Son, Can You Play Me A Memory

Seeing Billy Joel perform live at Madison Square Garden is one of the quintessential New York musical experiences.  The highlight of the show is listening to 19,000 people sing along to “Piano Man.”  Even if you’re not a huge Billy Joel fan, you have no pulse if you don’t get caught up in the moment.

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the challenges we face navigating career transitions.  “Piano Man” is the anthem for those looking for something more.  Just look at the characters Joel sings about: the real estate novelist who never had a real job, the frustrated actor tending bar, the executive drowning his sorrows after another day of monotony. 

The song is in part autobiographical, Joel wrote it to describe how his career had taken a turn for the worse.  He had gone from recording an album and touring the country playing large venues to performing in a bar on Wilshire Boulevard under a fake name collecting tips in a jar.

I think that’s a fear for many of us in our careers – taking a step backwards.  It’s particularly acute for those in the latter stages of their careers.  Ageism, as I’ve written about before, is very real.  Many talented professionals over the age of 50 rightfully believe that many potential employers see them as past their prime.

Joel poignantly captures this in the opening verse when he sings about an old man sitting at the bar nursing a gin & tonic: “He says son can you play me a memory, I’m not really sure how it goes, but it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes.”

We can’t be sure of the memory haunting the old man, it could be a long-lost love he let slip away.  But it could also be memories of himself in his prime and what he used to be able to do.

Ironically the song Joel wrote about his setbacks became his signature and ensured he would never have to perform for tips again.  It’s a lesson for all of us on “the back 9” of our careers.

Ageism is a significant problem in marketing, media and many other industries.  But we can’t let it become a crutch.  I’d argue the 50+ crowd is at the peak of their powers.  Assuming you’ve taken care of yourself mentally and physically you have never been better positioned to do great things.

But here’s the thing, you may have to accept that what you did in the past won’t work in the future.  You must be more willing to take risks, try new things, apply yourself in ways you haven’t done before.  To me the biggest challenge after working for a couple of decades and achieving some measure of success is that you’ve forgotten what failure is.  It becomes something to fear as opposed to an opportunity to grow and learn.

Ageism is a bullshit, cowardly excuse for short-sighted and insecure hiring managers to pass over older candidates.  I hate it.  But for the older crowd we must acknowledge that there is a kernel of truth inside the bias – after a certain age we tend to get set in our ways. 

There’s not much we can do about the short-sighted gatekeepers, but we can take an honest look at our habits and behaviors.  When was the last time we really stretched ourselves to learn a new skill?  Do we have any projects, either personal or professional, where the chance of failure is significant?  Have we made the extra effort to take care of our minds and bodies?  If you don’t like what you see in the mirror after honest reflection, that’s ok, just resolve to change.  Apply the same discipline that helped you be successful in the first place to this new challenge.

Here’s the other truth we know, just like the old man at the bar we can’t escape regrets.  If you don’t have regrets, you haven’t lived.  Our greatest regrets will be the chance we didn’t take.  When we let fear determine our decisions.  That wisdom makes us better people and professionals and equips us to handle the setbacks that will inevitably come if we truly commit to stretching ourselves.  At this stage we should know better than to be afraid.

God willing all of us are given plenty of more time to pursue our passions before we join that old man.  But when that time does come and my career ends, I look forward to sitting at a bar, listening to good music, and reminiscing about all of it – the sad and the sweet, the chances taken, the failures and the successes.  Except I’ll pass on the gin and order a Scotch instead.

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