One of the surest ways to seem irrelevant is to be speaking about what happened in the long-ago past, especially of our work lives. Many of us have had long, successful careers. We think our job history has great value, and it does, but it can also be a pitfall. Keep in mind that in today’s world, long ago is not that far away. Imagine this is 1975, and someone was telling you about something they had done in 1955? Would it even register to our young selves as having any relevance? Cue the eye rolls.
Of course experience matters. Of course learning and knowledge matter. But unless we are among age peers, telling people about our tremendous successes in the 1990s is most likely going to elicit a not-so-admiring response. We may even get the dreaded pity response for not having the empathetic insight to more appropriately calibrate our conversations.
I had a good career, traveling the world, getting paid to do something I loved. It was amazing. Yes, some people enjoy hearing my stories about some of the characters I photographed or what that world was like. But it was a world that no longer exists, and has very little relevance to today. Sure, I can work analog photo technology with a high degree of skill. So what? The stuff that matters to most people is the stuff I’ve done in the last 3 years.
But why would it even enter my mind to bring the old stuff up? Because I get scared and feel less than, and I want that other person to know, in my mind anyway, I was somebody. This is such an easy trap to fall into, as it’s baited with all these wondrous accomplishments from our past lives. It is so deliciously satisfying retelling these stories about our favorite person: us.
We have been bringing on new team members recently. Our new people are best in class, incredibly good at what they do. Although they have storied pasts, none of them referenced anything from their ancient past when we were interviewing. It was all about the now, and what they could do going forward. They let me know they are curious, driven and capable. They are up to date, and if there is something they don’t know, they will learn it. It was all about the very present now.
We need to get used to a world that entirely changes every few years. Never in history have we experienced anything like it. This is not a value judgment, this is a fact. For our parents and grandparents, yes things changed, but so slowly that it was an exception. Today, rapid change is the norm. We must adopt lifelong learning, we must actively stay engaged, or we will be left behind to reminisce about a dreamy recent past. This is hard, this is work, this is probably not what we were thinking it would be like, but it is completely within our powers.
We’ve lived through a lot — Nixon, the birth of the internet, the tech crash, 9/11…but even something as recent as the great recession of 2008 was 11 years ago! It may seem like yesterday to us, but to some others, it’s a long-ago, ancient, and probably irrelevant time. We learn from the past, but it’s one of those things that, even though we know our own history is valuable it may be a better idea to consider your audience before you reference it.