We 50-year-olds offer lot, with right mix of youth

ON EXCELLENCE

August 30, 1993|By TOM PETERS

Wandering along the craggy, rugged coast of Northern California for 10 days spawned these thoughts:

* Don't trust folks over 50! Why? They're far too trustworthy. I reflected on recently acquired habits of a certain 50.8-year-old (me): I get to airports an hour before my flight. I arrive at seminars with time to spare. I rarely turn beet red after suffering a bad-service episode. I even find myself obeying the 55-mph speed limit on nearby Interstate 280.

In short, I'm mellowing. That's not all bad -- e.g., for blood pressure and longevity. But there is a problem. I suspect, honestly, that my most creative and highest impact contributions are behind me. And make no mistake, that rather wild work (by timid corporate standards) was a product of living close to the edge.

Bottom line: We 50-year-olds have lots to offer. But don't expect us to regularly and recklessly press the limits -- a requirement in industries (most) that demand constant reinvention.

If several key projects in your firm are not in the hands of unruly, disrespectful 29-year-olds, watch out. For big, big cheese, I suggest billion-dollar parts of your company had best be in the mitts of fearless (e.g., naive) 32-year-olds, as well.

* Forget your place in the pecking order. A talk-show host asked Scott Sanderson, a journeyman pitcher just acquired by the San Francisco Giants, where he thought he'd fit in the club's scheme of things.

"I've got a game to start on Saturday," Sanderson replied. "That's my only concern." He said the sure way to blow the contest was to worry whether one poor outing would sidetrack his longer-term prospects.

Sanderson made me think about Bill Clinton's budget battle. Sen.Bob Kerrey claimed the American public was geared for big-league sacrifice, and that the president had asked far too little of us. I agree. If Clinton could forget the 1996 election, maybe he'd gather the nerve to say, "Damn the torpedoes -- and that tepid 4.3-cent gas tax. Let's do what's needed."

As a result, he'd probably go a long way toward ensuring a second term.

The point is not politics or pitching, but thee and me. In my experience, those who spend inordinate amounts of time angling for the next assignment miss out on most of life -- and seldom perform bold feats of derring-do. Of course it's normal for Scott Sanderson, Bill Clinton, and you and me to think about what comes next. But when it becomes a constant distraction, big trouble is brewing.

* Does the world need another nine holes of golf capacity? Some lovely land near my North Coast hangout is about to succumb to the bulldozer. I am adamantly opposed.

As I walk along the gurgling stream where the 17th hole will go (the gurgle soon to be replaced by the whiz of little missiles and shouts of "fore"), I can't imagine what the world will gain by extending the current course from nine to 18 holes.

I'll do my small bit to delay the inevitable. But the bigger issue keeps haunting me, "Does the world need. . . ?"

On the one hand, the answer is -- and always has been -- no. The autoless world, contrived for horses and trains, didn't need autos. Before that, the paperless world didn't need paper. And, God knows, you and I don't need sneakers with pumps. No, we don't need any of it. Yet without the initially unnecessary "its" (fertilizer, matches, electric ranges), we'd be in caves.

Where does it end? To insist that we avoid the nonessential is nutty; nothing is essential until it's discovered. Yet as we become more wealthy, we make increasingly sophisticated trade-offs (only wealthy countries opt for stringent pollution controls).

The net: Economics is confusing as all get out and anything but dismal or a science.

* Put women in charge of quality programs! I reached this sexist conclusion while watching youngsters building sand castles on the beach. One group was typical: Three adventurous boys worked by the water's edge. They built fast, crude and furious. A wave would destroy most of their work, and in a flash they'd be back at it, flailing away in yet another effort to turn back the tide.

MA Two girls were safe and serene, 25 yards or so from the edge.

Oblivious to the nearby commotion, they worked away meticulously on a delicate sand castle.

Get on my case if you will, but I'm going to suggest to clients that women take over quality programs -- where long-term success depends on finesse rather than a "go ahead and make my day" strategy. Hope such a suggestion is not against the law.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200).

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