Home >Industry >Success Secrets | For the curious and vigorous, age is just a number

What impact do you think John McCain’s age will have on the coming election?

—Paul Bartlett, Lake Mary, Florida.

We’re kidding, of course, but obviously we can’t help but be somewhat biased about this topic. Our lives, and the lives of many of our friends, have been only enriched by the passage of time, with its myriad encounters and experiences.

But that doesn’t mean we believe that John McCain’s age is reason enough for him to be elected. John McCain should be elected (or not) on the issues. Because age isn’t a virtue—in politics, business and life in general—all by itself.

Age is generally useless if it’s not accompanied by an open-mindedness and curiosity about the times. For instance, Andy Pearson, the former president of PepsiCo Inc. who passed away in 2006 at the age of 80, loved to have his grandchildren explain the lyrics of rap music to him. Indeed, Pearson found new cultural trends relentlessly fascinating and relevant. Age also needs to be accompanied by a willingness, and even an eagerness, to change. We recently heard Andrea Jung, the CEO of Avon Products Inc., suggest that leaders (informally) fire and rehire themselves from time to time in order to freshen their mindsets. Now, at 48, Jung is still young, but her approach to reinvention is actually the hallmark of the most effective “older" folks we know.

Case in point is K.P. Singh, the Indian real estate developer who, at age 77, has just expanded his business into an international cricket league—because, he says, it will teach him “all sorts of new things". Or take Hank Greenberg. After being forced out of AIG, the hugely profitable insurance company he built well into his late 70s, he is reinventing himself at age 83 by delving into real estate ventures in Vietnam, Russia, China and India. The former global corporate czar has become a global entrepreneur.

Age, we’re basically saying, is a state of mind. That is, of course, putting health issues aside. Because vigour does matter; when it ebbs, so do presence of mind and availability. But with vigour, the playing field is level.

After all, we’ve all known people who were born old. Forty years ago, one of us (Jack) knew people his own age who were donning vests and smoking pipes to look “executive"—and they liked it! Just recently, we met an extraordinarily talented 27-year-old executive in Istanbul who told us she would never take a global assignment because she so loved living near the Bosporus river. Not even the ripe old age of 30, she was already stuck in a permanent comfort zone.

So, when you’re looking at someone to fill a job—be it John McCain for president or a 72-year-old candidate sitting across your desk—forget age as a number. Check for curiosity about the world and the readiness to change with it. And then, check for wisdom.

Now, wisdom is something of a loaded word, because some older people would like you to believe that it comes with the territory. But wisdom isn’t just knowledge of the past—it’s the thoughtful processing of life’s patterns so as to better inform future decisions. It’s perspective. It’s judgment.

The poster boy for wisdom is, no surprise, Warren Buffett. At age 77, he’s seen enough economic cycles, government policies and company dramas to make most people jaded. But Warren is anything but. He uses his experience to make smarter investments than ever, all the while explaining to the world what he is doing and why, with the least “been there, done that" attitude imaginable. In fact, Buffett would probably be the first to tell you that, when it comes to business, he feels like he was born yesterday.

So, to your question, do we think John McCain’s age will spark debate in the coming election? Yes. But should his age matter? We’d say no. From where we’re sitting—neither of us in a rocking chair, by the way—age isn’t something to fear. Indeed, with the right attitude, it can be the best thing that ever happened to you.

©2008/by nyt syndicate

Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city.

Only select questions will be answered.

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