Young, gifted and blank . . . ageing will fill in the gaps
First published in the Sunday Times on 4th September 2016.
I wonder if it is a good idea to enjoy huge success while young? We enter our twenties bursting with ambition, keen to scale the heights in our careers. But for many, peaking too early can be a treacherous mistake. After all, what do you do for an encore?
Orson Welles was a magnificent film maker: Citizen Kane, his greatest achievement, was released when he was just 26. He produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in it. Many critics still regard it as the finest film of all time. Welles directed more than a dozen other films, acted, and produced radio and television series over the next 44 years. But Citizen Kane overshadowed everything, and he never came close to repeating that remarkable initial burst of glory.
Similarly, I was in Edinburgh last week for the Fringe, which was seething with young wannabes, and I read about James Craig, the architect who won the competition to design the city’s New Town in 1766. It is possibly the finest piece of preserved Georgian town planning in the world. Craig was only 26: nothing he did subsequently was remotely as important.
One of the troubles of being a wunderkind is that very few have the strength of personality to cope with the pressures of wealth and fame at a young age. The record producer Phil Spector is a prominent example. He invented a particular style — his so-called Wall of Sound — and worked on hits for bands such as the Ronettes, Ike & Tina Turner and even the Beatles. But after an extraordinary run in his twenties and early thirties, he became a recluse and did very little recording for the next few decades. Worse, in 2009 he was found guilty of murder, and he is still in prison in California.
Of course, most of us are not brilliant enough to have a big smash early in our careers. We have to graft away, gradually establishing a reputation and developing our careers. It means that the majority of business leaders rise to the top only once they reach their forties or fifties. By that time they are likely to be less innovative, less optimistic, less flexible and less up to date with the latest technology than when they were 25. It is harder to work all night in middle age; the responsibilities of family are more likely to intrude. Also, those who have worked diligently over decades often have a much greater sense of entitlement, and care perhaps too much about status. Meanwhile, the gurus of Silicon Valley believe that any entrepreneur over 35 is past it.
Age does have certain compensations, though. After a few decades in the game, you develop networks of contacts where it matters — managers, investors, bankers, suppliers, advisers and so forth. Much in life is about relationships, and the ones that matter develop over time, rather than in a flash. You learn who to trust, who is competent, who follows through on promises — and who is dishonest. I am always amazed at how short memories are. Now and then I read about financial bandits from the 1980s being resurrected in new guises, and realise that no one remembers their dodgy dealings.
Of course, capital makes a huge difference. Most twenty-somethings have no money, but if they spend the next few decades being industrious and accumulating, they should have some resources to invest at 50 thanks to the wonders of compound interest. This means a seasoned entrepreneur no longer has to do all the work: he or she can become a backer of other, younger entrepreneurs who are on their way up.
If you have spent many years managing companies, you should have collected a decent amount of experience — and perhaps even a smattering of wisdom.
As long as you don’t allow this knowledge to lead to cynicism or arrogance, it should be valuable when it comes to making the right decisions. I have also acquired a degree of detachment over time. One might say this is a bad thing — every founder should be saturated with passion for their enterprise, according to the experts. But caring too much and getting emotionally involved in a venture can be very risky.
We read about the winners, not the thousands who should have dumped a dream that never had a hope. Life is full of illusions that sap our enthusiasm and squander energy. Maturity can allow one to separate the gems from the dirt.
I find another advantage of having been in business for half my life is the ability to put rivalries into perspective. We are all competitive creatures, but constant worry about an unproductive comparison rarely leads to a rewarding outcome. Better to concentrate on your own plans.
Inevitably the best teams are those that combine the merits of age with youth: a degree of hard-won sagacity with a portion of creative disruption.