“Too Soon Old – Too Late Smart” is an old saying, passed down to me by the Germanic side of my family. For a long, long time I took this saying at face value: When we finally figure out what life’s all about, it’s too late to do anything about it.
For most of my life, the deeper meaning of the phrase eluded me, but no longer. Here’s what I believe some Teutonic ancestor – man or woman – was talking about many centuries ago:
We acquire all sorts of habits – learned behaviors that become automatic, like flipping a light switch or pressing a hand to our mouth while we’re thinking – as we age. Any habit is hard to break. Bad habits are the easiest habits to acquire and the hardest to break, because we address our primal urges immediately – we seek instant gratification – while not thinking about the negative consequences. There’s no long-term consideration in acquiring a bad habit and no careful risk analysis whatsoever. It just happens.
Beneficial habits, on the other hand, require consideration of consequences good and bad beyond the moment. They require careful thought, concerted effort, regular and repeated activity to ingrain them, and ongoing evaluation and adjustment to further enhance their utility.
Most of all, good habits require discipline, the ability to avoid immediate gratification and work steadily (incrementally, even) toward a long-term goal. And that goal is not always one of self-gratification; often, an important goal is benefitting others, as well. I find a glass of Stone Ruination 2.0 IPA while watching a baseball or hockey game is satisfying and gratifying right now (and, therefore, a bad habit I feel guilty almost as soon as I succumb to the urge). Getting on the elliptical trainer for 60 minutes or more while listening to the game – that’s a good habit I need to work on.
Many good habits, personal and otherwise, seem to follow the Deming Cycle – plan, do, study (or check), and act. They take planning, effort, and follow-through; leave any of that out and you don’t get the long-term results you need.
That’s why we have such a hard time acquiring good habits, whether we’re young or old. “Too soon old” means our thinking tends to ossify early on. Because good habits aren’t easy, our behaviors go straight from infancy to senescence with no in-between. No adolescence, no early or middle adulthood. Directly from cradle to grave.
“Too late smart” means that by the time we recognize things could be better, we lack the desire to change. We’re already too “set in our ways.” Regardless of our physical age, our mental age is “too old to do anything about it.” Change is difficult in any case, but when we double down with a prematurely aged attitude (e.g., “I’ll never…”, “I can’t…”, “What’s the use?”), we usually seal our fates.
Organizations go through much the same process. The habits that lead to long-term successes – like implementing a robust system of checks and balances, like a quality management system – are difficult to acquire very early in the business life cycle. Either “I’m just trying to get this business off the ground” or “I’m too busy putting out fires – I don’t have time for long-term plans at this minute!”
By the time we realize we need to start thinking about the business “long term”, we’ve picked up so many bad habits and our organizational culture is set in its ways that change is excruciatingly difficult. The only things that motivate us to change our organizations are pain and death. The pain of fines, penalties, or loss of business because our organizations do not comply with customer or regulatory requirements – death of our businesses because we continually failed to comply, never making a concerted effort to improve.
So, what’s your organization’s story? Are you too soon old and too late smart, or are you open to change and continual improvement?
If you need an outsider’s point of view…if you need help breaking old, bad habits and acquiring new and better ones…let me know. I’m more than happy to help.
 Assuming we’ve always had electricity
 This happens in my basement, not the most uplifting environment
 Or might’ve been