Age vs Experience: being young does not disqualify you from performing well

Pre-judgements are often made based on age

A few days ago I had a good voice chat with my good friend and internet personality Jamie Varon. We talked about her goals of breaking through social boundaries and setting people free from surrounding expectations.

In the middle of the conversation, we started talking about young social media marketers. Being completely appropriate on topic, she asked me, “and how old are you?”

That’s when my mind suddenly made a little pause.

I usually feel a little reserved when people ask about my age, particularly because I know that people inevitably make some judgements based on age. And up till now, my age does not put me in the good side of this judgement.

I’m a pretty open person, so while my mind had a pause, I promptly answered: “I’m twenty-two. I’ll actually become twenty-three on Saturday.”

Jamie’s response was not surprising: “Wow, you’re only twenty-two? I thought you were much older than me, at least twenty-six! I actually find that fascinating!”

I was already pretty much used to that response. But while Jamie finds it fascinating that I am only twenty-two, most people don’t.

Is being young a valid disqualifier for what you want to do?

I remember last year at the Web 2.0 Expo, my co-founder Jun Loayza had a chat with an older professional. When Jun revealed he was twenty two during that time, the professional pretty much called him stupid and said, “You should NEVER tell people you are twenty-two!”

I guess you lose all credibility once people know you are that young.

From my own background, I have always been working with people much older than me. My teammates are usually older, people I manage are often-times older, and my clients are usually twice or even thrice my age.

It is very interesting, but I sometimes really wonder how many of the opportunities I had in the past would still be there if everyone knew my age at the beginning. I have had the opportunities to be the advisor for a few different organizations and startups, the opportunity to do keynote/speeches at firms university conferences, as well as become mentors to people with advanced degrees.

Would that all be gone if I wore my age on my forehead? Would being young disqualify me from creating value for people around me with skill sets that I have? Depending on what generation you are from, some would say yes, and some would say no.

The Gen-Y Mentality

It is no secret that the Gen-Ys are perceived as kids who are disloyal to employers, expect too much from others, and think highly of themselves. It is known that the Gen-Ys feel that they can already run complicated projects in a firm and resist against grunt work.

In a previous post about Why are Gen-Ys less loyal to their employers, I suggested that the Gen-Ys expect more because of the instant flow of information and an understanding that corporate America is not loyal to them.

I actually do believe that the Gen-Y is more ambitious and more knowledgeable compared to all other generations during the same age period.

In the older days, when someone is curious about something, they have to go to the library, look through the index cards, find the book, and find the pages the information is at. Most people give up their curiosity if they can’t find an experienced person around them.

But nowadays because of the internet, our generation grew up with all the information at our finger tips. You can find out about anything you want in a few seconds. You can even ask and answer anyone you want about it online. The answer no longer lies solely in the older person who has been in the field for years.

Gen-Ys definitely grew up in a setting where knowledge and information flows through them faster than any other generation. It is also because of this instant information tendency, that the Gen-Y feels that they should be given all the information and be able to input their own opinion in companies. This also makes the Gen-Ys very impatient towards moving up the corporate ladder.

At the same time, the Gen-Ys are more ambitious due to the cultural installment of the entertainment industry. Because of epics and fantasy media, the Gen-Y grew up imagining themselves being the stars in the movies and cartoons. They inherently believe that they are the main characters in this world, and the environment is there for them to overcome.

This tendency is even stronger with games. Earlier kids could just watch heros and wish they were like these heros. However, due to video games, the Gen-Y grew up in complete control of these heros and strove to beat challenge after challenge. This idea of them being in control of their lives to overcome difficult quests again creates an expectation of doing great things early on in life.

Corporate America: Paying your dues

What should you do when you graduate from college? DUH! You should get a “real job”, start from the bottom up, and do your grunt work, also known as paying your dues. You might get some experience watching how your managers take care of business and one day you can be promoted!

Many Gen-Ys resist this idea, but it’s actually very reasonable why they need to do all the grunt work when they first enter a large corporation.

After all, SOMEONE has to do the tedious work right? Would it make more sense that a manager does it? Would it make sense that a Partner does it?

Of course not. It makes complete sense that the younger employees who are new in the company do all the grunt work. And if they have done it for long enough and well enough, they will be given more responsibilities. Heck, they even get PAID a lot to just pay their dues. What’s there to complain about?

If your goal is to become a Manager or Partner at a large company, it is necessary for you to do all that work. After all, the Managers have all done this before you. Why should you be the one that jumps over people?

However, not everyone’s goal is to become a Partner at a large firm.

When people dogmatically tell you, “This is what you must do as a first step,” they would only be right if they knew where you want to go!

If your goal is to become a musician, then who can tell you that your first step is to work in an accounting firm?

Experience matters. And it matters a lot.

One thing that I would like to point out is that I am a firm believer that experience matters. If you have spent more time on something and have been through more battles in that field, what you say would definitely have more credibility than others.

However, just because a person is older does NOT mean s/he is more experienced in everything. Yes, you should always pay your respect to elders because they have seniority over you. But when it comes down to work and creating value, there are definitely things that you may do better than them.

Experience is actually based on time spent in a certain field, not how many years you have been in it. Just because a person has been doing something for ten years doesn’t mean s/he has the most experience.

If a person slacked around most of the time and only do the minimum work for five years on a subject, he would not have more experience than a person who spends ten committed hours a day trying to get better at it for one year. That is why you see a lot of Masters in Computer Science perform weaker than high school hackers.

Because of that, even though some people who are older and have been in the corporate world for 15 years, when they want to start a new company, I sincerely believe I still have something valuable to teach them. I have been doing startups for four years now, and for two years I spent over 80 hours a week working in the trenches and learning about entrepreneurship.

In that case, I would never argue with a person how to maneuver through company politics. If they have backgrounds in the field, I would not challenge how their financial spreadsheets are built. I would not challenge what is the best way to set up the technology. They know so much more than I do in these fields and I can only humbly learn from them.

However, I feel like in many cases, I can guide them in finding the right target market. I can teach them how to motivate a team of non/underpaid teammates towards a common vision. I can show them how to utilize social media to reach the most people with the least amount of spending. I can advise them to avoid feature creep and strip down their product to simplicity.

If an adult suddenly declared that he wants to become a strong gamer, do you think teen gamers should learn from him because he is older, or should it be the other way around since the teen gamers has more experience?

You vs The Future You

With the same logic, if I met another entrepreneur who is way more successful than I am, or even one who has been through a lot more battles and failures than I have, I would not feel qualified to advise on running start ups. I would try to learn as much as I can from this person and listen to what s/he says.

I remember last year I was in a conversation with Jun. He expressed frustration about how, even though we have all the qualities of what “literature” says makes a good entrepreneur, people don’t give us credibility because of how young we were.

My response was, “Well, if you had the option of investing in us, or invest in the us ten years from now, which one would you choose?” The answer is obviously we would invest in the us ten years from now, because whatever we are good at now, we would be much much better (hopefully) ten years from now.

Now there are probably quite a few entrepreneurs out there who are like us ten years from now (OK, almost as good as 🙂 ), and investors obviously favor them over us today.

In this case, experience matters a lot, but more years of experience only matters if they were all filled with hours of productivity and learning.

The Key is to Level up Faster than others

So since your ability and credibility is not determined by your age but by your experience measured in hours, you need to make sure you are spending a lot of committed time towards leveling up in your field.

That is why identifying your life goals and passions is so important. It helps you focus early and level up faster than your peers.

The earlier you start, and the more hours you spend on something each day, the stronger you will become in that field.

By then, even though you are younger than everyone around you, as long as you continuous create good value for everyone, you would have established your credibility and gain the respect of others.

Soon, the next generation of high school kids will think they are more capable at a lot of things than most grown ups, and they will also annoy the heck out of the Gen-Ys. Just like the ocean, each wave covers the one before.

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8 thoughts on “Age vs Experience: being young does not disqualify you from performing well”

  1. Dear YK,

    Thank you very much for sharing such a thoughful post. Honestly speaking, you inspired me a lot. Please add more topics on paradigm-shift and mindset change. I am currently taking some of your quotes to be my motto in improving myself in general.

    I simply love reading all of your posts.

    1. Wow, Shawn,

      Thanks so much for the huge encouragement!

      Now that I have some feedback, I’ll gear more of my content towards that. These days I’ve been making random/funny videos with some message in them. I’ll focus more towards the mindset change and shifting paradigms.

      Thanks for the support and have an AMAZING 2011!

      YK

  2. Hey Irene!

    Thank you so much for the super thoughtful response. I really appreciate you adding value to this blog 🙂

    I think we just have a different semantics view of the word experience. In the human capital market, it is true that experience is measured in years. However, I think the word experience itself is measured in moments. How many moments have you experienced this activity. If you take the TOTAL amount of experience in EVERYTHING, it is a given that people who are older have more experience. However, some of that is experience in eating potato chips, and some of that experience is used to hike (which IS relevant experience if you are in a sports field). I completely agree with you that if a person has seen more things happen due to years in an industry, s/he has more experience in that. But there are those who see things happen without caring or being involved. These are the people who do the minimum and try not to get fired.

    On the other hand, there are people who are devoting their entire lives into becoming stronger in a field, and sometimes they would have more “experience” of that activity, even though the year count is lower.

    Also, I am a firm believer that no one is better than another. Everyone is better at some things and worse at others. Better and worse can only be measure when you take a very specific playing field with measurable performance.

    Thank you so much for your complements and confidence in me. It is a great honor to have met you too and I have definitely learned a lot from you! I hope you have the most extraordinary weekend ever!

  3. Haha, hey Crystal!

    That’s a really smart way to look at it. Unfortunately, not everyone has that philosophy. Still, in the startup world where it’s all or nothing, paying a lot for a 70% bet is way better than paying very little for a 5% bet. 🙂

  4. Wow, thanks Tim for the super thoughtful quote! I definitely agree that above ability, the will to do good and take responsibility is more important than anything else!

  5. Yu-kai,

    Thank you for sharing this very thoughtful post.

    In order to offer my thoughts, it seems only appropriate that I mention that I’m twice your age (at least!). That said, I’ve found you to be brilliant. When we’ve talked, I’ve been amazed and inspired with what you have accomplished. The ease with which you and your business are able to create, evolve, reassess, seek feedback, and engage is impressive. There is so much I can learn (and have learned) from you.

    When you say that someone older doesn’t have more experience, I think I might say it differently. They might have more experience as experience is often measured in years. You are quite right, though, that this does not necessarily mean that they are better prepared for the task at hand. More and more, I see businesses focusing on skills, not years of experience. Years of experience may have been filled with productivity and learning, but I think the question is how applicable is it to the problem or opportunity on today’s to-do list? Companies striving to compete and innovate must reevaluate the traditional thinking that more years equals more qualified.

    That said, I will also say that there is still something to be said for experience in many situations. Having worked with many different people, having faced and solved problems, etc. can add a valuable perspective. It is not a case of one simple answer where one is better than the other.

    I also agree that, to be taken seriously, credibility and reputation are everything, both taking time and effort to build. It is never too early to get started.

    I’m lucky to have met you. Not because you’re a smart 23 year old kid, but because you are a smart, savvy entrepreneur from whom I plan to learn as much as possible.

    Irene

  6. If I were a smart business person, and I wanted to invest in the development of your human potential – your human capital – then I would want to invest in you now, not 10 years from now – the investment threshold is lower and there will be a greater potential return over the life of the investment.

  7. Provocative post — your frustration felt. Yea, experience is certainly relevant, though I would suggest that it builds empathy.

    Just last night I was reading an interview with the luminary, Jim Collins in last month’s Inc. magazine and had to share his response to the following question:

    What’s the source of your optimism?

    Jim Collins: A lot of it has to do with the young generation. A general at West Point told me, “This is the most inspired and inspiring generation to come through West Point since 1945.” I see the same thing with the young people who come to work for me. They have a sense of responsibility and service and a lack of cynicism that is remarkable and wonderful. It’s an ethos, and it’s collective. That’s what’s really powerful. It’s connected technologically. It’s not grandiose, but there is a fundamental assumption of being part of a much larger world and a much larger set of aspirations. The world can be a really awful, brutal, turbulent place. And yet I’m hopeful precisely because of this generation of kids. I really think we ought to just give them the keys as soon as we can. Let them run it.

    Couldn’t have said it better 🙂

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