You're waiting to go into theatre for an operation that should save your life. You're in a gown and being wheeled in when the surgeon greets you. The first thing you notice is they're young...really young. We're talking mid twenties at most. A quick chat and you realise they're reasonably new to this, but they have a lot of exciting ideas they'd like to try out. In fact, they've already garnered a reputation for being something of a maverick. Not afraid of making mistakes or breaking a few eggs. In fact everyone says they're definitely one to watch for the future. How do you feel?
Probably the same way you'd feel going into court with a solicitor who's 'fresh to the industry' or refurbishing your house with an architect who's going through his 'experimental phase'. Not particularly comforted. When things matter we want a seasoned professional holding our hand. Someone who knows what they're doing, who's been around the block a few times, who knows where the pitfalls and short cuts are. Well, we do unless we work in the creative industries.
Over the last ten years I've seen the meaning of the word 'professional' subvert in my own business (advertising) and similar creative industries. The sobriquets of 'old pro' and 'been doing it for years' are no longer the badges of honour of diligent, inspiring professionals who've dedicated years to becoming masters of their craft. Instead they're journeymen and women. Sure, they turn up on time. Yes, they get the job done. But somehow, as an experienced pro, they are less interested in doing something amazing. They're happy not to be exceptional.
The cachet of being a professional has undoubtedly dimmed as other yardsticks have grown in importance. Celebrity and star power for example, carry more prestige for modern brands than craft. The fact that Burberry used Brooklyn Beckham to shoot a campaign for their new fragrance line speaks volumes. Guardian art critic Jonathon Jones said: 'These pictures have no bite, and no drama, and nothing to say. Where is the anger of youth...Is it really this boring to be Brooklyn Beckham'.
I doubt Brooklyn is without anger, and like most teenagers he's probably anything but boring. He is however doing something he isn't qualified to do. He hasn't put the hours in at art school working out what he likes; he hasn't spent years assisting professionals learning the trade; he hasn't started small, picking things up on the job; he hasn't developed his style. In short, he doesn't really know what he's doing. And he can't push against anything because he doesn't know what to push against. And at a time when all publicity must be good publicity, no doubt Burberry thought they were doing him a favour. I can't help thinking they've done him anything but.
Perhaps one of the problems is that in an industry driven by youth and vitality, staying current and relevant can be mistaken for an excuse not to grow up. Taking our cues from the youngest and coolest kids in town, the tech entrepreneurs, we're continually told to 'fail fast' or 'break things and move on'. Which is great rhetoric for moving the blood round the body, but it's alien language to experienced professionals. Professionals don't want to fail fast. They don't want to fail at all. They don't want to break things either (that usually costs money). They want to use their skill-sets and their experience and their hard earned patience to continually do better - to constantly improve, test boundaries and make breakthroughs. The language is less sexy, but if I were a client without a bottomless budget, I know who I'd want working on my business.
The current trend is the so-called 20K millennials, who happily walk away from steadily growing salaries to follow their passions and creative bents rather than dedicating years to becoming masters of their craft. And perhaps there is an argument to make - a keen passion is an open, interested, enquiring mind. One that's perhaps more likely to make breakthroughs and discover new ground. Which begs the question, when do you start to lose your creativity? When does the brain stop challenging and searching, and simply revert to what it's done a million times before?
Biologists tell us that we are born with a fixed number of brain cells and they increasingly die off after the age of 50, and even faster beyond 70. This may be true, but, barring mental illness, the effect is miniscule in comparison with the habitual ossification effect - the frequency with which we keep our brain stimulated. People who have stayed creative throughout their lives are way above others who don't, regardless of age. In fact experts believe that with practice, you can get better at creativity. And the best description I've ever read that sums up genius is, 'it happens when a seasoned mind sees a problem through fresh eyes'.
So the next time you're writing off a seasoned professional as a journeyman, with their glory days behind them, and wondering whether they're really setting the right 'tone' for your creative enterprise, spare a thought for Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams who wrote over 40% of their best poems after they turned 50; Paul Cezanne, whose highest-priced paintings were made the year he died; Helen Mirren, who won her first Oscar at 65; Johnny Cash, who released American IV at 70; Stephen King, who consistently debuts at No 1 on the NY Times Best seller lists at 69; and Clint Eastwood, who picked up Oscars for both Best Director and Best Picture at 74.
Not bad for a bunch of old pros.