Since when did experience = aged out?

I recently stepped down as the Executive Director of the nonprofit organization I founded 10 years ago. I was super stoked to have managed to keep an entity that depends on donated funds, afloat and thriving for 10 years. I had checked off every job description possible-

Creative problem solver, Office Admin, Grant Writer, Accountant (don’t ever hire me for that), Janitor, Inspirational coach, Social Media Maven …. you get the picture.

Everyone kept asking me, “what is next?” “Have you started looking?” “It is always good to get a job before you leave a job”. And I did not have any planned out next steps. I had a very well planned transition, I hired my replacement, made sure that if I was run over by one of those big tech buses the organization would still continue onwards.

To my benefit, I did hire an executive coach to help me with my transition. She and I created a plan for our 3 month engagement. This was my soul searching period. And while I was creating vision boards and answering to my inner child, I started doing what I do best, share my newfound freedom and the ‘no plan plan’ with everyone.

Few people said, “You have been a CEO, you have so much experience, you are going to slide into a new job before you know”. Few said, the skills you have are so valuable wherever you go next, they are going to be lucky to have you. While I’m getting these soundbites in one ear, all around me I’m coming across terms I had never heard before, #Ageism, #Flowyears, #Agedout. Thanks to the ‘smart AI’ big brother who knows what I’m thinking, I come across this powerful #Tedtalk by Ashton Applewhite. Before I could google all of these terms, a soundbite from Mark Zuckerberg was looming large on the internet -

“Young people are just smarter,” he said with a straight face. “Why are most chess masters under 30?” he asked. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family.” In the absence of those distractions, he says, you can focus on big ideologies. He added, “I only own a mattress.” Later: “Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.” — Mark Zuckerberg

WOW! Did I hear that right?

Who says things like this? Is this #ageist #sexist or am I just too old = I’m not smart anymore. WOAH! My brain was exploding. And while I was still trying to process all of this I was working on my resume and my personal statement. GUESS WHAT? The first thing I was asked to remove was, “with over 20+ years experience”.

This is when I realized that HCI has taken over the HHX. You might ask what is that? We have been so focused on fast lean technology and the constant refinement of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) that in the midst of this we have lost what it takes to really be, we are loosing the Human to Human Experiences (HHX).

As a designer I have always believed -

When I wore my nonprofit hat, everyone from my advisors to board members to core volunteers were excited to look for an ‘experienced’ contributor. Someone experienced to replace me. The word experience was put up on a pedestal, just as it rightly deserved.

However with these dual tracks causing friction, the designer in me was very conflicted with this dichotomy. I was trained to defy all norms. For me the word EXPERIENCE stands for —

Empathy

Xray vision

Perseverance

Emotional strength (or connection)

Rinse and repeat

Introspection

Errors

Nonchalance

Chaos

Evolution

Experiences have shaped my design thinking, design living, UI/UX, and storytelling.

Did I just wake up from a 10 year long sleep and land into a time where everything I stand for and have done might mean nothing for any current or future job prospects? Are we really attributing so little confidence in experienced people?

So what do you do if you are over 30?

You could hide your experience under the mattress and:

  • Delete all past experience from LinkedIn
  • Dye your hair
  • Do botox
  • Wear Spanx
  • Raid a 20 somethings closet

OR you could own your story and:

  • Assess where you are in life
  • Research the industry you want to get into
  • Become an Advisor or a Board member
  • Sign up to be a Coach or a Mentor
  • Volunteer your skills to an organization so that they benefit from your expertise and you get to add the ‘good story’ in your resume
  • Teach a class or go as a guest speaker at your local college

What actions can you take:

  • If you have experience you have contacts, this is the time to use them
  • If you have experience you have a story, embellish it, toot your own horn and share it on social media, write an article about your experience and share it on linkedin and medium
  • You do not have to remove the 20+ years from your personal statement, keep it but also redefine it with current industry specific words that will resonate with the here and now
  • Don’t become defensive of the fact that you have experience, let it show in the way you present yourself
  • Reach out to career services at your alma mater, you will be pleasantly surprised at the plethora of resources they can provide
  • The one I like that is measurable is, hire an executive coach. You might say that I’m not at an executive level, how will this help me? Of course you are. You are the CEO of your life story and thus you need a coach who can work with you to reimagine your next phase of life.
  • Last but not the least, if you are feeling aged out, look around, there might be many people hiding their experience from you. Bring this topic up at a party because the minute someone talks about a subject, it is not a taboo anymore, you have given yourself and others the permission to be. Of course you will come across narrow minded mean spirited people who will bring you down. But hey, look out for the ones that are actually engaging in the topic and sideline that bad apple.

Few things you should not do before doing some of the above:

  • Don’t run and hire a recruiter until you have your story down. They will box you in a keyword search or an algorithm where you might never show up.
  • Don’t remove all your past experience from LinkedIn and your resume. A really experienced eye, someone who does not feel threatened, will see your potential.
  • Don’t give up. Sending resumes or if you are an engineer, doing the tech test at a job interview is not how we want to be rewarded after being super good at what we do but work closely with your coach and refine your strategy.

I do want to say that we are all guilty of chasing the ladder. We get in a job and then we keep aiming for the next title. If you have been let go or are actively looking to switch a job while you have one, this is your moment to pause and assess. Your experience is very valuable to someone out there. Corporate America is not the only place to be. Look at your local nonprofit organizations, education centers and city government. Stop by your chamber of commerce instead of limiting yourself to google searches. You have a lot to offer, channel your experience to benefit you and carve out a job for yourself.

I was doing a lightning talk at Women Talk Design on this topic and a young designer asked me a question after hearing my talk, “a lot of us starting out don’t have enough experience and lot of the older people in the industry face ageism, so there is a constant battle where we feel we need to get more experience but then too much experience will work against us, so what is the solution?

How do we create a world where young people are mentored and the experienced people are valued?

What would you want to say to this young up and coming designer?

Let’s #DisruptAging and move towards a life #BeyondTitles

Mother, great listener, writer, artist, Creative Director at Whamix + Founder of Kids & Art, a nonprofit focused on healing pediatric cancer through the Arts.

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