How to stay young — and competitive

How to stay young — and competitive

 / FLICKR USER JASONLANGHEINE

For years I’ve been railing against the premise that Gen Y has something over on older and more experienced “knowledge-based” workers. To me, the very notion that you can characterize the capability of an entire generation is highly improbable, and perhaps even deplorable.

 

 

Well, this could be the mother of all turnabouts. At least maybe. Not that I’m ready to throw out all my prior logic on the subject. Far from it. But I have recently found a crack in the armor of my previous arguments. Yes, it’s a small crack, but you know what happens to small cracks. They only get bigger.

Here’s the thing. I’m atrophying. You have no idea how much I hate to admit it, but it’s true. And there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that, if I was still gainfully employed as a senior executive in the high-tech industry, I’d be far too busy racking up frequent-flyer miles and being double-booked in meetings to be aware that it’s happening.

So, by virtue of an early retirement from the corporate world — a decision that still annoys my wife to no end – here’s a heads-up to all the baby boomers and Gen Xers out there who, unlike me, may be far too consumed with reaching the next rung on the corporate ladder or squeezing out two more percentage points of market share to be aware that their bodies are not the only things that are aging. 

That’s right. As sure as I’m sitting here in a Peet’s coffee shop (not Starbucks or the local place — I’ve been a Peetnik for years, and I’m not about to change), waiting for a dent to get pounded out of my aging Mercedes sports car, I’m becoming more aware by the minute that, just as my joints are stiffening and my tendons are losing their elasticity, the same thing is happening to the neural pathways in my brain.

Like it or not, I’m becoming comfortable. Set in my ways. Sure, I’m willing to change, but let’s face it — with all this experience under my belt, there’s got to be a very good reason to upset the apple cart, right? The older and wiser I get, the higher the bar for change to occur. That’s just the way it is.

Now, if you’re not aware that I’m being just a little bit facetious, overemphasizing things just a bit, then you must be new around here. But there is definitely an element of truth to all of this. And I am trying to make a very important point.

You see, for years I’ve watched otherwise successful executives and managers let inertia and the status quo take their toll on their formerly effective organizations. I’ve long wondered what strips them of their entrepreneurial spirit and makes them so set in their ways that they put their companies at risk of losing their elasticity, their flexibility, their nimbleness, just as they are.

Now I know. It’s the inevitable toll of time, age and experience. The truth is we’re all fighting against nature. Any good psychologist, neurologist or whoever studies this sort of thing will tell you that, over time, your brain does lose its plasticity. Neural pathways do become more fixed. We do become more set in our ways. It does become harder to learn new things.

That said, it’s not entirely preordained. Not at all. Nothing is. We each have it in us to fight, to escape this fate, to “not go gentle into that good night,” to quote Dylan Thomas. But it helps to be honest with yourself, to be aware of what you’re up against, and to follow these four simple but effective ways to stop your brain from aging and keep your mind young and competitive:

Never stop facing your fear. We all reach a point where we think, I really shouldn’t have to keep doing this, to keep fighting and challenging myself all the time. That’s true, you don’t. But once you stop challenging yourself and facing your fears, you age quicker. The reason is simple: Fear stops you from trying out new things and new ideas. That’s all there is to it.

Look in the mirror, long and often. No, I’m not talking about seeing the lines carved in your face. I’m talking about seeing the lines carved in your mind. If you know yourself, see yourself for what you are and what you’re becoming, you’re not likely to wake up one day and realize that youth has come and gone and you somehow let that happen.

Stay hungry. It’s easy to become satisfied with where you are and what you’ve become. This is especially true of successful people. Once that happens, you lose your edge, your drive, your raison d’etre. It’s really that need to prove yourself that drives you when you’re young. It’s a powerful motivating force.

Fight the status quo, especially your own. The biggest problem with experience and success is that you begin to think you know it all, that you’ve got all the answers. Well, that’s not the way the business world works. Past performance is no indication of future results. Just because something worked once, even twice, doesn’t mean it’ll work again.

Look, the problem with aging is the same as with business in general. They’re entirely analogous. The world changes. Technology changes. Competition changes. Markets change. Leaders change. And you’ve got to change too. Make no mistake — when it comes to aging, just as in business, inertia is the enemy. Keep fighting the good fight. Stay flexible and elastic. It’ll keep you young — and competitive. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user JasonLangheine

 

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