I’m reading Chip Conley’s book “Wisdom at Work” about reintroducing the wisdom of older, more experienced individuals into today’s fast moving and high-tech workforce. He coins the term “modern elder” for those with wisdom and knowledge to share with (typically) younger generations.
It’s great if you can have an individual to act as your mentor, which is exactly what part of this whole “modern elder” thing really is. It’s also cool if you find yourself in a position where you can act as a mentor by virtue of having experience that you’re willing and able to share in ways that are useful to others. I know I still, specifically, want both: even at 61 I’m looking for individuals from whom I can model and learn, and I’m looking for opportunities to share what I’ve learned with others.
Unfortunately these types of one-on-one relationships are difficult to find or create. Not only is not everyone a fit for everyone else (not just any person can be a mentor or resource for just any other), but even the logistics of making it happen can be a significant barrier.
There is another approach, and it’s one I’ve been dabbling with for years: the written word.
One approach is to realize that your “mentor” need not be alive. Reading books or papers by or about those who’ve gone before is one way to accomplish the same idea: transfer of ideas — wisdom — from a preceding generation. I’ve read biographies and other words by folks like Ben Franklin, DaVinci and others for specifically this reason. “What would X do?” is a great question to research, even if X isn’t alive. You can learn a lot from a polymath who lived 500+ years ago (and you can also learn about him as well — Leonardo lived a more fascinating life than I’d realized).
That same approach works if your mentor is alive, but pragmatically inaccessible — people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, or any number of modern others that I’m never likely to encounter. They all have a recorded body of work — again both by and about them — that makes their ideas, their approach, and their wisdom extremely accessible to anyone who cares to take the time to seek it out. This is why I’ve started to read their works. I may never meet them, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from them.
Which brings me to the real point of this little essay: flipping it over.
I said above that I still look both mentors from which to learn, and the opportunity to be a mentor to others.
The written word is as good a solution to the second as it is to the first: sharing knowledge simply by writing it down.
Some might consider it hubris, or an inflated sense of self worth, but actually thinking about things and writing it all down in some form is one way to preserve your thoughts, what you’ve learned, your “wisdom”, to use Chip Conley’s view, for others. (It’s also a great way to clarify, complete, or work through your thoughts for yourself.) Ideally one would post them in some way that they’re discoverable by others. A blog is today’s go-to form, and I use it myself from time to time.
Just as there’s a tremendous opportunity for us to learn from those who came before, there’s as large an opportunity for us to share what we’ve learned — our wisdom — just by writing it down.
And, honestly, the form might not even matter.
Many of the the most valuable works in history were not written “for” anyone. Leonardo DaVinci kept copious notes for himself that are invaluable today. Marcus Aurelius kept a journal that has become an incredible source of value for people thousands of years later.
Some were simply letters or other forms of correspondence written for individuals. This is something that appeals to me, not because I want to write letters to someone, but because it’s a form that I can use to give my thoughts structure and purpose.
We often talk about marketing to an “avatar” — a fictional person that represents the market you’re attempting to reach — the same applies when capturing your own thoughts. As a bonus, the “avatar” can be real! Even if the words are never sent or read by that specific person (for any number of reasons), they can be captured and shared with others who will find value. For example like any one of a certain age, I often feel like I have (or should have) advice to offer those younger than myself, and while they might not be in a position to hear from me today, perhaps they will be someday.
So, think about your own life’s accumulation of knowledge — your “wisdom”. How will you share it with those who come after?
And, for grins, those of you who read my personal blog and other works have some grasp of who I am. If you wanted to see me dole out advice (I sometimes refer to it as “pontificating”, but my goal is significantly more humble than that), are there topics you’d like to hear about? Leave a comment. Maybe my next “letter” will be to you.