How Not to Be an Old Fart

Dale Dauten

 ”First you forget names; then you forget faces; then you forget to zip up your fly; and then you forget to unzip your fly.”
-Branch Rickey

While you might hear someone in an organization say, “We could use some new blood around here,” you’ll never hear anyone say, “We could sure use some OLD blood around here.”

On the other hand, what you might hear is a call for “someone who’s been down that road before,” or “who this isn’t their first rodeo.” In other words, when things get tricky, people value experience, even if they don’t respect age.

What got me thinking was a friend talking about his “real age.” He’d been reading a book that allowed him to “prove” via some calculation that he was still young. And that got me thinking about the career aging process, or, how not to be the office Old Fart.

Retailers talk about a product becoming “shelf worn”: it isn’t that the product did anything wrong, it’s just been there, sitting, gathering the funk of time – it is not obsolete, just boring. So what do you do when a career starts to show signs of becoming shelf-worn? If you thinking like a retailer, you decide it’s time to “refresh the brand,” which usually means new packaging. For aging career professionals, “new packaging” can be the tricky business. There’s plastic surgery, but common is going in for brightly-colored clothing, resulting in a look-at-me effect which makes you into the corporate equivalent of a traffic cone.

The underlying fallacy of worrying about your “brand image” is this: Most brands do not succeed because of their image, but because of their usefulness. In career terms, rather than concentrating on brand, which almost invariably ends up focusing on image, the better choice is to focus on a specialty. There are only two types of professionals thriving in this economy – the beginner and the specialist. Rather than asking what your image is, you get a much more interesting discussion by asking what you are famous for.

All of which brings us to an interesting irony –  people value the specialist, but detest the know-it-all. There is no one quite so “old blood” as a know-it-all.  Further, the dreariest corporate incarnation of know-it-all is in the seen-it-all. Ogden Nash once pointed out that you knew you were getting old when everyone you meet reminds you of someone else. That’s what happens with the seen-it-all person – every idea starts to look like some other idea. They are beyond surprise us, without delight and thus, without creative energy.

The man who I believe will be remembered as the creative genius of our time, the architect Frank Gehry, is now eighty. Yet, you see him interviewed (for instance, at – you feel the creative energy of someone still experimenting, still wanting to surprise and be surprised. You can’t be a know-it-all and be surprised.

If you want to stir up your blood, you have to learn, which means you know to experiment, to bumble, stumble and be humbled by welcoming Mr. Error and his partner, Mr. Trial. You have to force yourself to get to the I DO NOT KNOW. Any day that you say “Let’s try it and see what happens” is a day when you have declared your mind to be open and your blood still young.

Dale Dauten, columnist of the Corporate Curmudgeon
©2009 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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