FTWW #41: Show vs. Tell

My dear intellectually curious friends,

This is For Those Who Wonder (FTWW) #41 and this week we are going to discuss show vs. tell.

Woody Allen famously said that “showing up is 80 percent of life.” Unless you have impeccable intuition and an astute sense of the right time and place, showing up is only the basic pre-requisite.

Age is a strong heuristic that colors our perception of the people we interact with, their place in a hierarchy and the extent to which we believe they can deliver on their commitments relative to the complexity of the challenge. The younger we are and the more challenging the endeavor, the less credibility is given to our efforts.

Those younger than us are given leeway for failing to deliver. “It’s okay, they’re still young, they don’t understand or aren’t mature enough yet,” we say. Those older than us are conversely reprimanded for failing to keep their word. “They should know better than to overpromise, that was irresponsible of them,” is how we typically think. If life were a video game, the points gained for responsibly sticking to your word is an asymmetrical payoff, with the older of us getting the short end of the stick.

However, this stereotype reverses itself when viewing age through the lens of executing on new ideas. Those younger are summarily dismissed as idealistic, unrealistic or incapable of understanding the nuances of the situation. The same slack we give them when they fail drains the flexibility and trust we place in them when they come to us, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with an idea.

The older counterparts have free reign. They are assumed to have been thoughtful and thorough, understanding which ideas are realistic and which are not. They just have to say the word they’ve got about as much rope as they can hang themselves with.

Notwithstanding social norms with respect to the asymmetrical nature of our perception of ability and dependability relative to age, there is a way for the young to be heard, their ideas to be taken seriously and their efforts to deliver value.

We give credence to the idea that age-dependent reliability is correlated with maturity, but I tend to believe that age and maturity are quite different. Mature people are presumed to be sensible, responsible and pragmatic. Yet the factors that drive our evaluation of a persons’ maturity leans more towards actions for the young and mere words for the old.

When we are young, we have to show not tell, persistently proving our value through proactive initiatives, ambition and a determination to persevere through failure. We take any chance we get and run with it, keep running and don’t stop until we have to ask for forgiveness because no one will ever give us permission. Don’t worry, if we fail, they weren’t expecting much of us anyway.

Yet, when we are older, our reputation is derived by the merit of our word as we havesupposedly already done all the “showing up.” A word that only becomes invalid if the facade put up to support it melts away. This dynamics leads me to wonder if the system of the young paying up front for reputation vs. others who carry their reputation on loan has caused us to dismiss too easily, people and ideas based purely on the age of their vessel.

Nonetheless, heuristics exist for a reason as typically age dependent perception of value add is correlated to persistence early on and reputation later on. It is also correlated to our stage in life and the societal perception of what we should be doing at that point in our lives. Kids play outside while adults have serious business to attend to.

Still, it is the exception that proves the rule and rule should remind us to look out for the exception. In reality, sometimes the children are the real adults in the room and maybe their ideas aren’t so bad. Have you been outside to play lately?

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I encourage all feedback and appreciate any responses that bring a new perspective or challenge my reasoning. Together our ideas can change the world.

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