• Stewart Knights

Exploring The Minds of the Young

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

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In the first year of University, I started my first business - a public speaking consultancy aimed at students - or more specifically people my own age as this was the only demographic I knew. Fast forward a year, the business now has an average age of nineteen and works with highly progressive and open-minded ‘adults’ who are slightly older than our initial demographic (although they don’t look it). Sadly, these individuals are the exception rather than the rule as we still hear ‘but what do you know, you’re only young’. This insightful comment really knocks me off canter, especially considering the fact that in twelve-short-months I could be on a graduate scheme working with these same individuals that assure me and my team that we are too young. In light of these facts, two seemingly unanswerable questions spring to mind - how young is “too young” and, more critically, “how much more prepared will I be when I reach ‘that’ age?”

How young is too young?

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks - apparently you can’t teach a new dog new tricks either. More accurately, a new dog can’t learn new tricks upon their own volition and without sixteen years of mind numbing experience just to get where they wanted to be in the first place - but this is too long of an adage to be catchy. To some of the ‘older dogs’, I must seem extremely naïve here - a doctor can’t open her own practice without years of hands-on experience, a financial consultant can’t begin working for himself without being shown the ropes a few times and a teacher can’t jump straight into teaching a class on mechanical engineering without understanding a little-bit about engineering first. This is the crux, however, in that I never intended to be a doctor, financial consultant or engineering lecturer. My trade, much like many others, requires knowledge that can be learned and internalised as work is conducted, an inextinguishable passion for the process, and an insatiable appetite to learn how to improve in order to make the process more enjoyable for the client and myself. This neglects to mention an understanding of business, economics and self-worth - but these can be acquired in time. So what in this list requires seventeen extra years of life under my belt?

Imagine an entirely hypothetical situation where I am seventeen years old, ready to go to University and absolutely dying to become a consultant. Clearly, consultancy requires some in-depth knowledge of an industry before one can advise others on the same industry - but more specifically, I want to be a public-speaking consultant. I’ve done a few speeches, learned about the process, started to memorise a few learning models, and began to learn more about how to start a business. What’s stopping me opening up shop and seeing what happens - learning from the process and, if I fail, failing early at least? Quickly, I realised that students don’t quite realise how important public-speaking is (and don’t have the money to pay for my expertise), so instead I began to target adults who do understand the true value of presentational skills. I put myself into certain situations where I can speak to those people I think would value my offering the most, tell them about what I do and ask them to contact me whenever they realise they need me. Now how ridiculous would that be? Absolutely preposterous, of course, because this entire situation hinges on the idea that my new target audience would take me seriously as someone who could help them and not as a child.

We now have to answer our initial question, “how young is too young?” and from this narrative only one age is clear - this being any age but the one you are now. Or 136, because then you’ll be the oldest person in the world, so naturally you’ll have objectively uncontested wisdom. Its your choice of when to start - either to start young and fail early with enough time to try again or to begin your entrepreneurial journey at 136.

How much more prepared will I be when I reach ‘that’ age?

Returning to our entirely hypothetical situation - what if I were to wait until I had a few decades of experience under my belt. Let’s say that I finished my degree, landed my dream job at TED as a speaking coach - or maybe even a subcontracted speaking coach - and began to learn the ins and outs of consultancy. For the astutely observant of us, you will recognise that I am now in the exact same position I would have been in around five years ago but with less hair on the top of my head and less time to make an impact - not to mention all the experience I frankly don’t have. The only leg-up I hypothetically have on my other hypothetical self is that people won’t doubt my ability because my age and lack of hair acts as an affirmation of this.

My first client-turned friend and partner, Helen Woodward, said this about our work together (this was some of the most fulfilling and educational working experiences of my life thus far):

"Several people have remarked they wouldn’t consider taking advice from someone younger than themselves. Extraordinary. I’ve wondered about what underpins this idea and how it can hinder our individual and collective learning. Not wanting to take advice from someone younger than you is definitely a short-term strategy and not one I’d recommend. When we need help, it’s good to go to whoever has the expertise, the commitment and the humility to collaborate in the learning."

In which case, three eventualities are clear, I either need to:

  1. Shave my head, grow a beard, buy a fake ID that says I’m twenty-six and put on a gruff voice to gain clients,

  2. Accept that no one will take me seriously until I am the oldest person in the world so wait until I reach the ripe old age of 136 to begin my work,

  3. Start now, work with people that value my ability and passion over my age - and accept that those people that can’t see beyond my inability to drink in the U.S. are missing out.

To me the choice was obvious - but too many young-but-driven individuals go for the more traditional routes because there’s no one to take them seriously.

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