I know I’m not 22. I’ve known that for the past 44 years.
I know I don’t have a conventional professional background, having changed careers six times, and earned two advanced graduate degrees, including a law-degree in an accelerated 2-year program at 35 years old, as the father of a young son. In fact, my son, then 7, was the youngest person ever to sit through the “Seven Dirty Words Case” in a Constitutional Law Class.
I’ve written Haiku, plays, screenplays and essays; high-level speeches, law review articles, children’s stories about lop-sided pumpkins and policy papers. I’ve run multi-million dollar organizations and less than profitable non-profits. I’ve taken chances on hiring a dramatically diverse array of talented people, giving many a shot to prove themselves. Conventionality repelled me.
And, I know that to some Millenials, it’s a little odd for someone my age to still be seeking new, creative opportunities with a sense of urgency, when their perception of us– NOT reality– is that we should be shuffling our feet behind a walker or playing shuffleboard.
What rankles me are not my wrinkles, but being stigmatized as “unconventional” as if it were on a par with incontinence. After watching my father get ground down by a conventional blue-collar job as a maintenance worker for nearly 40 years, I grew up knowing that I wanted my life to be anything BUT conventional. And, while I did work for some pretty “conventional” institutions—non-profit organizations, unions, government, and medical centers—I managed to carve out a career over 4 decades which, while on a seemingly seamless trajectory of public education, public service, public health & non-profit leadership, scares the shorts off of people less than half-my age who view “difference” as a quaint disease.
What’s particularly ironic is that it’s coming from alleged “ disrupters”, who preach–if you buy their hype and survive their Skyped pitches–that convention is the enemy of invention. On several occasions, I’ve been told by heads of organizations, headhunters, and Human Resource robots, that my background is, while tremendously impressive (blah, blah, blah), was TOO “unconventional” for them. Exasperated, I finally turn off my interview charm, despite frantic hand-signals from my spouse to turn on my I-phone’s mute button.
Like a gattling-gun with a trigger that became unjammed, I pummel the interviewer, pointing out that conventional personnel fits were dull and boring. Having done consulting for big and small organizations, I’ve frequently advised them that those that follow a narrow selection criteria in hiring end up losing to their competitors.
“Yes,” the patronizing response is,” but for this position we are looking for someone who’s followed a more traditional path of leadership.” Suddenly, my years of working for Mario Cuomo and watching him make mincemeat out of morons, takes hold of me.
I reminded the interviewer that she sought me out because of my background and experience. And, not to leave a point of logic unpointed to, I noted that her new boss, also half my age, had absolutely no background nor training in the field.
Ah, but he wasn’t both “old” and “confrontational”, I could hear the sound of her smug silence saying. “Confrontational” is what you get tagged when you merely point out inconsistencies and foolish gibberish in other people’s words or actions. Unconventional might be tolerated, but only if its combined with being non confrontational, and young. This organization was looking for a leader with a lobotomy.
I could argue that a not-so-subtle form of ageism was being used against me, especially since I’ve spent years working against the conventional notion of retirement—a few of them recruiting skilled professionals with Math/Science backgrounds to teach Math & Science in underserved public schools.
But ageism, like many other acts of cowardice, comes with a smile and a shoeshine in sunny, stress-less companies around the country, especially when the object of the smirking scorn is over 60. “Unconventional” becomes a euphemism for “uncontrollable,” and accomplishments, while praised, would be perfect for the “type of employee” the organization is looking for, if only there weren’t an older human being attached to them, with a brain able to process thoughts, as well as tweets.
Fortunately, unconventionality has been the inspiration for quite a few folks, from Steve Jobs to Bob Dylan, Elon Musk to Bill Gates, and Walt Whitman to Tyrus Wong. Still more, inspiration comes from Paul Simon, Francis Ford Coppola and my son, who have taught me that, sure, they could always be “successful to the outside world but not successful to themselves,” if they kept doing the same thing, as Jobs once told Fortune Magazine.
“That’s the moment than an artist really decides who he or she is,” Apple’s founder said. “If they keep on risking failure, they’re still artists.”