With Age Comes Wisdom

Learning does not end when school is over or an apprenticeship is complete. It is a life-long journey.

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk. ~Doug Larson
 
It doesn’t seem so long ago, but I suppose it was. A young man in his mid-20s sat in the break room at work, surrounded by other men almost twice his age. While he enjoyed the conversation, the young man felt somewhat out of place, as if he had little in common, outside of work, with the others.

On this particular day, the conversation focused on the struggles of keeping lawns in check on the hot, dry summer days. How often should the grass be mowed and how high should the blade be set? When should the next stage of fertilizer be applied? How often does the grass need to be watered and how does that fit into busy schedules?

It didn’t really matter what day or what the conversations were about, they usually involved something in which the young man had little interest. Lawn maintenance to him merely involved the nuisance of cutting the grass every 7 – 10 days. He only played golf a few times a year. He had no interest in getting away to a lake house on weekends because he had too many activities in town with friends and his new bride. And he had no children, so strategizing the best approach to pay for their college was the furthest thing from his mind.

The young man was happy with his life and could imagine it no other way. He had no idea how time, experience, the birth of his kids and a long career might change his outlook. It’s a shame he didn’t pay more attention to the older men when he had the chance. They shared so much useful knowledge of day-to-day life.

This theme is not uncommon, it is not new, and it relates to many aspects of life including the work environment. Discounting the experience of another could be attributed to a lack of interest, but it might also be related to a lack of respect or the idea that anything old is necessarily outdated. Last month I discussed the importance of creativity and encouraging employees to try new things. But my remarks were not intended as a suggestion to discount innovations of the past. The key is to take advantage of existing knowledge while potentially better ideas can be developed.

I often hear shop owners and supervisors talk about certain employees with great respect because of the knowledge these machinists have gained from years of service on the shop floor. These employees are lauded with compliments, such as, “He could run these machines with his eyes closed,” or, “He just has a feel for when the machine is running at its peak or when adjustments need to be made.” I’ve heard management express deep concern for the day when these experts are no longer at the company, knowing full well that their extraordinary skills cannot be written in a manual and are not easily transferrable.

The time young workers can spend with these well-seasoned veterans can pay huge dividends as they move forward in their career path. By observing everyday processes, asking questions and absorbing the wisdom through experience, they then become tomorrow’s experts. But it all starts with the young employees’ understanding of the value of this wisdom.

Not only do we need to encourage young employees for their efforts on the job, but we need to subtly convince them that they do not know it all. Learning does not end when school is over or an apprenticeship is complete. It is a life-long journey. The earlier one learns this lesson, the sooner he or she is able to openly accept the knowledge that can be gained.

Many of us have been there and can relate. I look back to those early days in my career. The example of talking with the guys in the break room is fresh in my mind because, during the warmer months, I now spend much of my free time caring for my lawn. I’m in a golf league, I have two kids in college, and I really enjoy getting away from time to time. I have fond memories of those days chatting with the men of the older generation. I jokingly mocked their hobbies as what I viewed as wasted time and effort, but I now appreciate what they already knew. I only wish I had listened better.