Why closing your eyes when hiring is a good idea

Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries, John George Nicolay and John Hay, referred to the president as “the ancient.” Lincoln was 52 when he became president in 1861.

The combined years on earth for Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg is 375, an average of 75. Or 76 on the next inauguration day.

This all came to mind while following the course of former President Jimmy Carter’s recent fall. When that was reported, I thought, well that’s the end. At 95, few can withstand a clunk to the head from a fall. But Carter, by all appearances still mentally fit, seems to have come through surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. Recently Carter commented that he could not have handled the office of the presidency at advanced age. But he teaches Sunday school still. I can imagine debating Carter on a few selected passages of Genesis.

But everyone is different. After the Nationals won the World Series, principal owner Ted Lerner appeared on the field to accept the trophy. His face evidenced his 94 years. But, standing erect, he spoke forcefully, if briefly. He may not shag fly balls, but he’s in on the details of the complexities of running baseball teams and shopping centers. He could almost heft the World Series trophy, with a little help from Ryan Zimmerman.

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Age, though, has little to do with ability or accomplishment. Just as Carter and Lerner are amazing in their mid-90s, some people are impressive in their mid-30s. Ashley Finan is a case in point. I interviewed her as the newly appointed director of the Energy Department’s National Reactor Innovation Center, located at the Idaho National Laboratory. She had been executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a think tank. The Innovation Center aims to help commercialize new technologies in nuclear power generation.

Finan holds a PhD in nuclear science and engineering from MIT. She testified before the Senate  Energy and Natural Resources Committee back in April, describing some of the nuclear innovations with commercial promise. You might even have a tiny nuclear generator in your neighborhood one of these days. No coal burning, no gas burning, no hideous solar panels.

Finan is 35.

When Finan was born, Norman Augustine was an executive at the former Martin Marietta Corporation, soon to become CEO. He’d already held executive positions at several other aerospace companies. He’d also been under secretary and acting assistant of the Army.

He retired as chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin 22 years ago. In the subsequent years, he’s served on nearly countless commissions, councils, faculties, boards, associations, academies, panels, institutes and advisories. As late as the Obama administration, he chaired a committee reviewing human space flight futures.

At 84, Augustine is still at it.

When I spoke with him earlier this week, he discussed work done by a National Academies of Science panel he chaired, looking at ways to modernize (and pay for) the U.S. interstate highway system. Augustine was a college undergrad when President Eisenhower first endorsed the idea of the interstate highway system. In a few days I’ll air another portion of our interview, in which I asked Augustine about his views on Army modernization, space, political dysfunction and the future of the republic itself, and whether he ever kicks back to go fishing.

This Eagle Scout might have gray feathers, but he’s sharp, his answers clear and incisive.

So it’s a mistake to dismiss the old timers, just as it is to dismiss people because of youth or perceived inexperience. Some people never grow up. Others attain wisdom before the gray starts to come in. I’ve never understood age discrimination no matter what direction its aimed.

Some contemporary thinkers in human resources recommend hiring on the basis of resumes, accomplishments and interviews — and doing the interviews on the phone. If you don’t see the person, the reasoning goes, then whatever prejudices you have, other than for talent, won’t impinge on your best decision. That goes for D.O.B.

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