Ageism: The Disgrace of Generational Generalizations
Recently, I spoke to someone a few years younger than I am who blamed ageism for his unemployment.
I responded quite strongly, “Well, of course, you’re not getting a job when you are carrying around that energy.”
Resignation is usually driven by the belief that our lack of success is due to circumstances beyond our control. We can’t succeed because we are too old, too fat, too young, a woman, a middle-aged white man, etc. When we believe this, we give up. We stop aspiring, rebelling, striving, learning, and growing.
In the programs we run at Inspired Work, I get to see people at their most aspirational. I get to see their truths and what they want to accomplish in the world. From that vantage point, I can also see that physical age has little to do with innovation, value, or one’s ability to contribute.
Even a teenager can become an “old fart,” because what we believe determines whether we are fresh or dated.
The Reality of Age
My own personal thoughts on age began to change shortly after I launched Inspired Work.
It was 1992. I was sitting in the ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel next to Boyd Willat, the designer of Day Runner and many other successful ventures. We were members of The Inside Edge, which was something of a breakfast club for human potential leaders. We met every Tuesday morning to hear authors speak and to connect with the likes of Jack Canfield, Tony Robbins, Barbara De Angelis, and others. It was a heady experience for a newcomer like me.
On this particular morning, I happened to glance toward the entrance of the room when a charismatic old lady walked in with an entourage. A slightly wicked laughter filled her face, which was framed by curly gray locks.
I turned to Boyd and asked, “Who is that character over there?”
He responded with a bit of awe, “That’s Emily Coleman. Many think of her as the grandmother of the human potential movement.”
I had no idea what that meant but was compelled to introduce myself. Moments later, I was in front of Emily. After I introduced myself, her smile widened.
“Oh, I’ve heard about you!” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Emily hurriedly wrote out a note at the reception table and handed it to me.
“Here’s my phone number!”
I felt it uncouth to read the note in front of her. So, I waited until I had returned to my seat next to Boyd before opening it. It read: “You’re cute! Let’s get together!”
Our friendship proved to be a turning point for me. I grew up in a violent adoptive home. For years, Emily was my self-appointed mother.
Emily ended up participated in our next Inspired Work program shortly after our initial meeting. There, I learned she was someone who reveled in her entire life whether she was 20, 50, or 70.
Emily was writing a book at the time, Growing Old Disgracefully. She believed that in order to stay young and vital, we need to be willing to break all of our taboos, surpass our limitations, and never resign ourselves to mediocrity.
In the early days of our Inspired Work programs, Emily was part of the support team. She had a unique ability to inspire both love and dismay. Emily led the first “nude encounter” group in the United States, and she insisted on telling us stories about it in vivid and acute detail. It was easy to envision Emily surrounded by teenagers as she regaled them with stories of attaching flowers to her pubic hair because she had nothing else to wear.
Yes, she left many of us slack-jawed – but she had set herself free.
Around Emily, I learned that laughter, humor, and refusing to take yourself too seriously are key to keeping yourself vital. Emily taught me that the moment we are seduced into becoming victims and martyrs is the moment we turn old. She taught me that we become old farts the moment we stop nourishing our imaginations.
Following her somewhat crude foray into human potential, Emily went on to help thousands of people find loving and fulfilling relationships. She wrote books about connecting with others, and she shook up our sensibilities about what it meant to love someone in the modern era.
We had a ritual. I would drive to Newport Beach and cross the tiny bridge to Balboa Island. Every time I walked into her home, Emily’s eyes lit up. She exploded with joy.
I remember one particularly life-changing moment when I asked, “Why are you so excited with me?”
“Because you have a gift,” she said. “Changing the world isn’t for the timid, and it can be a lonely ride. I see you.”
I was used to getting accolades during our programs, but few understood what it took to do my work. Two years before, I had had a series of insights about work. I knew that if I did something with those insights, it would change the world. Moving forward required letting go of the status quo, shedding previous beliefs about my own career path, and finding an entirely new support system. It was lonely work, and Emily not only understood that, but she also helped me find some of the best people in the world to mentor and back me.
When Emily’s health began to fail, we moved our visits from Balboa Island to assisted living. I remember walking down the hall with her once when an old guy on a walker leered as we passed.
She growled, “Go find someone else, you old lech. My heart belongs to this guy, my son!”
Whenever someone says, “I am too old,” think of Emily.
Whenever someone says, “I’m too young,” think of Taylor Wilson, who built a fusion reactor in his parent’s garage.
Whenever someone says, “I’m too weak,” think of Stephen Hawking.
David Harder is the founder of Inspired Work.