Fine Wine or Crusty Loaf?

September 16, 2007 by
Filed under: People 

I was swapping e-mail with someone recently, and in one response he lamented that his age was a factor that might make organizations less interested in him (my guess is he is a few years older than me). I know he has a similar breadth of experience as I do, having worked on the same large system as me, though at different times. He also worked with a couple of other organizations that I have dealt with as clients.

His comment threw me for a loop. While there aren’t too many professional athletes in their mid 40’s or beyond, I don’t see the same breakdown of utility for knowledge workers. In fact, I would say that it is just the opposite: as you get older, you have more time in the field to learn from your mistakes, to expand your knowledge, and to continuously gain and grow from your collected experiences.

It is not age that is a driving factor, it is attitude.

With youth can come an exuberance and confidence to take on the world, but this needs to be balanced with a recognition that there is far more to be learned than can possibly be covered in an undergraduate curriculum or a few years on the job. You can’t distill years of real experience into an MBA program, and in reality, degrees and certifications should be viewed as a learner’s permit – they provide the basic foundation for further study in a discipline, and they qualify the holder to participate in the field, but the learning is far from over.

Sometimes that exuberance can be costly, when it turns to arrogance. Caution to the wind, full speed ahead. It usually doesn’t take a lot of time for the school of hard knocks to come along with a dose of reality. Just ask almost anyone that was a CTO in their early twenties during the last boom.

It could be argued that the younger people in the industry are better with the latest languages and platforms, but this is more a function that they are more likely to have recently graduated, where emphasis on these elements is strong. For every young graduate that can sling some mean Java code, I know a seasoned veteran that knows the syntax and recognizes the pitfalls of any technology. Give me the wise, experienced veteran.

With age, we have an opportunity to gain from the wisdom of experience, though not everyone takes that opportunity. Through the years we learn to recognize when something really is too good to be true, it becomes more difficult to snow us with a rationalization that just doesn’t fit the evidence, and we can more readily perceive the difference between the difficult and the impossible. That is, if we carry the right attitude with us. And yes, I have worked with some youngsters whose maturity and apparent wisdom belie their age. They are a pleasure to work with, and are a rare find.

It is not age that makes someone an unattractive candidate, but rather a number of factors that are often associated with age. People can become cynical over time, they can be stuck in their old ways of getting things done, they can lose interest in continued learning. People will sometimes grow weary of the treadmill. Generally associated with age, but I’ve seen the same characteristics in people of all ages.

We will all grow old, time marches on. The distinctions come in whether we take advantage of all this time: whether we learn from our mistakes, whether we continuously focus on personal growth. Hell, I’ll be 50 in a few years, and I’m still not sure I have peaked out yet. I’m still inquisitive, more hungry for learning than I ever was. As long as we stay engaged in our activities, as long as we have something that drives us to ‘get to it’ every morning, we will retain a youthful attitude.

At some point in your future, will you look back and see your ageing process as developing a fine wine, or leaving a crusty old loaf of bread to grow moldy? It is a personal choice. – JB

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