Is Age Little More Than a Number?

Age concept with birthday cake, candle and hat

Peter Massey asks ‘is age little more than a number?’ in the fourth of nine articles exploring 9 things he has found surprising in business.

How Old Is This Person?

Over a coffee conversation, my wife excused herself for being “bog Irish”. She could say that, I definitely wouldn’t! Our friend asked what that meant and where it came from – the etymology of the phrase – but she couldn’t say.

It’s a visceral, self-deprecatory use of words, like many gorgeous Irish phrases. Such as the greeting “Is that yourself?” Or giving directions: “I wouldn’t start from here.” And the strangely Irish compliment “She’s as mad as a bucket of snakes” – particularly given there are no snakes in Ireland.

An hour later, our friend was texting with meanings, many a quote and research into “bog Irish”. It’s not just a colloquialism, it’s where the English occupiers sent the Irish apparently.

Curiosity Mended the Cat

A picture of a curious cat

That friend is one of those people who has to know their detail. Conversations can range from the details of the origin of Blue Grass music to English, Scottish and Irish settlers into the US, to how the various Chinese dynasties governed, via no end of German phrases through history.

How old does this person sound? How old are they? Would you have thought they are in their 90s?

Slow Steps

This story appeals to my favourite definition of age. Age is measured not in years but in curiosity.

I’ve known 20-year-olds who act 90 and 90-year-olds who act like teenagers! But the behaviour that defines age for me is curiosity.

Age in years is not such an obstacle to success in business. Lack of curiosity is.

Not how much someone knows (though experience is vastly underrated too) but how much they want to learn, how much time and effort they put into learning and helping others learn.

It took me a lot of years to reach the perspective that age in years is not such an obstacle to success in business. Lack of curiosity is.

Here are a few steps for me along that journey:

Lack of Age Is a Motivator

Maybe it comes from being an August baby and youngest in the school year, but it felt from an early stage that “age” was a thing to overcome.

Parental or teacher discipline was not to be accepted or refused but to be worked around. Don’t take the quiz, set it. Don’t break the rules, remake them. Energy and effort pays off. Working harder pays off.

Work Harder

A person sat at desk with a coffee

My first sales teams were successful by recruiting energetic twenty-somethings in my own image. Yet I was given an older gentleman to manage, nearing retirement.

Every time my young bounders ran about and brought in new business, Derek used to lean over and pull a new contract off his board with a “yes, I’ve got one of those too.”

Eventually they and I sat up and started to find out how he did that, without any apparent energy expended (FYI relationships).


Looking then young for my age, the CEO advised me to “get a monocle, young man, it will make you look older”. Needless to say, I left shortly after that at my 30th milestone birthday to start my first business.

Some astute older people provided the money and the means but wisely never tried to tell me what to do. They would answer any question but never give me ‘their’ answers. They’d make me build my own. They knew how to manage someone who did not yet understand age.

I carried on burning a lot of energy and built business, inventing solutions and building experience rapidly in a new industry.

It’s Usually Been Done Before

But one of the first projects stuck in my mind. It was St John’s Innovation Centre in Cambridge. It was innovative in that it had false walls rather than false floors to distribute cabling.

These stories were the start of moving from rushing to cleverly inventing. From ‘fire’ to ‘ready, aim, fire’ – the pause to research ideas which have relevance to your task.

Which I thought was pretty clever until a much more experienced designer explained that factories and hospitals are built to that idea. An innovation to be stolen with pride, rather than the clever new invention it seemed.

These stories were the start of moving from rushing to cleverly inventing. From ‘fire’ to ‘ready, aim, fire’ – the pause to research ideas which have relevance to your task.

Yet it took a thirty-something like me more years to work on how to blend older people with wider experiences into younger teams.

At 30, anyone over 38 looked seasoned on a CV, anyone over 40 a risk, anyone over 50 too risky. 60 was unheard of. How narrow minded!

But we kept experimenting with bringing in older people to the team because I’d seen the benefits before. It just took me a good while to work out how to manage them differently. Or not have to at all.

Lessons for My Younger Self

So a few lessons learned to pass back to my younger self:

  • Is that your (smarter) self? Working hard does pay off. But working harder and smarter pays off bigger and faster. Blend more experienced people in to help the less-aged learn faster
  • I wouldn’t start from here. It’s smart to use other people’s experiences, to pause to research what others did and to invent from that point rather than your start point
  • Mad as a bucket of snakes. Judge age by the level of mental energy, curiosity and preparedness to learn. Lively minds. Recruit people who bring their mental energy and their inspiration to others, not just those with a certain number of years behind them. Give them room to operate.

West vs. East

In Asia I’m struck by the respect for age in all aspects of life and work. And the impact this has on learning, on interpersonal relationships, on business.

A thumbnail image of Peter Massey
Peter Massey

Compared to this, we modern Europeans have something to learn. Something we can learn quite easily if we were to try. How curious are you?

Written by: Peter Massey at Budd

If you liked this article from Peter, read these articles next:

Author: Peter Massey

Published On: 5th Sep 2022 - Last modified: 9th Nov 2023
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