Reading List: The Folly of Age? Oh, Grow Up!

I stumbled upon an essay  by Brian Wong on LinkedIn, posted a few weeks ago, but buried in my inbox until now.  Now, I like Brian.  He’s got tremendous energy and he’s seen remarkable success at a very early age.  Some might even think him a child-savant, a description that must get pretty tiring when you are, at 21, Silicon Valley’s version of Justin Bieber.

In this essay, Brian makes the case that youth is an attitude.  He writes, “Age is not about the number, but rather about the way you think.”

Then, he goes on to outline ways to think young: be a learner, seek out teachers; harness your passion and energy for leadership; seek adventure and wonder; make your own rules; see the best in everyone.   He implores the reader to “Stay young.”

The post is sweet, and maybe even wise beyond Brian’s 21 years.

It’s also ageist and silly.

His hypothesis is simple: young is better and that somehow profound inexperience makes a better entrepreneur.  He writes:

At the age of 21 (and I’m sorry to everyone that this offends), I am pretty much “old.” There are entrepreneurs now gaining significant traction, raising money, and building amazing companies – all before they even turn 18.

It must be tough to reach the ripe old age of 21 and feel the heat of youth breathing down your neck.

What Brian is missing, I’m afraid, is context.  So let me lay it out: those minors he’s referring to are an anomaly, just has he was and is.  The vast majority of business creators are old enough to rent a car (age 25 in California) and older.  Mark Zuckerberg is the remarkable exception to the norm; the next youngest CEO of a large company is Larry Page, who will be 40 in March.  Nearly 70% of the CEOs of the S&P 500 are over 50 years of age.

Brian lives in a lovely bubble where youth is prized over experience, yet ironically is harnessed by 40-something VCs who yoke this youthful energy and naivety to potential profit.

I realize that as one of those “CEOs well into their 50s” Brian writes about, I risk sounding like the old-fogy he cautions us not to become.

Still, there’s an important point here that is worth the risk of fogy-dom:  the limited context of Brian’s bubble – of the Silicon Valley bubble – limits the scope of innovation and change-agent companies.  Simply put, the Brians of the current startup wave in many if not most cases don’t bring a life experience that enables them to recognize serious endeavors, let alone build companies to meet significant business, social, and human challenges.

Worse, these remarkable talents – and to be sure, Brian and many of his peers are wonderfully talented – risk exploitation and burn out playing someone else’s game disguised as their own.

So while I embrace Brian’s good advice, I’m also eager to see him grow up.  It really isn’t so bad.



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