Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 18, 2019
“We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two” – Farmers Insurance. There is some interesting wisdom in those words and in the spokesman they use (an older gentleman with a vest and glasses). What Farmers is telling us is that “pattern recognition” matters.
Pattern recognition is the process of using machine learning algorithms to classify data based on previous knowledge. The more data you get and analyze, the smarter the machine becomes. That is why they call it “learning.”
A venture capitalist recently told me, “Your software company is terrific and we love it, but we will not fund you — you are just too old.” OK, I will not deny that I graduated college shortly after the Civil War, but there must be a country for old men and the wisdom gathered from their histories — what I would call old data/personal learning software.
And sure enough, I found Chip Conley, who wrote a book “Wisdom @ Work – The Making of a Modern Elder.” He knows that “older does not make you wiser,” but his thesis is that age correlates with “people making sense of their life and their mistakes.” In other words, age informs and increases pattern recognition. I have seen that rattlesnake before and so I am going to walk the other way. It is when you turn to your wife and say that you will never do that stupid thing again — ever. Because you know how that story will end.
Conley tells the story of going to work at Airbnb at the age of 52. Now in fairness, he did not start in the mailroom; he went to work for Brian Chesny, the CEO, in the role of “in-house mentor.” Conley points out that the modern elder should be appreciated primarily “for his relevance, and not held in reverence.” If you are going to add value from your pattern recognition history, you first have to understand the company; you are an intern learning the ropes and rituals.
Conley argues that the digital intelligence gap is wide — younger people simply know more than we dinosaurs. And no matter all the self-help books about staying technically relevant, the older worker cannot close that gap. What the elder can do is connect the digital intelligence of the younger worker to the emotional intelligence of the elder.
Emotional intelligence is often expressed as EQ — a person’s emotional quotient. A few areas where EQ is most relevant are self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy. I see this puzzle occasionally in my little coaching business. The young genius is simply disconnected to the social skills necessary to be an effective CEO. That is the place where the mentor can add value — but it requires that there be a mutual willingness to learn. I promise to learn how to tweet if you will promise to learn how to control your temper.
America is going to have older workers, in part because people live longer and they have not saved enough for retirement. Conley wants to retire the concept of “knowledge worker” (Peter Drucker) and replace it with “wisdom worker.” And he challenges as specious the meme of “the adult in the room.” Age itself buys nothing.
I have seen up close and personal “elders” who were clueless, not only about technology, but also about how to teach, how to advise, how to add value. In other words, just because you are an old fart does not automatically entitle you to relevance, and certainly not to reverence. What is required is reinvention.
And so we come back to pattern recognition. It is the nexus of knowledge morphing into wisdom, exponentially increased by the power of machine and human learning. The trick in all this is to share it within the team, younger and older, in a way that it can be listened to and then heard and ultimately internalized. And that skill to mentor well is a learned skill that starts with “been there, seen that, done that” — followed by “please don’t do that stupid thing.”
You cannot resist the digital revolution, so the question is ultimately easy — act and change or stay the same and be passed by. “The physics of wisdom moves in both directions.”
Rule No. 597
You have to point out the snake.