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Cometh the hour, cometh the man (and woman)

Maybe it’s a personal thing based on the passing of the years, but I am constantly amazed at how people need to compare themselves with others on the basis of age.  People easily slip into the language of comparison:  “older, younger, my/our age, past it, too young, not ready yet, slowing down”.  Everyone seems to do it: people who are a few years apart in age can talk about “your generation”, “my generation” as if some essential or catastrophic maturing process has or has not happened.

Apart from being mildly irritated at what is usually a status ploy by one party or the other, I believe that a bigger issue is at stake: the disregard for talent and potential at a time in corporate and social history when it is needed most.
The issue isn’t just about perceptions about once bright young things getting over the hill and past it i.e. those already recognised as good earlier in their career now being ignored. It is about the danger of ignoring those who come good later in life. It is to miss out on the potential contribution of those who ‘grow’ into wisdom and capability.

Talent and capability is not age related! We like to assume that we develop in a smooth upward curve, all our strengths gradually maturing at the same rate plateauing somewhere in middle life. This cannot be the case for whatever raw abilities we have will flourish at different rates depending upon our life experiences. 

Unconsciously or consciously, we have a bias to applaud success in the very young - the ‘Mozart Phenomena’ - being astonished that someone demonstrates prestigious performance at a very early age. Again unconsciously or consciously, we also marvel at any evidence of anyone achieving anything significant in their later years! Whether it is Churchill in politics; Mary Wesley writing her first major work in her 70s; Colonel Saunders starting his franchise in his 60s; I think their celebration says more about our prejudice than anything else – our expectation that ability must absolutely correlate with age. The truth is that in almost any field of human endeavour there are many, many examples of talented people coming good at different times.

I think that, in terms of individual development, there is a process of ‘unfolding’ in which a combination of natural ability, life experience, and the needs and opportunities of the moment combine to let talent flourish at the moment it is needed, if only we can recognise and respond to it.

Comments on this Post

Philip Lindsay on 26th January 2013

You raise some interesting points regarding expectations of achievement correlating in some way with age - and the danger of our potentially overlooking the talents that people can have, develop and manifest at different stages in their lives through some habituated prejudice particularly when we may need to do everything possible to use the talent available. And you got me into thinking and remembering. Over the years, I've come across some people providing commentary and ideas relating to talent, energy and age which might be of interest. Firstly, Elliot Jacques (1965), commenting in his paper on Death and the Mid-Life Crisis, noted that mid-life (by which he meant about 35 years of age!) is a significant transition point - one where 'death' becomes a perceivable and real event on the horizon of many people that acts as a 'wake-up' call for changes in life approach. His review of some noted 'geniuses' led him to identify two noted ''patterns' with respect to energy, focus and achievements: some seemed to have exhibited loads of creative achievement early in their lives (and prior to the magical 35 years of age) with relatively little being displayed afterwards while others seemed to have done relatively little in early life and suddenly seemed to burst forth with masses of creative achievement. For all, he argued that 'mid-life' gives rise to a 'wake-up' call - but while the wake-up call' is essentially the same in nature (i.e. 'the grim reaper is out there waiting for you and so...'), filling in the '...'s' in terms of responses to the message are very different. For early 'creatives', the response to the wake-up call often seems to be 'it's time to live life differently and smell the roses' while, for late 'creatives', the response may be 'I've not much time left to make my mark and I'd better put some effort and urgency into it now'. Given this, recognising talent and providing opportunity to use it may be insufficient considerations for really engaging all people - we've got to pay much more attention to the motivational states of the people, irrespective of age and with due consideration to where they are in their lives. Secondly, and later in my life, I came across Bill Egan, a business psychologist who was interested in a life development process he termed 'individuation' - and I think that this may add to Jacques' observations. Bill's tenet was that, at some point (mid-life?), people see that their original dreams and aspirations may lack achievement reality ('When I started, I wanted to be CEO but, here I am at 42 with 20 years to go and I'm still an accounts supervisor') and decide to experiment with being/doing something different - try something new, behave in different ways, develop and pursue different interests. Without using the term, Bill was thinking about (and noting) people who were experimenting with some sorts of 'reversal': reversals in where to find satisfaction and pride; reversals in terms of how to behave; reversals in terms of what tasks/jobs to pursue. Why should they do this? The logic is simple: 'all the things I've been practising and doing all my life are not getting me to where I wanted to be - so, with limited time left, why not try something else?' And that 'something else' may be radical - marketing managers who become comedians; businessmen who become tennis coaches; stockbrokers who become beachcombers. In closing, while I can fully support Steve in his suggestion that we need to challenge prejudices and do more to really recognise and enable available talent of all ages to meet the needs of arising situations in organisations, I also think that we need to strike a better balance between the needs of organisations and the motivations of individuals. I would also suggest that much more attention needs to be paid to people in terms of how they perceive and wish to live their lives and gain most satisfaction - and my challenge is really whether we have the will to do that!

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