I recently read on Information Week’s web site a post titled, “Too Old for IT Jobs? 7 Fight Back Tips.” All the tips the author provides are sound, but I went back a little to see if history can teach us anything about how to use age to your advantage to fight the common perception that you are too old for the job. I came up with that famous line that Ronald Reagan used in his second debate against Walter Mondale that, according to most political analysts, helped him win the presidential election in 1984.
There is more behind the scene intrigue that resulted in that game changing debate performance by Reagan that is explained in Roger Ailes’ (President of Fox News Channel, and Chairman of the Fox Television Stations Group) book, “You Are The Message.”
According to all political analysts and media at that time, Reagan had a disastrous first debate performance against Walter Mondale, such that many people thought that Mondale had a realistic chance to win the election. Reagan appeared old and didn’t have his “fastball” at the debate. Age suddenly became a major issue in the campaign.
Even a proud, accomplished and successful man like Ronald Reagan was not immunized to people questioning his ability to govern because of his age (seventy three). When age becomes an issue, it is very hurtful to all of us since someone is questioning our ability to do the job at a high level that we have been doing. Reagan's lizard brain was putting up resistance that perhaps he indeed was old and was uncertain of his vision for the country. He no longer was the "Great Communicator" but a "Big Bungler."
Upon this kind of scrutiny, many simply get flustered and resort to playing defense; thus further reinforcing the stereotype. Reagan faced a challenge bigger than just winning the election; this was a personal challenge to his ability to think on his feet for which he was known. He had to prove to everyone that he was still capable and that age was nothing but a number to him. He had to win over his lizard brain and let his neocortex part of this brain take over and show the American people that he was in command of his facts and figures.
Reagan campaign's brain trust were struggling on what to do. That is when Roger Ailes, political media manager, asked Michael Deaver, Reagan’s closest adviser, to give him access to the President. Ailes said to Deaver, ”If you give me that, he’ll win. If you don’t, he’ll lose.” Ailes could be so bold since he had faith in Regan’s communications skills and knew what to do to turn things around quickly.
When Ailes met Reagan, he asked him a simple question: “Mr. President, what’s your goal in the second debate?” Reagan answered, “Well, Mondale’s saying some things that aren’t true and I’ve got to correct the record.”
Based on what Ailes believed what public expected of Reagan, he offered Reagan the following advice: “You didn’t get elected on details. You got elected on themes. Every time a question is asked, relate it to one of your themes. You know enough facts, and it’s too late to learn new ones now, anyway.” Furthermore, Ailes suggested to Reagan that during the mock debate and in real debate to “go back to your instincts. Just say what comes to you out of your experience.”
Ailes strategy of “Let Reagan be Reagan” worked well in the mock debates and the preparation for the debate was over, except for one thorny issue that still had not been broached: Age.
Ailes asked Reagan how does he plan to respond to the age question that was definitely going to come up during the debate. Reagan said he was planning to use this old line he had used before, and after hearing it Ailes was convinced that the old Reagan that people were used to seeing was back.
During the debate when the age question did come up, Reagan masterfully delivered this famous line which has been credited to helping him win the election. He said, “...and I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Everyone laughed, including Mondale, and the next day the press led with that quote and Reagan was proclaimed the winner of the debate and the people were assured that the “gipper” was indeed back and they rewarded him with a second landslide election.
We can all learn from Roger Ailes on how to adroitly handle the age issue: attack with humor to defuse it so you can focus on the job. It worked for Reagan and I am sure it can work for us too. And remember, Reagan had to do it at the age of seventy three.
What simple thing you can do today to change the way you think about your old age?
I got this idea from listening to a podcast by Srinivas Rao titled "Unmistakable Creative" where he had a guest Sam Bennet who said something interesting why people often don't start something: They lead with the word 'but." So she suggested to replace the "but" with an "and." It's that simple. This is an idea that she developed from her improv training.
Do not say. "I am experienced BUT I am old." Instead change it to, "I am experienced AND I am old." This is subtle but it makes a big difference in how others hear it. The former is defensive; the latter is offensive. The former creates doubt; the latter creates confidence. The former is going to be rejected; the latter is going to be accepted.
Now you have a famous example of Ronald Reagan and something you can say to yourself right now to change the way you approach things as you age. Age is not your enemy, but how you think of your age is your biggest hurdle in accomplishing anything you want.