My fifth book, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, arrives on September 18th. In it, I recount my experiences of growing into what I call a “Modern Elder” at Airbnb (which I shared last year in this Harvard Business Review article). Wisdom@Work is a deeply personal book and is meant to be both inspiring and prescriptive to mid-lifers who may be feeling increasingly irrelevant in the 21st Century workplace that often prizes DQ (digital intelligence) over EQ (emotional intelligence).
We live in a world where power is cascading to the young faster than ever before. And wisdom has never been more valuable. I predict a “comeback kid” story about aging — taking back the term “elder” and evolving it as a Modern Elder who embodies a mindset of both an intern and a mentor. Leading up to the book’s release, I’ll be sharing some of what I’ve written that wasn’t able to make it into the final version of the book. If you like this material (which was preempted, by my stellar editor, by even more insightful paragraphs), you may love the book.
“Old men cherish a fond delusion that there is something mystically valuable in the mere quantity of experience. Now the fact is, of course, that it is the young people who have all the really valuable experience. It is they who have constantly to face new aspects of life, who are getting the whole beauty and terror and cruelty of the world in all its fresh and undiluted purity…Old age lives in the delusion that it has improved and rationalized its youthful ideas by experience and stored-up wisdom, when all it has done is to damage them more or less – usually more.”
Was this acerbic quote part of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous speech at Stanford in 2007 when the then 22-year-old suggested, “Young people are just smarter”? No. This was written by leftist intellectual Randolph S. Bourne in Youth and Life in 1913. Over the past century, older people – particularly in the west – have gone from being venerated to becoming vulnerable.
Up until the early 20th century, the old were few in number, but their authority was great. Advances in public health and modern medicine multiplied the number of elderly and lengthened their life span, which created pressures on pensions and formal retirement systems. Instead of elders being seen as “well-derly,” they were progressively seen more as “ill-derly,” and a drag on society. After thousands of years of feeling held hostage by the aged, just a little more than 100 years ago, youth started firing back.
From The Old Farmer’s Almanac – a storehouse of land wisdom since 1792 – to the Whole Earth Catalog – which Steve Jobs called the bible of his counterculture generation – to Google, we’re digesting wisdom in new ways. Long ago, traditional societal problems often related to a shortage of grains that was best solved by wise elder farmers with decades of experience on the land. Modern societal problems can often relate to a shortage of brains – a lack of ingenuity or human resources with the most needed tech skills – a problem which doesn’t necessarily require a wise elder to solve. As we’ve moved from grains to brains, many of us have lost our appreciation of the value of the expertise and experience that can only come with age.
And, yet, so many of us have come to understand that we are growing whole rather than growing old. Is there a way for us to be integrated into cultivating young brains like farmer elders of the past were able to cultivate young grains? What if there was a new, modern archetype of elderhood that was worn as a badge of honor and not a cloak of shame? What if we could tap into our know-HOW and our know-WHO to be an asset in the workplace rather than a liability? With more generations in the workplace than ever before, elders have so much to offer those younger than them including introductions to those who can cultivate and harvest their skills.
Maybe eldership offers a higher form of leadership. Gray heads are generally wiser than green ones. What if every company believed it is as valuable to have a VP of Common Sense or Wisdom as it is to have a CFO? What if Modern Elders were the secret ingredient for the visionary businesses of tomorrow?
Wisdom@Work is available for pre-order now. Click on your favorite bookseller…
I leave you with an inspiring story about a truly Modern Elder…a warrior amongst the Warriors.
And I look forward to sharing more from the book in the coming months,