William Sun on How to Thrive at Age 96

The inveterate feminist who is happiest when surrounded by strong women shares how he manages email, how his family gives him energy, and his secret life hack.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What's the first thing you do when you get out of bed? 

William Sun: The first thing I do when I get out of bed is to thank God for his blessings to my family and especially pray for my daughter and granddaughter's health.

TG: What gives you energy? 

WS: Talking and playing with my 18 month old granddaughter gives me energy.

TG: What's your secret life hack? 

WS: Patience and satisfaction with what I have. (And having a daughter who I visited two and a half years ago, and never left!)

TG: Name a book that changed your life.

WS: Interpreter of Maladies. And Sleep Revolution (because I used it to convince my daughter to change her sleep habits.)

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you? 

WS: I only answer the phone when I see a number from my contact list. No, it doesn't sleep with me.

TG: How do you deal with email? 

WS: My son-in-law gave me an iPad 4 years ago and at 92, I said I could never learn to use it because I was in "kindergarten" in terms of technology. However, today I find my iPad indispensable -- I don't have a lot of friends at my age who email so I mainly look at it for news and I have a limitless appetite for getting emails with photos of my granddaughter. My son-in-law says I've now graduated to 5th grade in technology and are on track for honors high school!

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it? 

WS: Time is not an issue at my age. I have lots of it and I spend it all with my family. I read the paper cover-to-cover every day, and complete a Sudoku every day to keep my mind sharp.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why? 

WS: 35 years ago when I was still working.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 

WS: I don't measure myself in terms of success and failure - sometimes challenges turn into triumphs and vice versa. Life is long and the days are interconnected.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace. 

WS: Chinese idiom (zhi zhu chang le) -- Contentment and happiness go together. If you are satisfied with what you have and create a harmonious inner-self, you will achieve happiness.

William Sun is an inveterate feminist who is happiest when surrounded by strong women – he is a model father to his daughter and a grandfather extraordinaire to Avery, age 19 months, and Abby, the family's 17.5 year-old Maltese.

Born in 1921 in Shandong Province, China to a family of salt and textile producers, William attended a German boarding school in Shanghai in the 1930’s and graduated from St. John's University in Shanghai. After university, he worked for Civil Air Transport (“CAT”) -- the first commercial air service in the Far East founded by U.S. General Claire Chenault. Funded in part by U.S. intelligence agencies, CAT also provided materiel support to U.S. allies in Asia from the period of the Chinese Revolution through the Vietnam conflict. William worked for the Company in the late forties and early fifties, supporting Chiang Kai-shek against the emerging threat and eventual overthrow of the Nationalists by Chairman Mao and his Communist forces.

In 1969, William moved to San Francisco with his wife, Annie, where their daughter was born and raised. They will mark their 50th anniversary next year. William had a quadruple bypass surgery in 1991 and defied all odds by continuing to thrive 26 years later. Retirement has not slowed him down: at 80, he lived part-time in Cambridge, MA when his daughter attended law school; at 85, he went on a long overdue safari in South Africa; at 88, he returned to China for the first time in 60 years to attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics and to watch the U.S. v China basketball game; he celebrated his 90th birthday by floating in the Dead Sea in Israel; at 92, he went on his first yoga retreat at Kripalu and became the CEO's living example of their mission when he joined their organized kayak tour; and most recently, he spent his 96th birthday riding in a 1959 Chevy convertible in Havana, Cuba.

William moved from SF to NYC in 2015, and now, at 96, he chases around his 19-month old granddaughter -- attending her swim, soccer and music classes with her nanny and being her personal chef/butler. He is a lifelong learner who reads the newspaper cover-to-cover every day, still looks up all the words that he doesn't know in his trusted Chinese-English dictionary, became an iPad devotee at age 92, knows the name of every LIRR stop between Penn Station and East Hampton, and completes a Sudoku every day to keep his mind sharp. He amazes with his current affairs and pop-culture knowledge and jokes that learning how to code will be his next trick.

Thrive Questionnaire

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