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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Age is Just a Number: How to Graduate from "New Kid" Status

It’s a rite of passage: You turn 21, and you finally have that coveted ID that says you’re really an adult. When you take that shiny new card out for a spin to your favorite (er, soon-to-be to be favorite) pub, you’re not surprised when the bouncer asks for proof of your age. And most of the time, especially as you get a bit older, you’re more than happy to oblige.

But—when someone calls you out on your age in the workplace, it’s a whole lot less fun. When you’re young, smart, and ambitious, you want to be seen for your brains and your ideas, not your birthdate and years of experience (or lack thereof). But no matter how intelligent or accomplished you are, you may find yourself automatically branded “a kid” or “the newbie”—and that rite of passage is the opposite of exciting.

While being in this situation may have you wishing for a time machine, don’t break out the wrinkle cream just yet. You may not have much control over the age-related comments while you’re new and still establishing yourself on the team, but there are a few steps you can take to prove to your colleagues that age is just a number.

Don’t Be Offended

This is probably the most touted advice I’ve heard in my career, but it’s also the most difficult to follow—particularly when it comes to your age. The last thing you want to hear when you’re excitedly sharing your brilliant ideas on how you’ll help transform the business is “you’re too young to understand” or “you don’t have enough experience to work on this project.”

While those words may sting, remind yourself that they’re usually just observations, not a statement about your performance or ability. In reality, most of the comments you’ll receive from managers or colleagues probably aren’t personal at all.

That said, whenever I hear things like this (and yes, at age 30-something, I still do), I turn it into a challenge instead. If someone tells me I don’t have the industry experience to understand an issue, I dig in and research the topic to broaden my understanding. So even if that “someone” was right and I didn’t have a ton of knowledge in the area, I certainly did by the time I was through. I would end up more informed than before, and my efforts to get up to speed were always appreciated.

Respect Your “Elders”

When you first start a job, no matter what your age, you’re the newbie, and everyone who came before you has seniority. Now, of course, just because others have some years (or months) on you, that certainly doesn’t mean they know more or will perform better. However, if you want to build a solid foundation with your new team, one of the best ways to do it is to have some respect for your “elders.”

I’ve found that seeking input and asking questions of those who’ve been around the block a time or two tends to help diffuse the perception that the new hire “thinks she knows everything.” You can quickly establish yourself as someone who isn’t afraid to learn from others, and most importantly, respects the experience of her colleagues.

Save the Suggestions for Later

By the same token, one of managers’ biggest pet peeves is working with new staff members who are eager to share how much they know. I’ve been on the other side as a manager, and I’ve seen first-hand how frustrating this can be. Rather than taking the time to listen and observe how things operated, many new recruits immediately jump in to tell everyone how a process should be changed or give the eye-roll-worthy “at my old job, we did it like this.”

Trust me, your manager knows you have great ideas, and she’s well aware things were done differently where you were before (she did hire you, after all!). The trick is gauging the appropriate time to share these ideas. While your input is important, you need to fully understand your new environment first—otherwise, regardless of your age, it’s unlikely you’ll have meaningful suggestions.

So when you’re tempted to speak up before the ink has dried on your first paycheck, sit back, listen, and take notes instead. You’ll have the chance to make your suggestions soon. And when you do, they’ll be better informed—and the last thing on anyone’s mind will be your age or tenure.

Being a rookie can be challenging—especially when you’re new and young. But with a little savvy, you’ll prove in no time that maturity, ability, and talent have nothing to do with your age.

Photo courtesy of Joi Ito.