Why we should be honest about our age and celebrate our grey hairs.
Age is a funny thing in business. We make judgments about people when we know how old they are. These days much of the thrust of entrepreneurship and innovation focuses on the twenty and thirty somethings. When you’re at conferences and industry parties, it’s easy to feel old. So when people used to ask my age, I would mumble that I was in my forties.
But it’s time to end the mumbling. I’ll be 50 next year. Milestones tend to make us take stock. As I approach 50, I can look back over a long career well lived (I call it my ‘storied’ career). It’s been the inevitable rollercoaster ride; a real adventure with plenty of ups and downs along the way.
As I look back now I realise how fortunate I am to be in a great place, and much of that comes from results of getting older. As I head towards 50 I realise how comfortable I am in my skin. I’m proud of having got to here, having weathered the turbulence of the past, with all my knowledge and experience now under my belt. I can truly say, I have been there and done that.
What’s more, I’ve succeeded in carving out a work life around “the real Ian” and that feels good. I have worked hard to shape that work life — staying multi-dimensional, juggling the right mix of projects, creating time for swims in the estuary, seafront cycles and curiosity trips to keep me fired up. Writing books, writing articles about what interests me. Meeting my heroes. I know my strengths, what I love doing and what I’m good at. My values and passions are at the very heart of what I do. And I know what I won’t touch any more, the projects I don’t want to do or the people I don’t want to work with. With age also comes a better relationship with the word “no”.
And that’s how I have ended up doing what I do now for others. I realised my rich life experience is worth something. That the fact that I had “been there and done it” (oh, and got the battle scars to prove it) gave me depth and substance. So I seek out gigs where I can bring my life-experience to an organisation, team or individual. I am shaping my future around the “grey haired gigs” (GHGs): consulting, training, coaching, mentoring and advisory roles.
So what I have achieved for myself is now what I help others with. I know it’s easy to get lost, to lose sight of our destination, or just for our fuel tanks to run low. That’s why I help others navigate towards their ‘what next’ in life or business. I’m their guide.
Recently I’ve been working with a great bunch of people on my walk and talk sessions around London, where I help people rediscover their path . Many of those clients are in their 40s. So I’ve encouraged them to stop hiding their age away, and to start competing on their wealth of experience too. To be loud and proud about what they’ve achieved. To recognise the value of their lives well lived.
I like the metaphors Chip Conley uses, writing in his article in Harvard Business Review earlier this year about joining Airbnb as an advisor at the age of 52. He talks of how people sometimes feel like “an old carton of milk”, approaching its expiration date, and their bosses see getting older as a problem. But rather than sour milk, he likens older execs to bottles of fine wine with the “the mellowness and wisdom that comes with age.”
I am a bottle of fine wine. I am embracing my grey hairs. And so the GHG has become a great filter for me. These days, I get asked to take part in lots of different projects. Keynote presentations. Workshops. Storytelling assignments. Writing columns. Coaching and mentoring. Training teams at the BBC. Guest lecturing. When I get approached to be involved in something, I run it past the GHG test. It gives me clarity about whether to say yes or no, it helps me make the right decisions in ensuring I’m on the right carriage, still on that rollercoaster track, but ensuring I am always heading, ultimately, towards me.
And even though I’m 49 I’m certainly not standing still. I’m always learning, adding new strings to my bow, experimenting and constantly moving forward. I like to bring curiosity and my beginner’s mind to every project I touch. And yes, I’m still guided by my teenage rebel spirit (I’m not chucking away my denim jacket anytime soon). But I’m confident about where I’ve come from, where I’m at, and where I’m headed. And perhaps it took awhile to get here. But you can’t rush these things, just as you can’t prematurely age a bottle of wine.
The good things are always worth waiting for.