Reflections on turning 50
by Josh Bernoff
I don't feel 50, and I think the reason is I am still having an incredible amount of fun and getting a lot of psychic rewards from my job and my work life. (My family life is pretty good, too, but that's not what I'm writing about here.) When I say I don't feel fifty, I mean that I have a lot of enthusiasm, a willingness to embrace change, to take risks that might pay off bigtime and to get back up when I fail.
I am egotistical enough to believe that you might benefit from some of what I have learned, so I'm going to share some of that here. This is not advice, unless you are exactly like me (and if you are, lord help you). But I thought you might enjoy seeing what worked for me.
Let's talk about careers. First off, I didn't plan my career. Or more accurately, my plans had very little to do with my eventual career. I can tell a narrative of how I started out studying to be a Ph.D. in math, then took jobs at startup companies, rising in responsibility -- how I started and grew a user group, got the attention of a great research company, became the top TV analyst, and then wrote a bestselling business book. But while the facts are true, the story is a lie. Because that's not what really happened.
What really happened is that at each job I tried to learn as much as possible, took pride in doing the work the best I could, and when I got bored, continued to do the job well even as I searched for something new and interesting. No amount of money is worth being bored.
When looking for that new opportunity I was always trying to build on what I had, while stretching to do what I did not know about. At my first job I learned that while I thought I could write, I could write a lot better if I listened to my editors. At one of these software companies, MathSoft, I told the president of the company how interface for the software should work, and eventually, he actually listened. As an analyst I learned to be bold and spot big trends -- and that in making big predictions much of the time you will be wrong, but you have to learn from that as well.
Let's talk about talent. I have found there are some things I do well. One of them is writing -- I love doing it, I have always loved doing it, and I like to write anything from press releases to software manuals to research reports to business books. Another is math -- I studied that, I was good at it, and while a career in math was not in my future, my analytical abilities have served me well in all my jobs. Having two talents made a big difference in my career -- I could always move to new challenges based on one or the other, and I could do jobs that weren't open to people with only one of those talents. I still think the best, most succesful, least boring career paths are open to people who have more than one talent and develop them all -- if you're young, or even if you're not, you should keep this in mind.
After I joined Forrester I developed another talent I didn't know I had, or could have -- speaking and connecting with clients. I am pretty good at this, now; I wasn't, when I got there. I developed this talent at age 40, give or take, and have continued to improve it. (I took a standup comedy course in there somewhere -- that actually helped somewhat.) Always learning. Always fun.
Let's talk about flaws. There are things I am bad at. Remembering people's names is one. Another is grace under pressure. I am not good looking and my personal style is, well, rumpled. I'd love to get better at these; realistically I haven't been able to very well. It's good to know your flaws. I feel bad about these but I forgive myself and move on; luckily, others are typically able to forgive me, too. I am good at apologizing when I have hurt somebody as a result of my flaws and I am sincere about it.
Let's talk about goals. I always have them. I have short term goals, on my todo list. I have medium term goals (create an idea that a whole industry talks about; learn to give speech that gets rated very highly by the audience). I have very long-term goals, too, which could also be called dreams. I have always wanted to write a book. In 2006 my Forrester password was "writer50" which was my way of reminding myself that I wanted to write and publish a book by the time I was 50. I was ready to quit Forrester and take a year off to do this; luckily thanks to George Colony I didn't have to. Don't give up on your dreams, even if you are 48 years old. Keep laying the bricks in the foundation and framing out the structure; you'll eventually find building the dream to be within reach.
I sometimes wonder if I should have written the book when I was younger. But it was a lot easier since I had accomplished the other things first that made it possible. It's easier to start near the top than at the bottom.
Let's talk about failure. I have made a lot of mistakes. Few of the startups I worked with could be called successes. I took a risk at one company and gave up a secure job to head up their CD-ROM development; within a year, they shut it down and laid me off. When I got to Forrester, within the first six months I had done poorly and was sure I would be fired. I have made major predictions (most notably about interactive TV) that were completely wrong. My first book proposal, about television, was rejected by 13 out of 13 publishers. I invented a major product called TechPotential; it sold to a grand total of one client. Am I a success? I feel like I am. Everyone says you learn from failures, and you do, but nobody sets out to fail. You go into these things believing in them. The key is figuring out when to give up and move on, and not getting discouraged. It's called confidence. There's a whole book about this if you're interested; it's Seth Godin's "The Dip".
Let's talk about fear. I have it; we all do. Admit you are afraid. Then act anyway. Fear is like hunger; it's uncomfortable, but if you address what's causing it, it will go away.
Let's talk about concentration. You need time to think. Find a way to get it. Big thoughts take time to work out. An hour, a day, a week, a year. If you have no time to think, you're not going to get anywhere. Change the way you work so you have time to think. For me, writing is the way I think big thoughts. How do you think big?
Let's talk about collaboration. It is my favorite thing, which is strange for someone as egotistical as me. I love to be edited; it makes my prose stronger. Working with Charlene Li on Groundswell was the most wonderful intellectual effort of my life; no one will ever know which ideas are mine and which are hers because there is no answer -- we built them together. Find people to work with who are generous and don't care who gets the credit; then you be one, too. If the people in your company are not like this, find another company. Life's too short.
Finally, let's talk about curiosity. Curiosity drives everything I do. It is a good quality in an analyst, but it is a good quality in anyone in any job. If you know everything that is going to happen in your job, you will get bored. If you wonder whether things can be better, what could be different, what if we worked with people in India, started an online store, set up a page in Facebook, smiled at every customer, gave away our intellectual property for free . . . if you wonder what would happen, you will not be bored. And you might just find out something interesting.
I have an impish -- some would say childish -- sense of humor. I like to turn everything upside down and see what's on the other side. I like to ask weird questions. It's fun. And that's where many of the best ideas come from. Very few people think like this. Try it -- you might come up with some new ideas.
Here's a quote from my favorite author on the topic:
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I've found it!), but 'That's funny...' -Isaac Asimov.
Thank you for reading this far, my friends. I have enjoyed sharing everything with you. A lot of this stuff has worked for me; it took 50 years to figure most of it out. I intend to keep doing it.