Friday, November 24th, 2017

Can Your Father Learn New Tricks? Can You?

We all know the saying that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks”. As with most sayings, there is an element of truth to it. But, these sayings are like reading your horoscope—they are general statements that can apply to anyone. Let’s explore the myth of the “old dog”.

The “old dog” is most often an owner or employee of a small business that he or she has been in for many years. His business isn’t quite as good as it was in the old days and he is feeling a bit squeezed and left behind by new-fangled trends. S/he has seen every permutation of every situation related to her business and she doesn’t have much patience for people who question her ideas. He feels like he has already put in a lot of work over the years and can feel frustrated, or even bitter, at times if he has to hustle or reprove himself.

The Turtle Change Temperament

Does this sound like someone you know? I see people like this all the time. Sometimes I even see them in the mirror. Call me politically correct, or call me a helpless optimist, but I always resist attributing certain traits to “aging”. People often attribute a lack of physical and mental fitness to their age. But, I see people of all ages who lack physical and mental fitness. Yes, it is true that the body does age uncontrollably, including organs such as the brain. But, without getting into philosophy and religion, those aging processes don’t have to control a person’s thoughts and attitudes.

Ever since I was born, I can remember my father saying, “I’m too old to get up. When you’re my age, you can tell me how you feel.” Where is he today? In one of those electric wheelchair scooters, of course. Where am I now that I am the age he was? In the gym 6 days a week and, despite arthritis in both shoulders and one knee, nearly in the best fitness of my life. My guess is the problem was his attitude, not his age.

What do you call someone who isn’t open to new ideas and snaps back with a retort something to effect of, “Yes, if I were your age, I wouldn’t know anything and I would probably have a hair-brained idea like that, also.” If the person is between the ages of 10 and 21, we call him a “teenager.” If they are in their 20’s and 30’s we call them, “youngsters” or “whipper-snappers”. If they are over 40, we call them “old dogs”. Their behaviors are the same—we just change the names.

Learning new tricks is dependent on humility, not age. In my forthcoming audiobook, “The Six Characteristics of Highly Effective Change Leaders,” I talk about the traits of low anxiety, high confidence, and high openness. People with those traits have the ability to humbly keep learning. Ironically, they become the most knowledge and accomplished. People without those traits become what I call, “Turtles”. They use their shells for shields and snap at any suggestions for improvement.

The question then becomes, “can Turtles learn new tricks?” In my experience the answer is “no”. Rather than opening up their vulnerable, fleshy undersides to learning, they will put up their shells and fight to the death. For example, I was recently working with a consultant whose computer died and the person reported that s/he would not be able to work for 3 weeks. In an age of UPS, Fedex, ecommerce and widely available IT support, the idea of being out of work for more than 24 hours due to a computer problem is unimaginable to me. When I tried to gently and curiously inquire about why it would take 3 weeks to get a new computer and offered my help, the person’s response was short and sweet: “If that doesn’t work for you I’d be happy to refund your money and not proceed. Your call!” Snap, Snap goes the Turtle.

As business leaders and salespeople, our job is to guide others and help them help themselves. Turtles don’t want your help. So, don’t try to help them.

The most important wisdom, though, is “Make sure the Turtle is not the person in the mirror!”

Comments

3 Responses to “Can Your Father Learn New Tricks? Can You?”
  1. Amen to these thoughts you’ve shared! As a career coach who works with professionals of all ages, there is definitely a clear separation from the more adaptable folks, who are eager to learn new things and adapt to the changing times, versus those folks (“turtles” I guess you’d call them) who are clinging to the past and simply wishing things would go back to the way they used to be. Sadly, this latter group is going to have a tougher and tougher time maintaining their marketability and ability to make a living, since every industry is changing faster than ever before. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important topic…

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