Sometimes being a late bloomer terrifies me.
And sometimes it’s the source of a powerful, unique perspective. This is worth exploring, so let’s do.
I recently came across this article:www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/06/12/professor-who-has-taught-more-half-century-explains-why-he-hasnt-been-willing
Two excerpts will, I think, give you the essence of the article, though I do think the whole thing is worth a read.
Not long ago, one of my colleagues, who had been reading a number of articles on the need for older professors to retire, asked me why I taught throughout my 70s when I could easily have retired. His was a well-meaning inquiry, because he was wondering when might be the right time for him to say goodbye and go off into the sunset.
I was upset by his question, and I was tempted to respond in this way: “Why should professors feel they must retire in their 60s or 70s?” I wanted to add, “I believe it is my moral responsibility not to retire, because I am still incredibly effective at age 80 as both a teacher and scholar.”
And this one:
And it means that if I call myself a professional or a professor, then I need to profess a belief in something. At this stage in my life, I choose to profess a belief in the power of love, joy, meaning, courage and, yes, integrity to change lives — my own included. Consider my lived life, therefore, to be a profession of my faith — hard-won and celebrated as a gift after 51 years of doing what I cherish. Why in the world would I have chosen to retire in my 60s or 70s, at a time when I was finally getting what it meant to be a “professing” professor?
This makes me think of Blair Enns’ challenge to consider what you would do differently in your business if you were never going to retire or sell your business. I realize most of us are not building a salable business, but all of us might consider the idea of stopping work some day, so this is a relevant thought experiment.
And it’s such a relevant line of thinking if you work in or with technology.
Botox before midlife
I remember reading not long ago about men in their 30’s in Silicon Valley getting Botox treatments and other cosmetic procedures done to reduce the appearance of aging. I’ll return to this in a moment, but it sets some important context for this exploration.
I consider myself somewhat of a late bloomer in that I’ve reached many life milestones later than my peers. I went to college at Davidson College with a lot of highly driven, smart, culturally conservative people, so it was easy to get the idea that by age 25 I should be married, having kids, and settled into a conventional career track with lots of upward potential. I’ll be 45 this year and I’m just now starting to tick off some of those checkboxes, and others I’ve decided aren’t a fit for me at all.
If you do settle into that conventional career track by your mid-20’s, it’s easy to feel like aging is not a constraint. Let’s say you work as an attorney at a law firm, and after 15 years of hard work you make senior partner. At that point, you’ve made it into a category where some gray hair on your head or wrinkles in your skin doesn’t send a weird signal or contradict any social expectations. In fact, the gray hair, baldness, or wrinkles probably reinforce the idea that you’re an experienced lawyer who brings more value than the younger-looking, less-experienced associates. No Botox needed to help your career, though you might use it for other reasons1
In some career paths, we see a natural alignment between getting older and getting more valuable, or being seen as more valuable.
But in tech, this is often not how it works. There’s not a natural alignment between getting older and getting more valuable, at least not broadly throughout the world of tech.
I think all of us in tech see this, but as a certified late bloomer, I really feel it. And I’d bet if you have had a mid-life career change, career reset, or simply got a “late” start in tech, you feel it too.
We have two forcing functions here:
Blair Enns’ challenge is one forcing function. It’s socially “OK” for a multi-employee business owner to age because as they do, they can recede into the back office (and then ultimately ride into the sunset) and do business owner things while their lieutenants do the client-facing work. Blair’s challenge forces us to question this trajectory. What would we do differently if we did not recede into the back office and then into the sunset of retirement? What if we stayed on the “front lines” of our business? What would that look like?
In technology, the social expectations around aging push you away from the “front lines” much quicker than they do in other professional services. The social norm in tech — broadly speaking — is that aging reduces rather than increases your value. Much like being a late bloomer, the social expectations in tech force you to think about how you can turn aging from a liability into an asset.
Both of these forcing functions point us to the same question: How can we cause increasing age to create increasing value in our careers?
As unlicensed professionals, we don’t have the social, legal, and functional structure of our profession to do that for us. Doctors, lawyers, and CPAs do. So we have to figure it out on our own.
Here’s your homework on this:
Create a list of 5 or more people in technology. They must be men with gray hair or significant age-related hair loss, or women with obvious wrinkles2. They must be self-employed, or have a career that includes lengthy periods of self employment. They must also be people who you belie
ve are doing well in their career. This could be defined in financial terms, or other terms if you like.
Ask yourself: what have they done to flip the normal relationship between age and value in tech?
Ask yourself also: do I see any patterns in this list of 5 or more people? Do any best practices seem to be emerging from this exercise?
If you want to share your list with me, please do. I’d love to see how yours compares to mine.
I’m kind of using the idea of a man in their 30s, 40s, or 50s getting Botox treatments as a stand-in for the broader concerns around aging, ageism, and age being linked with less rather than more value. I realize this issue is complex and somewhat fraught, and I realize that the gender expectations for men and women are different, and in terms of maintaining a youthful appearance, men have it way easier than women generally do. So sorry if any of these issues get in the way of seeing my point here, but they’re not issues I can avoid discussing because they’re so fundamental to the reality of working in tech. ↩
This feels so crass to write, but this is not my perspective on age, it’s the tech culture’s way of assessing age, so I have to write it this way. And I realize the binary men/women split is not current with today’s more complex gender landscape, but I write things this way to keep them somewhat simple and keep the focus on the larger point. ↩