The Wisdom of Age: We Are All ‘Original Medicine’

old_new_hands_plantCarl Jung taught that we spend the first half of our lives developing who we are not, and the second half of our lives becoming who we authentically are. In the wisdom years from 50 onward, we shift from defining ourselves by our experiences to defining ourselves by our values. And our journey is about bringing it all together.

I had shared Jung’s wisdom with some 50 something high tech friends who confided that they feel old and irrelevant these days, because so much emphasis is on the millennials – what motivates their work, how they buy, why they should be given every opportunity to advance.

At a recent LeanIn book event, I was stunned by the dialogue between Eric Schmidt of Google and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook about how those younger than 40 should be given the most opportunities, because they are ‘where the future lies.’

As I listened to these ‘thought leaders’ in high tech, I wondered why so little value was placed on the wisdom of age, which indigenous cultures celebrate and even honor with rites of passage from youth to elderhood.

What seems to be missing in our tech-driven world is recognizing that ‘we are all original medicine,’ each gifted with special talents to bring to the world. It is our unique purpose to develop our gifts and share them with others. And our purpose is no less than that.

As I learned from cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien in her study of The Second Half of Life, it is not until later that many of us ‘make our unique imprint’ on the world to realize our personal legacy. Angeles teaches how American culture is the most ‘ageist’ in that we segment the ability to contribute based on an expectation of age. For example, youth is sought for creativity but not problem-solving, while elders are sought for problem-solving but not creativity. It is only now that we are building inter-generational bridges to integrate the best of both to enhance our culture.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the entrepreneurial community, where young startup CEOs are being mentored by senior executives who are as old as their parents or even grandparents.

In my own work mentoring startup CEOs, I am perplexed by how we honor the business acumen of our ‘executive elders,’ yet in our daily work, we often dismiss the same age group.

As we strive for more creativity and invention in the tech world, are we not dismantling part of its foundation? Creativity is nurtured by integrating disparate ideas and concepts. What better fountain of ideas could we blend than those from the young and the old!

In indigenous cultures, the age of youth is viewed from 1-35, in which we define our selves by what we do. Youth is a time of birth and initiation. Mid-life is 35-50, in which we grow through relationship as in marriage and committed love. Our growth is in integrating our lives with others. In our 50s, we embark on a decade of personal integration to prepare for our wisdom years. And in the wisdom decades of the 60s and beyond, our lives come into focus and we redefine ourselves by who we are and how we fulfill our purpose.

It is in integrating our internal and external selves that we expand our ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ and way of thinking. These are the ingredients of invention on which we thrive in the fast-paced technology industry.

In Louie Schwartzberg’s film on the Hidden miracles of the natural world, he identifies the intersection between technology, art and science as curiosity and wonder. They drive us to expand our horizons and perspective, while touching our hearts. This is our vessel of creativity, which becomes more spacious as we integrate our selves on our individual journey.

Are we impairing our potential in the tech world by promoting our youth at the expense of our ‘elders’ who bring integrity, maturity and character to the process? I believe the answer lies within ancient wisdom, as it often does.

Perhaps the most magnificent achievement in the second half of life is from Mother Teresa. She suffered a crisis of faith for most of her wisdom years. Yet she forged ahead in uncertainty to become a noted humanitarian and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for alleviating suffering all over the world.

It was the combination of her passion and empathy, commitment and managerial skills that created a global network of missionaries to help uplift the impoverished everywhere.

Hers was the achievement of a lifetime, and only achievable through the integration of experience and meaning in the first and second halves of her life.

This is what’s possible when we blend the ardor of youth with the wisdom of age.

So for those in the tech world who value only the millennials, whose ‘original medicine’ are we leaving behind? And what will we lose in our single mindedness?

For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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