“I’ve been doing it this way for thirty years.” That old-timer phrase, or some variation of it, always provokes a strong reaction in me. I heard it again recently while involved in a bindery equipment troubleshooting call. My immediate thought is almost always, “OK, brace yourself.” (I don’t think I ever said it aloud!) But as I age, or maybe I should say “as I add to my own 35 years of experience in the printing business,” I found there is often much to be learned by reflecting on why such a statement might be bothering me.
As I look back, I see that the reasons why it provokes a reaction have evolved over the years. When I was a novice bindery worker, that kind of retort from a co-worker intimidated me. A mix of fear and inexperience instantly led me to believe this person must know their stuff so I better listen. Even if I was put off by their demeanor or personality, I almost always learned something. The desire to learn overcame my gut feeling that something might not be quite right with their attitude.
It didn’t take long to find out that a lot of people were just full of hot air. Playing the blustery old-timer card was often a cover for weakness in skills or a lack of social grace.
When I began training co-workers and doing supervisory work, the phrase came to mean that I really had to prove myself and earn their trust. It taught me to be patient and to let the relationship develop. Only then would I make progress with training or get decent cooperation from a crew.
But there were those times when the old-timer phrase was advance notice that this co-worker was never going to work out. It would always be their way or no way at all. These are the ones who might have thirty years’ experience, but it’s the same one year of experience, repeated over and over with no learning or advancement. Nothing new is seeping in and not much is coming out.
Today, from where I stand as a vendor to the printing industry, I hear the phrase more than I ever did as a bindery equipment operator or supervisor. In my early days selling Technifold products on the road, I discovered that the old-timer phrase was an almost certain guarantee of rejection. I confess it used to make me think more about the person making the statement rather than about solving the problem or objection at hand.
In these cases the phrase was really an indicator of a normal human reaction to change—we resist it. We all have our comfort zones and it takes a lot to move us out of them. (We talk about resistance to change in two articles, here and here.) In fairness, the old-timer says this because their methods and experience have indeed served them well. After all, they’re still employed, and in my experience, most have been with their current employer for a long time.
Yet the only thing I can change with any certainty is me. So when I hear the phrase today it prompts me to look in the mirror. After all you rarely hear the old-timer comment when things are going well. Why then are they putting up a wall? What is fueling the fire?
In the case of the equipment troubleshooting call, the operator brought out the phrase because he was utterly frustrated. Here is a person who, despite a wealth of knowledge and decades of experience, couldn’t get a simple tool to work right. By the time we finished a two minute conversation we cleared up an operational misunderstanding and had the solution.
After the call I had some questions for myself:
This in-house questioning led us to figure out a way to produce a video for this particular product. The next fellow will have an easier time of it. If we had focused solely on the other person and his resistance to continuing with the installation, it’s likely nothing would have changed for him or for us, or for future customers. By turning the mirror on ourselves, we learned a lesson and figured out how to improve the experience.
Without a doubt, some of the most valuable knowledge I have comes from old-timers. You read about them here on the Bindery Success Blog. It doesn’t seem wise to discount anyone’s experience, whether it’s one year or forty years.
But the times are changing. In a survey quoted in Forbes, 91% of millennials (born 1977-1997) expect to stay on a job for less than three years. The gist of the article is that this is the hand they’ve been dealt. Their parents (that’s us baby boomers) found themselves with little job security as they reached middle age, facing layoffs, plant closings, and downsizings. In turn the millennials have come to expect transience, to flit from job to job in search of fulfillment.
Perhaps the old-timer phrase is on its last legs, to be replaced with “I’ve been doing it this way for six months!” Time will tell.
Whatever the outcome, I plan to keep learning from other’s experience for as long as I can. As Laurence Peter said, “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.” Have an old-timer story you’d like to share? Or are you one, like me? Feel free to use the comment box below.