Oswald Letter

Talent, drive, and success cannot be dictated by age

Business People Celebrating Success in a Cityscapeby Dan Oswald

I recently wrote that we shouldn’t overlook the contributions the younger generation can make. In business, we often assume that experience equates with success and therefore conclude it’s unlikely that a 20-something can make a significant contribution. I think that’s complete hogwash, but so is assuming people can’t have a major career breakthrough in the second half of their work life.

I’m not talking about people who have climbed the corporate ladder throughout their careers and reach the top during the latter part—that happens all the time. I’m talking about individuals who have changed career paths and caught lightning in a bottle. Or people who have been met with modest success and suddenly break through with unparalleled achievements. Consider the following:

  • Henry Ford was 45 years old when he created the Model T and revolutionized the auto industry.
  • Julia Child worked in advertising and media before writing her first cookbook when she was 50, launching her career as a celebrity chef.
  • Ray Kroc spent his career as a milkshake device salesman before buying McDonald’s at age 52 in 1954. He grew it into the world’s biggest fast-food franchise.
  • John Wooden was 53 when he coached his first NCAA men’s basketball championship team. He would go on to win 10 titles in the next 12 years before retiring.
  • Harland Sanders, better known as Colonel Sanders, was 62 when he franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952, which he would sell for $2 million 12 years later.
  • Peter Roget showed us that it is never too late to make earth-shattering inventions, such as the thesaurus, which he invented at age 73.

What did these people have in common? First, they all made a significant breakthrough in their careers after 20 or more years of work. These people toiled away for 20, 30, or even 40 years before they found their perfect opportunity. None of them had given up or stopped trying. And their hard work, discipline, and ingenuity eventually paid off.

Second, if you read about these individuals, you’ll find they all had a passion for what they did. They loved their work and pursued their goals with enthusiasm. If you ever watched Julia Child cook, you knew she loved being in the kitchen. John Wooden dedicated his life to coaching and teaching young people. And Ray Kroc had a vision to drive that single McDonald’s restaurant he bought in 1954 into a worldwide franchise.

Third, each one of these people had an active, questioning mind. They all learned how to adapt. Ford would give us the assembly line and change the auto industry forever. Kroc’s approach to making hamburgers would follow in Ford’s footsteps and have the same impact on the food industry. Julia Child went from ad exec to celebrity chef. Each one of them was willing to change and adapt because they never stopped looking for new and better ways to do things.

Finally, their mark on society has lasted long after they left this earth. How many of us still pick up a Roget’s Thesaurus? Maybe you drove a Ford to work today. Or used it to pull through the drive thru of McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken. What these people created has left a mark on our society. And not just for what they did, but how they did it.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of identifying or categorizing people by age. The young are creative because they aren’t yet set in their ways. Or the older worker is more experienced and therefore more likely to provide steady, consistent results. Or the younger employee has more energy and will get more done.

The only thing worse than stereotyping people is accepting these stereotypes about ourselves. What if Ford or Kroc had accepted that their time to be creative and do something new and significant had long passed them by? What if Julia Child had figured it was too late in life to pursue her real passion? No, they each KNEW what they were capable of, and they never stopped trying. It’s a great lesson for each of us.