“If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”
This type of question used to cause me far more stress and identity defensiveness than it does now. Being the youngest born, there can be the attraction towards defending yourself for your piece of the pie. Smart enough, loud enough, opinion above the rest, etc. It can be a trap easily ensnaring you in times of hurt or weakness. But it also stands out in times of security and strength. If you are a young leader I am sure you can relate.
A short while ago I was at a gathering of leaders where this question came up a few times. It
caught me off-guard because I have not entertained it in quite some time. In the past it has been a trigger because of what I have already said about youthfulness. I have felt like a ‘younger leader’ in all of my past settings. The problem has never been the question of actual age, but of other things held important that then come into question. There is usually a tone, a facial expression, and of course, a look at others in the circle to see if they can get an ‘amen’. Most often it is said as a lighthearted barb, but without fail, it derails the person in question.
What does it call into question?
- Respect in setting.
If you are an individual that consistently uses that question above, you know what it does.
When I catch myself in the wrong on this one, and it has happened, I try to find a way to bring the respect back up to par. When it does not happen, I feel I have wronged the person far more than just in that conversation. I left a mark on the memories of everyone that was part of the conversation. It may not be a life long disruption for them, but it can stay with everyone longer than it needs to. Unfortunately, you will find this far more prevalent in Christian ministry circles. There are plenty of testimonies from young leaders on this phenomena. This always baffles me, considering how many church leaders continually ask the question of how to retain and develop young leaders.
So what have I found the question signals? (and others of the same ilk regarding some other aspect of a person’s personhood)
- Insecurity – Especially if it comes from higher level organizational leadership.
- Ineptitude – Generally from someone who feels they do not understand something.
- Inhumility – A person who desires to remind the crowd of their stature.
OK, that last one is not a word, but it worked with the ‘in-‘ sequence. A person may not intend to show weakness in this way, but by going to the least common denominator they lowered the bar on the conversation. Fear of not belonging, looking stupid, or just ‘humblebragging’, has not made us all equals. It makes one lesser for your sake, and that does not look good on any playground.
“So Eric, how did this make you feel?” Well, at first I had to take a step back. But then I leaned into their insecurity, realizing that the person asking is either feeling less and needs building up; or feels like more, and is not my problem. 20 years ago it would have sat in my mind for a week. Now I just feel sorry for leaders that are younger than I am and have to deal with those individuals on a regular basis. Earning their stripes, becoming the same, unless they gain wisdom through those moments.
So are you an old dog learning new tricks? I sure hope so. Teachability is a lifelong trait, and if you are a worthy leader others will take note. If you need to puff yourself up, remember there will be someone around the corner who is older and smarter than you.
If you are young and reading this? Remember that no matter how many wrinkles are in front of you, we all end up back at the playground at some point. You may just have stumbled upon someone feeling like it is their turn on the swing.
Maturity does not have a number.