Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Staying Young

There is a large laundry list of characteristics that separate youth from old age but there is one characteristic in particular which has been poking around in my mind today. I think this characteristic is the most important because it applies to other entities, like companies, as much as it applies to people. And it is a characteristic that both companies and people can change about themselves.

I think one of the quintessential traits of youth is a tendency to focus on what can go right while old age focuses on what can go wrong. Sure, there are differences between individuals, some being optimists and some being pessimists. But, there is definitely a trend to become increasingly pessimistic with age. This is, of course, not unexpected. As we get older we have potentially much more to lose.

This same tendency applies to young versus old companies. Google versus Microsoft is an obvious comparison (as was Microsoft vs. IBM back in the day). Two young Turks with a few servers and an above average search engine have nothing to lose. Naturally they will eat drink and sleep what they can do to turn average into insanely great. In contrast, a ~20 yr old company that dominates the market for PC operating systems and application software has plenty to lose. A great deal of company resources must go into thoughts of protecting that turf.

Completely ignoring what can go wrong is called irresponsibility. No middle aged person or successful company can afford to focus 100% on the rosy scenarios. The question for both individuals and company leaders is "what do you want the dominant attitude to be"? The answer defines your age, your culture, your prospects for growth and ultimately the number of years you have left in this world (baring unforeseen tragedy).

I am presently working on a project where we are about to embark on some uncharted territory and it is pretty exciting. I am contractually prohibited on elaborating but I will say the following. The most frustrating aspect of working on this project is the overall dominating focus on what can go wrong. It is truly unbearable sometimes and even borders on the absurd . It should not surprise anyone that the work I am doing is for an older company.

So here is my 2 cents. You only have some many hours in a day and so many brain cells to occupy with thoughts. Be vigilant and make sure that at least 51% of your limited resources are focusing on success and improvement. You'll feel a lot younger.

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