How You Like Me Now?
Aging sucks. My opinion. But it need not limit you in continuing to achieve growth, goals, and success. In fact, the experience that you've built over time is the ace card you now hold that no one can take away from you. And you can play it at exactly the right time to take down your stiffest competition.
I've been an avid tennis player and fan since age 9. I've watched and emulated many of the greats from that time like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Martina Navratilova played competitively until she was just shy of 50 years old when she won the US Open mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan who was 29 years old at the time. He provided much of the firepower, but she provided the savvy and a level of shot-making that only someone with decades of experience and intuition could pull off. And, together, they won.
I counsel many veteran Assistants now and I'm constantly hearing, "I'm too old," "They're going to think I'm too slow and stuck in my ways," "I can't compete with the hot, young things at these interviews," etc. Sure, I believe ageism exists. But why would you choose to let it exist in your own mind? It's an external influence that should never enter your psyche and to which you should never give any credence or validation by internalizing it. It's pure poison. Plain as that.
I just turned 48 a couple of days ago and I'm still shaking my head. I don't look 48. I don't feel 48. I'm not even sure what 48 should look or feel like in all honesty. When I look in the mirror every morning I still see the same wide-eyed, wanderlust-y, excited to be alive, potty mouthed, running at light speed, 27-year-old guy that I've always been since I turned 27. And I choose to live in that fantasy world because it keeps me interested and questioning life and my own conclusions on a daily basis. I see my peers and even Execs who are my age or slightly younger and I'm taken aback by how "old" they've become. They've let their bodies go. They're negative and uninspired. They cling to ideals that have long expired. And they cock block newbies mercilessly who are simply trying to innovate and be relevant within a constantly changing business climate. And it saddens me. Angers me, actually.
I believe that falling victim to fear-based mentality is a choice. And it's one that can be remedied simply by emulating someone who has overcome the same fears.
Roger Federer is my spirit animal. He has been so for the past 15 years. He's mastered his sport. He's played at an incredibly high level since he won his first Wimbledon, beating his idol Pete Sampras. Roger just won Wimbledon again yesterday for a record 8th time. More than any other player in history. Roger is about to turn 36 years old. In tennis years that's ancient. Farting dust, shoulda retired 5 years ago, how's your body even capable of a 5 setter, kinda ancient.
As I was watching the match I couldn't help but think how relevant his story is to those of us who are aging and trying to stay relevant in business now being dominated by the young guns, most of whom see us as dinosaurs or expendable. Roger Federer is a perfect example of a professional who has found a way to adapt on many levels in order to not just remain relevant but to thrive and actually climb his way back to the top of the game. Grab a Diet Coke and I'll school you a little bit real quick. #takenotes
Roger Federer is considered the greatest male tennis player in history. But not that long ago sportscasters, even his peers, were writing him off as a has-been. Newer players on the tour were beating him in early rounds of tournaments he'd won several times. His ranking slipped out of the Top 5 numerous times, which is typically a sign that it's time to pack it up and retire while you're still relatively on top. But Roger possesses a depth of talent, experience, and competitiveness that can't be quantified and certainly not written off as "has been." So he went back to the drawing board with the express intent of getting back to the top...or die trying.
Roger has been loyal to Wilson Racquet Sports his entire tennis career. He used the same racquet in every iteration, year after year with great results. However, like business, equipment and string manufacturers innovated. Racquets got lighter and more powerful and strings evolved using polymers and blends that made them just as important as the racquets for creating power and spin. Roger, with all of the talent in the world, was being blown off the court by wily kids wielding light, powerful racquets strung up with spin inducing, powerful strings. He held on to his underpowered, tiny headed, classic racquet and string combination a little too long IMHO and finally decided to make the switch to a larger, lighter, more powerful racquet and a string combination that allowed him to add more spin to his game and, essentially, give him a chance against his younger, fearless competition. When you've used a certain weapon for years that has been critical to your success, letting it go and moving onto something unproven and unfamiliar can feel like a date with disaster.
In business, dynamism is your friend. As an aging business person dynamism is critical. Holding onto tools and ideals that may have served you well in years past, but are clearly antiquated and irrelevant will result in you being hammered by your competition. Back to Roger.
Roger moved on to this new racquet and, admittedly, he kinda sucked for awhile. He struggled a bit getting used to the new frame and was trying different combinations of strings to try and find something that felt right so that he could be confident using the racquet and returning to his winning ways. He lost a lot of matches which produced a lot of head-scratching moments, but he was resolute in his decision to make it work. His serve, which was already quite competent, actually became a weapon thanks to the power of the new racquet. His forehand shots gained more horsepower and spin allowing him to end points quickly. And most amazingly, his backhand which had been picked on mercilessly by his opponents while using his previous racquet became a true weapon in his already replete arsenal. For the first time in his career, Roger Federer became a complete player mechanically, with absolutely no weaknesses to exploit.
So let's talk about the elephant in the room. AGE. Historically, tennis players are considered washed up in their late twenties/early thirties. They're certainly not at the top of the game and are reduced to journeymen players who win just enough prize money to continue playing and traveling city-to-city. Roger has been incredibly fortunate to have never suffered any major injuries that required time away from the tour. His preparation for the big tournaments has always been stellar and he's never, to my knowledge, retired from a professional match once on the court. Last year was the first year that Roger had an injury requiring him to leave the tour for an extended period of time. He'd tweaked his back early in the year during a tournament. A couple of months later, while giving his twin children a bath, he ended up tearing a ligament in his knee that required surgery and recuperation. Roger was forced to step away from tennis for 6 months to recover.
Being a champion in tennis requires you to stay in the fight, week-to-week. There's a certain level of "match toughness" that you have to acquire that hours on a practice court simply can't replicate. By stepping away for 6 months, at age 36, you're essentially placing yourself at the bottom of Mt. Vesuvius, in a pair of flip flops and a Speedo, tasked with climbing this "hill" in record time. It's virtually impossible, especially using the same techniques that put you on top of the hill once before. So he got incredibly smart.
Taking the 6 months off actually allowed his body to recover and his wounds to heal. It also gave him time to look at his insane travel and playing schedule and make some tough decisions, mainly to cull the workload down to the essential smaller tournaments to keep his ranking high and laser focus on the major tournaments where he felt he had a chance to be competitive and hopefully win.
As an older employee you have to be willing to do things differently. You must adapt to the tools of the times, without hesitation, and learn them in finite detail. You need to rely on your experience to identify the most efficient avenues that lead to success. You must step away from the fire at times to view the entire picture, rework your strategy and get back to your winning ways in a more efficient, minimalist manner with full confidence that you know how to win with the experience and audacity to do so.
Roger Federer trained like a madman ahead of his first major tournament back from 6 months away from the game. That tournament happened to be January's Australian Open. Round by round we all witnessed a "new" Roger. He was confident. He was blasting the ball off both sides. He was focused, but was playing with this new energy and joy that we hadn't seen in a number of years. Roger came up against Rafael Nadal in the finals, a player who had robbed him of his #1 ranking and numerous titles in recent years. He, too, was struggling with his own bout with age and relevance as he fought his way to the final. They battled mightily. Rafa picked on a backhand that he quickly found had improved dramatically. He staged a bit of a comeback after being 2 sets down and tied up the match at 2 sets apiece. In years past, that usually equated to Rafa winning the match as he'd routinely broken Federer's resolve during those long, tight matches. But this time, Roger finally crossed the chasm. He believed in his preparation and training, his talents, and his belief that he could win the match and did just that in an epic 5-set thriller.
Roger went on to win the next two tournaments, lost early in another one likely due to fatigue and then decided to do something unheard of in years prior. He skipped the entire clay court season, including the French Open which he'd won once before. He made the conscious decision to rest his body and prepare for Wimbledon. He prepared during those months off and played a warm up tournament on grass. He lost in the first round. He played another tournament directly afterward and won the tournament. Which led him to Wimbledon where he not only won the tournament, but did so without losing a single set. A 36 year old man, beat a number of top opponents, without losing a set, en route to winning his record-breaking 8th Wimbledon and 19th Grand Slam title. For those who believe or fall for the "I'm too old to win" BS, you now have a new messiah.
So let's break this down into action:
Get your mind right.
You're older. We get it. However, your mind is as young as you allow it to be. If you fill it with doubts, fears and dialogue based in "I can't" and "They won't" then you might as well pack it in. Sure, you'd probably suck as a 48-year-old gaming champion where your reflexes would likely not be fast enough to compete at a super high level (scientifically proven). But why not set your sights on learning the software or writing the code and actually making $150K per year doing so and laughing at the 20-something gaming "masters" who take home around $4,000 for winning a gaming championship. Get out of the mind space that you can't compete with the youngins. You can. But you've got to be smart about it, prepared and efficient. Most importantly, you have to believe that you can and know that you've got experience on your side to take you across the line even faster.
Stay ready so you don't have to get ready.
Best motivational quote I've heard yet. Staying ready means that you're reading the articles, you're attending the conferences, you're trying out the new tools, you're staying in the conversation. I counsel older Assistants who don't even know what the acronyms mean of the products their company sells. Which means they now have to "get ready" and do the research, learn the lingo and master the product. Meanwhile, the newbie with the curiosity and foresight of a champion did all that before their first day of work and are summarily eating the old-timer's lunch. "I can't compeeeeete. Wah!" Shut that shit up! It's your own fault, plain and simple. Time to go back to the basics of winning. First tenet: preparation. This hasn't changed since the beginning of time. And it's more relevant than ever now. GET. READY. Or please move aside. The rest of us are kind of sick of you already because you're blocking the lane.
Get efficient with it.
You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I'm proof. What you can't teach is motivation. You can coach people only to a point and then it's up to them to actually flex the muscle. Old dogs need to learn every new trick in the book. We are blessed to be in an age where we can GTS (Google that shit) on virtually anything we don't know. I've even spent hours on Khan Academy learning about how stock options work and numerous other topics where I felt a little light on knowledge or lingo. I research new efficiencies daily, download apps and purchase programs that are proven to be the new gold standard in efficiency to allow me to execute at a level much higher than my peers. Like Roger Federer, I'm looking at the entire picture and choosing my battles so that I can be lean and focused on winning the war. Running in every direction and taking on too much are signs of a lack of focus. Multitasking is a myth. Accept that please, so we can cut the bullshit. Doing a lot of stuff sorta well is truly what multitasking is. Focus is what creates true champions. So if you're bogged down in a career and multitasking your way through, you'll never truly achieve greatness. You'll be damned good, but never great.
Get a little goofy and impetuous.
When I moved from Los Angeles back to the San Francisco Bay Area I decided to ride my motorcycle up instead of shipping it back. I mean, why would you buy a motorcycle to then stick it on a trailer? Some of you are thinking, "Um...you're 48...why would you even buy a motorcycle in the first place?" I'll explain. To me, motorcycling provides me with a certain amount of freedom and badassery that doesn't come in my typical day-to-day. It also connects me to my inner wild child/hooligan who flashes double bananas to anyone who tries to confine me to a box, assign labels to me, or rule me in any way. I remember screaming and laughing into my helmet and singing at the top of my lungs for much of the 6-hour trip...because I could. Without reproach.
I'm pretty buttoned up at work. I'm a force, don't get me wrong, but I play the game quite well and have succeeded as a result. However, I also recently realized that I'd fallen into this strange nebulous of being "perfect" and "professional at all times" and living my life by a script I didn't write. I'm funny. I'm a little wild. I like danger. I think rules are stupid and an attempt to control people and rob them of their individuality. Sure, I'll play the game and be the perfect ambassador for the brand when the cameras are on. But the moment that light goes off, I'm 100% myself again. Unabashedly. I drive too fast. I laugh too loud. I dance around naked. I do all the quirky shit that most people would frown upon because it is 100% WHO I AM.
This has only happened recently. I went through a few bouts of depression over the past few years and I couldn't figure out why. I was successful in my job, but incredibly unhappy. I realized it was because I didn't give myself permission to be myself. 100%. I had drunk the corporate KoolAid for so long that I didn't realize that it had leeched into my soul, taken it hostage and turned me into this perfect little ambassador boy, with perfect presence, and an unrivaled panache in social situations. Meanwhile, the foul-mouthed, thrill seeking, happy in jeans-and-tshirt, wild child was dying on the vine inside. So I gave him permission to step into the light. And I haven't been happier in my life since. I get a little crazy whenever the opportunity presents itself. I like Rihanna. So I saw her live and sang every word of every song back to her. I like U2. So I saw them live, too. I like racing to the car in the parking lot with my friends. So I do it. I like rolling down the window and screaming when I'm in a tunnel. So I do it. I hate office parties. So I make an appearance and bounce the second no one's looking, call up a few friends and meet at a dive bar down the road. I wash down cheap pizza with expensive champagne. I eat Doritos by the large bag (and immediately head to the gym to mitigate the damage). In short, I get a little crazy. Nothing to land me in jail kinda crazy. But crazy enough to remind myself that I'm still a ton of fun and my life is enriched by the great times and improprieties I allow myself to indulge in.
Reacquaint yourself with your wild child. There's confidence in there. There's a resilience that you haven't seen in a long while. There's a curiosity aching to be unleashed on the world. And there are copious energy reserves that you can tap into that will take you from "old dog" to new champion in record time. Dance around naked. Jump in a puddle when it rains. Stop believing that you're "too old to..." this or "too mature for.." that. Life is a series of opportunities to create memories that last until your dying breath. Sure, kick ass and be relevant at work. But throw a rock or two every now and then and invite that energy into your professional life. Surround yourself with some newbies and really listen and share openly. You'll be surprised to find that it will actually make you a better, happier, more confident version of yourself. And that's what you need to compete...these days.