Maybe because I’m old

5 Sep

Let me first identify myself. I’m 42. So I’m biased. But it’s not just that…

Rewind. Here’s what Mark Zuckerberg had to say about age and intelligence at an event for startups at Stanford University in 2007:

I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important (http://www.sfgate.com/business/bottomline/article/In-Silicon-Valley-age-can-be-a-curse-4742365.php).

Like Zuck, I don’t know why most chess masters are under 30. And while I like the idea of that statement about simplicity, I can’t agree that “young people are just smarter.” Because “smart” isn’t just about an individual. It’s about how an individual processes and performs in their environment.

Part of “smart” is freedom from negative stereotypes about how smart you are. Negative stereotypes like: old people are just dumber. They’re forgetful, out of date, techno-stupid and too old to learn new tricks.

Part of “smart” is the privilege of learning or working in an environment that’s designed for you. I was “smart” in school because I could perform in the environment that school imposed on me. If I appeared “smarter” than some other kids, it wasn’t just because I was innately more intelligent. It was because the conditions in which we were expected to perform favored my abilities and facilitated my performance of “smartness.” So I would ask Zuck: what are the environmental factors in the culture of competitive chess or the offices of Facebook that are biased toward young people and help them as a group to thrive?

Finally, part of “smart” is working with people who aren’t like you. Abundant research concludes that heterogeneous groups outperform homogeneous groups in problem-solving (Page, 2008) because heterogeneous groups are more likely to generate opinion minorities, which enhances divergent thinking, perspective-taking (Nemeth, 1992), and integrative complexity (Gruenfeld et al., 1998; Antonio et al., 2004). (Of course, it helps if these groups intentionally practice inclusion and equity in order to push past default biases and unhelpful cultural norms.) What kind of diversity unleashes this more multidimensional and considered thinking? Any diversity, especially diversity that is apparent. Racial heterogeneity itself enhances integrative complexity. So too with heterogeneity of age, sex, physical ability, and other differences that aren’t always apparent–like sexuality, faith and socioeconomic status.

So yes, I am a bit miffed by Zuck’s unfounded (by his own admission) ageism. Not just because my brain is 42 years old. But because it’s neither true nor helpful.

** For counterpoint and analysis of Zuck’s perspective, check out Vivek Wadhwa’s “When It Comes To Founding Successful Startups, Old Guys Rule” (http://techcrunch.com/2009/09/07/when-it-comes-to-founding-successful-startups-old-guys-rule/). Unlike Zuck, Wadhwa actually cites and conducts his own research on the question of age and leadership in the start up world.

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