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How to stay young in a job you’re too young for?

The voiceover in one of my favourite TV ads of all time begins with the legendary words: “In this fast-moving, high-pressure, get-it-done-yesterday world…”. 25 years old, but they seem almost prophetic today. And if things around us are moving fast, you can bet your bottom dollar they’re moving even faster in the world of advertising. Sometimes, it feels like you have to be under 30 just to keep up. So it should come as no surprise that young people are taking on more and more positions of responsibility of late.

I for one can speak from experience. I became Creative Director at Famous when I was 28. During the first 2 years, I grew 6 years older. But over the next 2, I have tried to reverse the visible signs of this mental ageing process.

We mustn’t underestimate this risk. We may hope for young leaders. But the likelihood is greater that we will end up simply forcing young talent to age too fast. And what a waste that would be!

The question, therefore, is: how can you stay young in a job for which – let’s be honest – you’re far too young?

To start with, leadership has nothing at all to do with actual age. It has everything to do with not allowing maturity to overshadow freshness. CEOs who have managed to keep on inspiring till the end of their career have invariably succeeded in keeping an open mind on things. But that is precisely where things often go awry for young people with responsibility: the faster someone grows in their job, the faster that open-mindedness seems to disappear. Because, after all, you want to come across as a serious player, right?

No. Why? You have to make sure that people learn to respect your opinion. Because they’re your opinions. Not because they are acceptable. There’s a big difference. The fact that you were given so much responsibility at such a young age is usually a sign that you did interesting stuff before. The most important thing is to keep that up. And forget trying to exude experience that you don’t have. Use, instead, the experience of others. The good thing is you can find people with experience all over the place. It boils down to learning how to learn the right kinds of things. Don’t copy someone else’s style but absorb their experience and use it to make your own choices.

I once tweeted the following: “Consultant before you’re 30 = unemployed before you’re 50.” That sounds insulting but actually it is quite logical. For consultancy feeds on experience. And you can only be a consultant for as long as you’ve acquired experience. So if you become a consultant at 30 after 10 years of professional experience, then you can count on being relevant until you turn 40. Even more so in times of technological advancement, it can be tempting to make sharing your knowledge your main activity. Don’t. Keep on trying out new things. After all, that’s probably the reason why someone put you in the position you’re currently in in the first place. Even if the expectations have changed in the meantime and stability and decency are now all of a sudden demanded of you, don’t forget that your doubts and uncertainties are even more important. Disquietude is a hotbed for change. And that is something they never ask for. They just expect it.

So this is as much a call to the older generation as it is to the new: give young people the chance to be themselves. To approach things differently. To make mistakes. Don’t expect certainty. And don’t let your own experience stand in the way of change.

As always, you are free to disagree with me on Twitter: @mrTimp.

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