urnsThe world used to be a safe place for 39-year olds.

The world was bigger, and there were fewer rules for how to succeed. When things went wrong, you could skip town like Jean Valjean and maybe you would end up a hero someplace else.

And history was full of people who were nobody at the age of 39, and then — due to miraculous twists of fate — their dreams came to life.

When he was 39 years old, things weren’t looking so great for Harry Truman. He had spent the better part of his thirties as a hat salesman. It was his store, and he wasn’t very good at running it. It failed. He held a minor judicial post for a while, but lost that too — and sold car club memberships into his forties. Two decades later, he was President of the United States.

When he was 39 years old, things weren’t looking so great for Ulysses S. Grant. He was working as his dad’s assistant in a leather-working shop. He had been a soldier a decade earlier — though not a very senior one — and had given up on making much of himself once he returned to civilian life. Even when the Civil War started, very few people were interested in his leadership chops. A decade later, he was President of the United States.

When she was 39 years old, things weren’t looking so great for Mother Teresa. She had just quit being a nun, and was basically starving on the streets of Calcutta along with the people she was trying to help. She had to learn new languages, lobby for funds, and work her tail off in order to become one of the most successful non-profit entrepreneurs the world has ever seen.  By the end of her life, she was basically a walking saint.

Today, the world is not such a safe place for 39-year-olds. With the exception of a few writers, some TV actors, and Colonel Sanders, it’s hard to find many examples of “late bloomers.” (And I use that term facetiously, because you have most of your adult life ahead of you at age 39.)

We live twice as long as we used to, but we are ten times quicker to write people off as irrelevant or too old to ever achieve anything great.

Do you think that a man, who is 39 years old, and still a Director in a corporation, is ever going to make it to CEO? Do you think that a woman who has been mired as an associate at a top law firm — 12 years after graduating from law school — is ever going to found her own world class firm? Do you think that a PhD chemist, who at age 39 is still assisting someone else at a Pfizer lab, is ever going to win a Nobel Prize?

People live a long time in America. But dreams die young. There are innumerable reasons for this…

We use college and graduate degrees to define someone’s viability in this world.
We filter through our huge population by using “tenure track” or “partner track” or “senior executive track” to filter the “talented” from the “untalented.” We obsess over pursuits like sports and entertainment, where one’s talent must be manifest by a very young age to ensure success.

I get why Hollywood likes to find young talent. I get that New York likes to be “dog eat dog” with its institutions. But what upsets me is that I think Silicon Valley is not making the world much safer for 39 year olds, even though it could and should be a place where ageism is less prevalent.

You don’t need an MBA from Harvard University to make it in Silicon Valley, the way you need one to become CEO of JPMorgan. Nor is this the NBA, where most great players are discovered in their teens.

This is a world where people who have nothing — no reputation, no money, no experience — can build something great in short order. And age should be an asset. People on the cusp of middle age have had time to identify problems in life that are worth fixing. They have hopefully saved up a nest egg to enable risk taking. They probably have a husband or wife whom they can lean on.

But the image of a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur is the unknown 23-year old, whom experts like Mike Moritz have lauded through the years. But that is probably because they are solving problems that appeal to other 23-year olds.

Maybe it’s time for entrepreneurs to get out there and start companies that help busy parents, elderly loved ones, the physically disabled, and all of the other niches that number “only” a few million potential users. (I use the word facetiously, because you can make a ton of money from a few million people.)

And very few 23-year olds even know what “geriatric” means or what “ADA” stands for.

The Economist ran a cover story called “Will We Ever Invent Anything Useful Again?” As a man in his 20s, sometimes I wonder the same thing. But, you know what? I’ll bet that if I had three children, I would find many problems to solve. I’ll bet that if my retirement were only a few years away, I would have some more ideas of what to invent.

Silicon Valley needs a spark plug more than ever, and maybe it’s time to lean on people who are “middle age young.”

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]