Experience is Less About the Grey Hair, and More About the Battle Scars
Miriam May is the Executive Director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative. The program is an innovative “new third stage in higher education,” designed to take individuals who have had long, successful careers, and give them a forum and resources to help them define, develop and maximize their aspirations for contributing to the community at large. Think of it as a blend between elite Executive MBA program, think tank, government/non-profit executive network, and career transition service.
One element of Miriam’s job involves recruiting high quality candidates as Fellows for the program — each Fellowship runs for a year, and many participants bring their spouses/partners along for the journey. The criteria for applying are pretty simple: You’ve got to be an accomplished individual with 20-25 years experience and “a record of leadership.” You also have to be “dedicated to contributing to society by helping find and deploy solutions to critical problems,” and “aspiring to big impact through projects, ventures, or leadership roles in, for example, public education, public health, the environment.” And, you have want to benefit from and contribute to the Harvard academic community through a “rigorous but flexible program of activities.”
It’s a tall order, but Miriam always fills the order.
A few months ago, I met up with Miriam over coffee, and she offered me an interesting perspective on her program’s experience requirement for admission, especially for hopeful candidates who may fall short of 20 years business experience: “It’s not about the number of years in business… it’s not even about the grey hair… it’s about the scars.”
In one instance, a candidate explained to Miriam that it was ok that they didn’t have 20+ years of experience because, in their industry, the years were like dog years. These ideas — scars and dog years — resonated deeply with me… not that I was applying for this program or anything crazy like that (still working on my first or second stage of higher education, depending on how you want to count, thank you very much).
ACCELERATING THE ACQUISITION OF BUSINESS ACUMEN (AND BATTLE SCARS)
As the three or four of you who read this blog know, between 1997 and 2005, I had the fortunate experience of co-founding, running and eventually selling an e-commerce company. The three or four of you also know that the gravity well of the dot-com heyday had tremendous time dilation effects for those of us who went through it. The entrepreneurs of that era were kind of like the reverse of that twin flying in a fast rocket in that classic Special Relativity thought experiment: When we arrived back on Planet Earth, we had aged more than our contemporaries… in some ways. In other ways, we were still babies. As for scars, let me just say this: You want to get scars? Go into retail e-commerce. You want to give scars? Same thing: Go into retail e-commerce.
CAREER CHANGE IS THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
Thanks to a series of serendipitous events and karmic paybacks, I eventually transitioned from the hard world of selling stuff online to the soft world of developing people’s talent. Changing industries is a great way to make yourself feel young and inexperienced — especially when the industry you’ve transitioned into is (by necessity) filled by many folks with lots grey hair… and even a few scars now and then. How great is it to be in an industry that rewards age and experience? The future is bright when time is on your side.
There are lots of clichés about mid-life, and with all the advances that are going on in average life expectancy, the definition of mid-life is on a slow upward shift from the 40’s now into the 50’s and beyond. Yet, here in my mid-30’s I’ve got a whole different concept of “mid-life,” which goes like this: Mid-life is when half of the clients you deal with think you’re a fossil, and half of the clients you deal with think you’re a gurgling baby.
The way I see it: The day you stop gurgling — or stop fossilizing (philosofossilizing?) for that matter — is the day you’re done. You need to have both. Keep it fresh, and keep it in perspective.
Kids these days… I’m telling ya…