Aging into Obsolescence

The structure of modern business forces people to become stale as they age.

The economic incentives of most creative industries, including tech, all point in this direction. When you are young, you *make* stuff. You code, you design, you write, you execute. You constantly get to practice and improve your making skills.

The normal definition of success implies moving up the management chain. You become “strategic”, which brings leverage to the business, and as a consequence you focus more on managing and mentoring people rather than making.

You gain wisdom about people, but your wisdom about your craft ossifies. You can edit work output, but you aren’t creating it. You can spot and foster “maker” talent, but the phrase “maker” doesn’t apply to you anymore. And frankly, without constant practice, your basic making skills suffer. This in turn could threaten your decision-making ability.

Your younger hires think of you as a “suit”, even if you don’t wear one. And here is the saddest part: most of us got into our creative field of choice because of the pleasure of making things. My hypothesis is that many creatives find their work less enjoyable as they increase in seniority, even though they take pleasure in mentoring and managing.

This is an endemic structural problem. I’m not sure how it can be solved, but it would require changing how we value different capabilities and affect the very structure of organizations.

At a personal level, the only way I know to break out of this is to force it. This does not come free. It takes sacrifice.

If you are serious about defeating management ossification:

– start a pet project but commit to a serious time investment
– start a company and get back into the trenches *
– become a freelancer
– re-negotiate what your job entails

You not only need to make something new, but you need to try out fresh methods as well.

It will be frustrating. You will be rusty, so you won’t be as good or as fast as you remember. But it is pretty amazing when you can combine years of experience with fresh making skills. You’ll soon realize that you can run circles around your younger self.

* in my case, I started two. First, a product startup which I shut down after a year, but which was like a rebirth. Then a consulting business, which I sold and which I am currently helping to grow, albeit with the personal mandate that I get to mix some “making” time in with my management duties.

  • So true.

  • Very true. So what are you making?

    • Right now? A side project where I’m just doing the design/css and tinkering with some basic Rails, and one or two prototypes (not sure if native iOS or responsive web yet) to validate a couple ideas for clients. Getting hands on with UX for those but not sure how much time I’ll have to get deeper.