‘Things Get Better With Age’

Sh*t that isn’t true

It’s interesting to discover what people have found to be true about life and leadership, but it’s fascinating to hear what they’ve found to be false. In the “sh*t that isn’t true” blog we explore cultural clichés and lessons you should “unlearn” on Day One.

“I‘ve always been a bit of a smart ass, especially in high school and college,” says Sophia Lemon, who left her 9–5 job two years ago to pursue her dream of professional photography full time. “I definitely thought I was the smartest person in the room all the time. That was particularly clear in college and university, when in a lot of cases I was one of the older people in my classroom.”

Time has demonstrated to Sophia that being the oldest one in the room doesn’t necessarily make you the smartest:

“Back then I was just assuming that things got better with age, and I’m really sorry to anyone who is particularly fond of wine, but it turns out that’s not an entirely accurate idea.”

Sophia continues: “I’ve been building my business for six years, and I feel like I finally have a handle on it, then suddenly there’s people who are coming out of college or not even going into college; they’re nineteen, twenty, twenty-one…and they’re really talented! They already seem to know what they’re doing!”

Sophia’s come to believe that it’s not the passage of time that makes you better, but the ways you choose to utilize that time.

“You’re not just going to get better as you get older. You still need to work at it,”

“You still need to learn things. I learn things from people who are younger than me and have been doing photography for fewer years than I have. Actually I have friends who, on a personal level, teach me new things, who are younger than me. My friend has a nine year old daughter–in easy little conversations she’s said things to me and I’ve been like ‘whoa, okay. That’s new!’ At the same time, I’ve helped people in business and on a personal level who are older than me too. It’s not about the vintage of the person. It’s about the amount of work they put into it, how open their mind is, and how much patience they have.”

It’s not about the vintage of the person. It’s about the amount of work they put into it, how open their mind is, and how much patience they have.

I feel like Sophia has captured an important reality about growth here. The fact is that for the early part of our lives, growth happens rapidly with very little conscious action on our part. We pick up language and social norms without consciously saying to ourselves, “I’ll be spending the rest of my life in this society, better do some research on how that’s done.” And of course, you found yourself getting a little taller as the years went past without doing anything specific to make it happen. When we’re young, growth just happens.

As we get older however, maintaining a healthy pace of growth takes conscious planning and effort. It becomes all too easy to fill our lives with things that keep us busy, but don’t actually keep us growing. If too much time goes by without appreciable growth in your life, it becomes not only difficult to see yourself as a leader, it becomes difficult to feel like you matter. Jim Rohn’s adage that “happiness does not happen by chance, but by choice” transfers well here: time passing isn’t what makes you better, it’s the choices you make on how to apply that time.

Your Real Competition

I ask Sophia if there were any other lessons she’d aim to embrace if she got to start over on Day One. She doesn’t hesitate with her answer:

“I’m one of those women who struggled with this ‘competition with other women’ thing,” she says. “I have this natural inclination to feel very competitive towards other women and other people in my industry or other people in general. [On Day One] I would love to have told myself that my only real competition is me.”

She pauses for a moment to reflect before continuing.

“I would have done myself a lot more good if I had befriended more women, stuck up for more women, defended more women, and not viewed women or other photographers as my competition,” she says. “There’s a lot more support out there than there is people to be afraid of.”

“But how do you do that?” I ask. “How do you break out of a natural tendency to be competitive with others?”

“Frankly I still do this whole competitive thing everyday,” she admits. “It’s just there. You don’t really stop doing it. You just start recognizing when you’re doing it and slap your own hand and say, ‘No!’”

There’s a lot more support out there than there is people to be afraid of.

I love that Sophia acknowledged this reality, as I’ve always been frustrated with the expression: “it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it”. The fact is, reactions aren’t something over which we have control: they’re built into our DNA. Anger, fear, jealousy, competitiveness — for most of human history these emotional reactions have hijacked rational thought and led us to behave in ways that kept us alive. That served us well in a world where the primary threats to our well-being were physical. In a modern world where many of our biggest threats are emotional and social however, these evolutionary instincts can create immense problems.

Leadership isn’t about overcoming deeply embedded human reactions — so stop beating yourself up for feeling angry, scared, jealous or competitive. Those feelings are an essential part of your humanity. Leadership lies in your ability to recognize these emotional reactions quickly and then respond effectively by consciously altering your potentially damaging instinctive behaviour.

In short, it’s not what happens to you, it’s how well you do what Sophia does: respond to your reactions. Humans are the only creatures on the planet with a gap between stimulus and response. Our success depends in large part on how we use the gift of that gap.

We don’t get better at taking advantage of that gap simply by getting older. We get better at it through conscious practice. So ask yourself whether you’re working to get better, or simply hoping to.

Unless you’re wine of course…then just sit there and get more awesome.