled nursing facilities and other senior living communities can build community, friendships and higher comfort levels for family who are not equipped to care for a loved one as their needs progress. I hope to inspire society to see the phenomenal beauty of aging.