Older–and Sometimes Wiser


I was both intrigued and amused by the article in the NYTimes Magazine, by Yiren Lu, on the growing gap between youngers and olders in Silicon Valley. Olders being more than 50 years old. The article was written by a “younger,” a recent college grad still in her twenties. And that gave it both a peculiar set of useful insights and also a peculiar set of missing insights.

Although her insights about youthful Silicon Valley coders and techies were illuminating, she was evidently unaware that most entrepreneurs and successful start-ups are initiated by those 40 years old or older. No surprise on that, especially since most people believe in the Zuckerberg and late-teen fantasies. I suspect that Bill Gates was one of the very few college-age entrepreneurs that became successful without the heavy hand of a supervising adult.

I was in my sixties when I worked in my first start-up with a bunch of twenty-year olds. It was a lot of fun and a great contrast to my regular clients who were senior officers in multi-national corporations. These twenty-year-olds brought stuff to the party I lacked. And I brought stuff to the party they definitely, perhaps desperately needed and wanted. It was highly successful and I walked away with stock that paid off in the six figures for just three or four hours a month for not many months. A nice piece of change for 20 years ago.  And I was flattered by the comment of the CEO, still in his mid-twenties: “We’d never have succeeded if you hadn’t been there.” But he, like most inexperienced CEOs, was bought out by his investors and replaced by a GE manager in his late forties. Typical!

So what can the older—and sometimes wiser bring to the party? Most will say that experience brings wisdom. But there’s a seriously limiting caveat to that notion. Once more, it all depends. . . . The assumption is that living longer involves more than the accumulation of wealth and years for its own sake and brings wisdom.  But research has found that between 20 and 75 years, age has been demonstrated to show a zero relation with wisdom-related knowledge and judgment.

Lack of quality experiences and decreases in intellectual functioning as well as changes in personality seem to undermine the development of wisdom-related knowledge and judgment. However, there is also some evidence indicating that under certain supportive and challenging conditions, it’s the older people who hold the greatest potential for wisdom.

From a business perspective the “Berlin wisdom paradigm” offers superb insight into defining wisdom in the older person. It conceptualizes wisdom as expert level knowledge and judgment in the fundamental pragmatics of life. Research by Columbia’s Ursula Staudinger found that creativity, social intelligence and cognitive styles built upon rich experiences that are challenging, perhaps life threatening and even include mentors, are the fundamental keys to wisdom. The research also found that those with a cognitive style that tends to be quick and impulsive, says and does things without forethought, knowledge and judgment fail to develop wisdom-related performance.

The judicial style
Research reveals that the prototypical cognitive preference that can result in wisdom is the ability to withhold judgment and reflect about options. Robert Sternberg calls this the Judicial style and it has been shown to be crucial to wisdom-related performance. Contrasting the judicial with other styles, Sternberg finds that those who have a predilection for tasks, project and situations that require evaluation, analysis, comparison and contrast, and judgment of existing ideas, strategies and projects are well on their way to developing wisdom.

Managers and execs (Sternberg’s Executive style) who prefer to be told what to do and then give it his or her best shot at doing it well are not necessarily in this category. Nor are those who prefer creation, formulation and planning of ideas inherently included (Sternberg’s Legislative style). I suspect, however, that among the more gifted all three styles overlap, but those who reflect the Judicial style most prominently eventually become the wisdom-centered performers.

In an auspicious note toward the end of her Times article, Yiren Lu reveals that Doug Leone, a venture capitalist at one of the most prestigious investment firms, said that he sees “the old guard and the new guard coming together again.” It strikes me, however, that it’ll be a long time before the American culture, much less Silicon Valley, stops overvaluing youth and undervaluing experience. The Times cartoon cover has an older guy saying “When will you make something that matters?” And the younger guy responding in kind, “When will you make something cool?” If that ever happens, it’ll be because the power structures recognize that business success requires a rapprochement between the generations. 

Flickr photo: reign60


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