I’m not a golfer, nor do I tend to watch golf on television, but I am aware that over the weekend, Jordan Spieth won the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. And with his victory came news of many of his other notable accomplishments:
- Spieth is just the fifth man, since the tournament was established 81 years ago, to lead it from start to finish;
- He holds the record for the most birdies at the Masters (28);
- He is the first player to reach 19 under par at the tournament;
- He has tied the record with an 18-under-par score for the tournament; and
- At 21, he is the second-youngest player ever to win at Augusta.
While all those accomplishments are impressive, it was the last one that got me—a nongolfer—thinking. Spieth is just 21 years of age. He’s more than 10 years younger than the average first-time Masters winner and barely old enough to buy himself a celebratory beer. Yet today—and for the next year—he will be the reigning Masters champion.
When I wasn’t much older than Spieth is today, my then boss asked me during a conversation about my career goals, “Why are you in such a hurry? What are you going to do when you’re 40?” I didn’t really have an answer for her that day. I didn’t really feel like I was in a hurry, and 40 seemed sooooo old, who could even imagine?! My response, “I guess I’ll worry about that when I’m 40.”
Can you imagine a reporter asking Spieth, “Jordan, why are you in such a hurry? What are you going to do when you’re 40?”—implying it would have been better if he had waited another decade before winning the Masters so he would be closer in age to the average first-time winner.
If Spieth had been asked those questions, I hope he would have responded, “I intend to be right here still winning golf tournaments and slipping on the prized green jacket that comes with a Masters victory.” Of course, he might have other goals. He might want to get married, have a family, or start a business or have a myriad of other goals—some that might even take him away from golf. But he’ll always be a Masters champion!
I think many of us have a visceral reaction when we see someone achieve success at such a young age. We harken back to the Smith Barney commercial from the late 70s that proclaimed, “We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” We somehow believe that if someone is successful at an age that is younger than usual, they must not have earned it. That success came too easy for them.
And while I’m sure we could come up with examples in which by sheer luck someone achieved some degree of success, I’d argue that’s not the norm. Most successful people have put in a tremendous amount of work, despite their age. My guess is that Spieth has played thousands of rounds of golf and spent countless hours practicing. He might be only 21, but through a combination of talent and hard work, he has accomplished something most people never will. The focus should be on his accomplishments, not his age.
The same is true in business. We often hear that the younger generation doesn’t want to pay their dues. That freshly minted college graduates expect to start at the top and not the bottom. The fact is, every generation of established executives has made the same claim about the young people entering the workforce. And most go out of their way to make sure the young people pay their dues—make them earn it.
The problem is that today, many of those young people grow frustrated with the pace of their advancement and leave for greener pastures. They move to companies where contributions outweigh seniority. They move to start-up companies where everyone is new. Or they start their own companies. Mark Zuckerberg, think of him what you may, was just 19 when he started Facebook. And Steve Jobs was just 21 when he founded Apple out of his garage.
Do you see the common theme? Technology is the great equalizer. Young people have grown up with computers, smartphones, tablets, and every other gadget available that we could only dream of when we were young. They’re super-users of these tools, while the rest of us are still learning to adapt. Zuckerberg, Jobs, and every other Internet or technology entrepreneur have demonstrated that age and experience aren’t necessarily the key to success. Creativity and ingenuity are critical in harnessing the potential that today’s tech-enabled world provides.
To be successful, today’s company needs to understand that there is a place for everyone. We need the experienced. We need the proven talent. But we also need young minds and what they can bring to our businesses. Trying to put them in their place and forcing onto them our traditional ways only send them running and screaming from the building. We must accept that age is just a number, look past appearance, and honestly assess what each individual has to contribute to the company’s success. Take advantage of what the young can bring to your business, or risk losing them forever.