Working for yourself has many incredible benefits (e.g., freedom, flexibility, control over your calendar). But there is another beautiful side effect of solopreneurship. I discovered it a few years after leaving the corporate world in Silicon Valley and working for myself.
I'm finally allowed to grow older and have gray hair.
No more worrying about looking "too old" for the job, being the victim of ageism, or dyeing my hair to get through an interview. I did for several years toward the end of my corporate career. I didn’t go wild with it, but I knew people judged my ability to be energetic, innovative, and creative by my appearance. I was treated differently as my hair turned grayer.
I always told myself I’d stop doing it and that it was ok to age naturally. Right? I mean, it should be.
However—inevitably—I noticed the reactions and received passive-aggressive comments (e.g., “Oh, letting your hair go, huh?”, “Have you always been this gray?”). So, back to dyeing, I went—until I finally broke free from that rat race and launched my independent business.
To hell with changing your appearance for employers. Many of my friends still do it, but I'm happy to leave it all behind. It is incredibly freeing.
My older career coaching clients are experiencing ageism in the industry. They are no longer receiving promotions. It’s taking much longer to land a new job than ever.
One friend recently told me their boss said they don’t hire anyone over 40. Some employers and leaders deny it, but there are too many documented incidents for it to be our imagination.
The median age for Google’s workforce is 29, compared with 42.8 years for computer programmers and 41.7 years for computer-hardware engineers nationally.
Personally, I know it happens. I used to be on the hiring side of the table and hear interviewers making ageist comments about why we shouldn't hire an older candidate (e.g., "They're too old to be innovative,” “When did they graduate from college?!”).
A good friend of mine would be in the job market and navigating interviews. Mind you; this person is so incredibly talented. I worked side by side with them for years. Potential employers rejected them repeatedly until they remembered it was time to dye their hair again. One dye job later, and voilà! - they received a job offer.
How ridiculous is that?
I experienced this discrimination when we raised a seed round for our startup. A partner at one firm said we were too old to have the energy for startup life again. A partner at a different firm walked into the meeting room, looked at us, and said, "There sure is a lot of gray hair in this room."
No, I didn’t punch him in his smarmy little face. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
I will admit it took me quite a few years of running my solopreneur businesses before I realized I could stop being fake with my appearance. Old habits are hard to break, I guess. I kept thinking it would hurt my chances of success with my business. But, slowly but surely, I noticed my clients valued me precisely because I was older and had “been there, done that.” They didn’t expect me to be some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngster with sparkling stars in his eyes. They wanted my battle scars, war stories, and wisdom from years of being knocked down and getting back up.
My message is about learning from my mistakes so you can avoid them with your business and career. Use my pain for your gain. Sidestep the landmines. Reach your goals more quickly with less stress than I experienced.
Solopreneurship is so damn amazing because I get to be ME. I don't have to pretend to be someone else. I don’t have to look younger to coach people who need my help and advice.
What a relief!
I wish the corporate world would change overnight, but it won't. Sadly, you will most likely reach a point in your career when you feel the unforgiving hand of ageism holding you back, too.
That may be the day you bid a fond farewell to all of the broken corporate cultures and strike out on your own.
Do you know why?
Because you are so damn good at what you do precisely because of your age, accumulated knowledge, and decades of experience. You have deep wisdom, and your advice is so valuable.
You can set yourself up as an advisor and consultant, so everything you offer can be provided to clients who will value you. And, let me tell you, that feeling of being appreciated for who you genuinely are is oh-so-sweet. You’re gonna love it!
Oh, and throw away those bottles of hair dye. You won't need them anymore.
Ways to turn your age into an asset
There are many ways you can transform what you’ve learned and accomplished over your lifetime into valuable assets for your business. Here are some examples of folks who achieved success—often reinventing themselves— at a later age.
Raymond Chandler was 51 when his first book was published.
Ray Kroc was 52 years old when he started McDonald’s.
J.K. Rowling was 32 when Harry Potter was published.
Colonel Harland David Sanders was 65 when he started Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Julia Child was 49 years old when her first cookbook was published.
Bob Ross spent 20 years with the U.S. Air Force and only started his famous painting show on PBS when he was 41.
If you’re one of those people constantly learning and growing, you’ve acquired a fantastic amount of valuable knowledge. Every year, you know more that can help others and be applied to solve their problems.
Expertise matters, and this continues to develop throughout your life and career. For example, a study of radiologists found that their “interpretations of screening mammograms improve during their first few years of practice and continue to improve throughout much of their careers.”
Can younger people also have valuable knowledge? Of course, they can! I’m not saying they don’t. But you’ve had more years to accumulate even vaster amounts of it unless you’ve been resting on your laurels and stagnating. Note: never let that happen.
No one has precisely the same life and work experiences you have had. Everything you have experienced impacts who you are and how you think. You can bring your unique perspective to bear on any problem that needs to be solved for your customers and clients.
One way to maximize your experience is to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Step up into bigger roles and take on more responsibility.
Do things that scare you. Growth happens when you stretch yourself to do and become more.
Your unique experiences enable a diversity of thinking that no one else can replicate. They have not lived your life.
They have not walked an identical career path (my path is kind of crazy). Embrace this, recognize how your experiences contribute to your unique value, and leverage it to your advantage. Clients love it when you have a deep well of stories that can help them navigate their problems.
Knowledge alone does not solve problems. Wisdom helps you understand how and when to apply your knowledge.
If knowledge is information, wisdom is knowing when to apply that information to solve a problem and how to look across all of that knowledge to create a metal-level solution rather than some micro application of a tiny piece of information in isolation.
You may have heard some variation of this anecdote that illustrates the power of wisdom. This can be applied to your own consulting business, by the way. Charge for your wisdom, not just for the work completed.
A town’s electricity generator failed, and various engineers were unable to fix it, so an elderly professor was summoned. He examined the generator carefully, then tapped it lightly once with a hammer, and power was instantly restored. He submitted his bill for $1,000.02 and itemized it: “Tapping — $.02. Knowing where to tap — $l,000.” (Source)
Older folks do gain more wisdom. Yes, yes, I know. We are suffering some types of decline. But wisdom improves with age and survival. The bold young buck steps into the crosshairs of a hunter’s rifle. The older and wiser buck has the wisdom to recognize and avoid hunters.
Your network's breadth, depth, and power all grow as you age and keep active. My network is quite valuable from my years at IBM, Apple, eBay, Yahoo, and all the consulting I did in Silicon Valley. I also traveled the world and spoke at events in other countries. I keep active with my online network and build friendships everywhere!
You can tap into your network as a business owner; the more valuable your network is (as an older person), the better the results.
Looking for talented people to help you with a project (e.g., a great engineer).
Seeking investors for your business (e.g., having multimillionaires and billionaires in your network is nice).
Finding smart partners who might want to join you in a new venture (e.g., almost all of my startup partners were old friends and colleagues).
Helping introduce your clients to well-connected people (e.g., for a job).
Getting an intro to someone to help close a deal (e.g., selling into a corporation).
My network was so small and weak in my 20s. Luckily, I had a few great people who helped me get into graduate school. But my network didn’t really grow and become more powerful until my 30s and 40s. Now, in my 50s, I feel like I know someone at every tech company (or someone who knows someone).
Lean into your advantages as you grow older. Don’t let someone tell you you’re “too old” to do something. And that’s the beauty of solopreneurship; you are in charge. No one else can tell you what you can or cannot do!
I’m Larry Cornett, a coach who can work with you 1-on-1 to design, launch, and optimize your business. You might also be interested in my “Employee to Solopreneur” workshop. I live in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with my wife and Great Dane while running my businesses 100% remotely.