Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


Baby faces

Q: If you've ever hit a baseball or watched a game, you've probably heard of Stephen Strasburg, 21, a phenom pitching prospect who'll soon be called up by the Washington Nationals. Can success come too fast? Would you rather burst onto "center stage," with all the expectations that entails, or quietly hone your skills before your breakout moment?

Star athletes often reach their peak performance years at very young ages. Stephen Strasburg will join an illustrious roster of athletes who grabbed headlines just barely past childhood.

LeBron James was just 18 years old, a high school senior, when he became the #1 draft pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. Tracy Austin was16 years old when she won the U.S. Open in 1979, the youngest female tennis player ever to be a champion.

Freddy Adu was15, the youngest professional athlete in any sport, when he took the field to play soccer for D.C. United in 2004. Michelle Kwan was the world figure skating champion at age 16. Tiger Woods blew away the older competition when he won his first Master's at age 22.

Athletes and entertainers have much in common, including the appeal of baby faces. Justin Bieber is a phenom at 16. Miley Cyrus launched into Hannah Montana fame at 14. The most famous child star of all, Michael Jackson, burst onto the scene when he was just five years old.

The stories of these and other young stars reveal the raw power of young talent and equally powerful dangers of so much fame and pressure on immature bodies and psyches. Tracy Austin started burning out before she was 20, with injuries ending her career early. Freddy Adu is still evolving as a mature athlete. Tiger Woods seems close to flaming out at mid-life, having enjoyed the fruits of phenomenal success too early. Miley Cyrus, at times, seems to be in danger of morphing into Britney Spears, too weird, too young. Michael Jackson never really grew up, evolving into an increasingly tragic figure with advancing years.

Age is no barrier to great achievement at either end of the lifespan. Jordan Romero, 13, just conquered Mount Everest's summit, defying critics who said he was too young to do that. Last month, 47-year-old Jamie Moyer of the Philadelphia Phillies threw a shutout, the oldest pitcher to do so in major league history.

As someone who became a college president at age 36, I have a clear bias in favor of youth -- even two decades later! Youth's downsides -- immaturity, rashness, inexperience -- have the upside of boldness, creativity and intense desire to figure out how to be successful.

When I became Trinity's president, a friend asked me why the board of trustees chose me since I had no real executive experience. "I didn't know what to be afraid of," I replied, and that was a great strength.

The fearlessness of youth leads to greater capacity for risk-taking, which can generate more rapid success or more spectacular failure. Today, it might take me a week or two to make a decision that took only a day 20 years ago. Today I consult more, seek more data, weigh more options, and call the lawyers for a risk-management check.

Twenty years ago I was more likely to decide first, and then call the lawyers only if I got in a jam. I may be a wiser, more prudent manager today, but somewhat less creative than in those early days when acting boldly was more important than measuring every conceivable risk.

Organizations make different choices about youthful zeal or wise experience depending upon institutional needs at any given moment in time. So, for example, the Redskins have chosen a relative old man in football years -- Donovan McNabb -- to be the quarterback after years of trying to make the youth crusade under Jason Campbell work.

The Redskins apparently now believe that the veteran can do a much better job providing leadership for a team that is in tatters. While McNabb may be past his playing prime, he may well be in prime time for the kind of leadership that the team needs as it rebuilds.

For Stephen Strasburg to be successful with the Nats, he should study the playbooks of other young athletes who stayed grounded while building successful careers. Derek Jeter of the Yankees is one of the best examples of a player who has managed great fame while remaining a great member of the team.

Learning how to avoid getting blinded by the bright lights might be the most important lesson for a young star who wants to remain successful through a long career.

By Patricia McGuire  |  May 26, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Rush to success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Outsiders are 'in' | Next: The tortoise or the hare?

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company