The Second Innings According to Movies and Literature

The Intern blog post

About the Author :
Shoba Narayan is the author of five books. As a journalist and columnist, she writes about health, relationships, travel, food and culture for global publications, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship. She has taught and lectured at universities in India (IIM-B and IISc) and abroad. She is the host and anchor of Bird Podcast: about birds and nature. She enjoys wine, studies Jung and is a gadget geek. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.

Shoba Narayan - photo on WisdomCircle

There is a wonderful film that anyone interested in working after retirement ought to watch. It is called “The Intern.” In it, a 70-year-old widower played by Robert de Niro is hired as a “senior intern” in an online fashion business. De Niro becomes the assistant to the firm’s founder, a young woman. The film is about how the young 20-something founder learns a lot about work and life from the 70-year-old, not because he is older and therefore knows better but because of who he is.

Say you are 70 years old, just like the movie hero. You have signed up with WisdomCircle and are placed in a firm where everyone is decades younger than you. You know a lot– you read, keep up with the news, try to exercise your mind and body four times a week. You have a lot to contribute. But suddenly you are thrown into this young environment where things are done differently. The whole culture is different. What are you going to do? Do you stick to your ways of doing things or adapt to the new work environment?

In the movie, the 70-year-old does both. He wears a formal suit to a startup where everyone else is in T-shirts and shorts. At the same time, he adapts because he is forced to use new technology that he learns from his young co-workers.

The urge to blend in is strong in all of us. We want to speak, dress and behave in ways that are appropriate for the firm that we are working in. The advantage when you are a little older is that you know who you are and you can signal that comfort in ways big and small. If you have worn a saree to work all your life and are now in a culture where all your young women colleagues wear western clothes, there is perhaps no need to blend in. This puts you in a position of comfort from which you can negotiate new learnings from younger folks about technology, methodologies and even office jargon.

Power is an important element in work culture. Figuring out how to wield power is a huge learning, particularly if you are a woman. I remember attending editorial meetings as a young journalist when all the male editors (“the shouters and screamers”) tore apart everything we young newbies had written. They talked over our explanations and yelled at our underperformance. After one particularly bruising incident, I remember walking into the cubicle of my editor to resign. I told him that my story was well-reported and well-written and all the insults he heaped on me in front of others was baseless because he didn’t have enough information. He took in my taut teary face and said one line which I will never forget. “Young lady,” he said. “Power is never given. It has to be seized and used.” In other words, I should have interrupted my boss, yelled over him and corrected his misinformation like my older male colleagues were doing.

If you are older in a young workplace and are used to a certain way of running meetings, getting used to a change in the power dynamics requires adjusting and recalibrating the whole idea of what power is. In the film, the “senior intern” as he is called, exercises his power by sheer discipline, his habit of coming early to work, keeping a tidy desk in a messy office, thus setting an example without saying a word. Mentoring when you are older can be done through a meeting where you impart wise words. Or you can lead by example– show your colleagues a different approach to the workplace.

One of the greatest lines in literature comes from Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet.” The line is “to thine own self be true.” It talks about being true to yourself, following your moral compass, staying true to your values.

This is easier as you get older because you have sorted out all the insecurities that plagued you when you were in your twenties and thirties. You have settled down to being comfortable in your own skin.

But the whole scene in Hamlet from which the lines are drawn are worthy of attention. In the play, these are the lines used by a father to advise his son about life. They could just as well be advice about how to behave in an office setting. Here they are with my commentary in parenthesis.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; (Listen more than you talk)

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. (Take criticism without comment)

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, (Don’t buy more than you can afford)

But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; (Wear designer clothes by all means)

For the apparel oft proclaims the man, (What you wear signals who you are)

Neither a borrower nor a lender be; (Don’t get caught in money-lending or borrowing)

For loan oft loses both itself and friend, (especially with colleagues and friends)

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. (Learn to budget)

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

The last few lines are– in my view– your life’s journey. It is very hard to stay true to yourself when you are under pressure from employees, investors, clients, bosses and family. But that is what you need to do.

I am not there yet. I still cave to pressure, criticism and compliments, even though my heart (or soul) tells me the right path.

Like I said, this is my life’s work.

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