Authority isn’t what it used to be

, ,

It used to be that authority only came after years of experience. Even then, someone older had to annoint you before you could begin spouting your opinions and advice from a place of authority.

For instance, I climbed the corporate ladder very fast when I was in my 20s, and had a hard time maintaining my authority among people older than me. So my boss became convinced that I needed a coach in order to acquire the trappings of established authority.

The coaching was only moderately successful. But I did learn that authority has a lot to do with having self-confidence in your strengths, and little to do with other peoples’ preconceptions about you.

Today the Internet democratizes authority, and people are judged not by their age or experience but by the quality of what they have to say.

This is great for 20-somethings, especially those who give advice about or discuss their own careers online. As Marci Alboher pointed out in the New York Times, “it’s all about figuring out what you can bring to the table that others cannot.” In the case of young bloggers, their tips and opinions are quirky, fresh, and interesting, even if you don’t always agree with them.

Online, much more so than in print, authority is about voice. Can you tell that a real person is behind the ideas? Do you feel like you know him or her? A strong voice is more engaging, and once you’re engaged with someone you’re more willing to listen to her whether or not you agree. In this way, voice begets authority.

With that in mind, here’s a selection of 20-something bloggers I find irresistible, both in the intelligence of their ideas and the temerity it takes to post them. Most of them write about careers either directly or tangentially, and all of them give people a new way to look at issues we face every day.

Legal Andrew is by Andrew Flusche, the consummate 20-something who focuses on following his passions rather than climbing ladders. He’s got a degree from University of Virginia law school, but is also proficient in the PHP and SQL programming languages. Andrew recognizes that today’s law career isn’t a single slide into long hours for lame partnerships. It’s something bigger, and he’s going to find it.

Kate, who’s between jobs, and her blog, From Boston with Love, have become symbols of the new unemployment as a time for growth. Kate blogs with intelligence and wit about diverse topics, all to show that unemployment actually offers some breathing room to collect ideas, form opinions, and share them in a way that only today’s young people would think of doing.

Nathan Snell takes on tough topics surrounding social media, ranging from which online business models work well to which things you can buy on Second Life if you don’t have any money. He has a distinctive voice, and peppers his blog with I’m-still-in-college reminders, like the post celebrating no homework over Thanksgiving break.

Elysa Rice writes about work and life in her blog GenPink, and even invites boys into the pages “as long as they promise to play nice.” Elysa’s most popular post gives advice to her fellow millennials that they shouldn’t plan their lives based on other peoples’ expectations. Wouldn’t you know, 10 people jumped into the conversation.

This shows, perhaps, the main leadership quality of these young people: They’re great at creating a network of people who want to talk about similar issues, and they’re great at asking the questions that matter right now.

And what is authority but the intelligence and knowledge to ask the best questions? Because no one really has all the answers on subjects like work-life balance and careers. So maybe the people who deserve the most authority are simply those who force us to ask sharper questions.

You can keep talking about old measures of authority, or you can take a cue from these Gen Yers and measure authority by how much someone teaches you about seeing the world in a new and useful way.

28 replies
  1. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    Hey Penelope!

    Thanks for linking to the NY Times article.

    You want to hear something weird?

    Last week I received an Amazon shipment with three books: yours, Marci Alboher’s, and Laura Vanderkam’s.

    Now today your blog/column has a link to Alboher’s article which quotes Vanderkam.

    I guess it’s not that weird considering I learned about the other two books from your blog, but it’s gotta be some sort of coincidence!

  2. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    I clicked over to read the Yahoo! Finance article and am flabberghasted to see 332 comments, many of which are weird and bitter. Is that normal? Don’t people have something better to do? That has to be offputting for you.
    I normally find if I don’t like something someone has written, I just go find something else to read. But maybe these are the same people who pass slow drivers on the road and stare and make faces at them, as if that helps.

  3. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    One important point is that authority depends almost entirely on the leader’s relationship with the led.

    Smart leaders understand Hannibal’s Law: Never give a command that won’t be obeyed.

    Just because one environment recognizes your authority doesn’t mean another will.

    Lindsay Lohan has a lot of authority over her personal assistant, but it is foolish of her to believe that her authority extends to LAPD officers.

  4. Norcross
    Norcross says:

    As one who always had “displays leadership qualities” on my report cards, and also as one who never has dealt well with authority (read: misguided punk rock youth, etc), I always am interested by other people’s interpretations of leadership and how they react. For me, the only leaders I find that have any influence all have credibility, experience, and a natural personality and charisma that people are drawn to.

  5. Ross
    Ross says:

    Jenny above writes: “I clicked over to read the Yahoo! Finance article and am flabberghasted [sic] to see 332 comments, many of which are weird and bitter.”

    You’re absolutely right. So, the next step in the logic process is to ask why the weird and bitter comments? While I have found many gems in Penelope’s advice, there are certainly some odd ‘facts’ that people are pointing out on the Yahoo message board that call into question Penelope’s credibility. To illustrate, in her the latest column Penelope writes that “I climbed the corporate ladder very fast when I was in my 20s.” This conflicts with other ‘facts’ that are supposedly known about Penelope.

    Many comments on the Yahoo message board, for instance, have stated that Penelope was playing professional volleyball till the age of 27, and that she was attending graduate school at 28-29. These ‘facts,’ if really true, really create some confusion, and they without a doubt call into question the corporate ladder Penelope was climbing in her 20s. And, thus, they call into question the credibility of Penelope’s advice.

    I know that Penelope has several blog posts concerning resumes, but her resume has not been provided for her readers (at least haven’t been able to find her resume anywhere). Providing a resume would allow readers to assess her credibility. A resume would let readers know if Penelope indeed “climbed the corporate ladder very fast” while she was in her 20s. Right now, there are just too many blank holes and mis-matched facts that are killing Penelope’s credibility on the Yahoo message board.

  6. Jesse Cline
    Jesse Cline says:

    In response to Jenny, many of the negative comments on Yahoo Finance are well thought out and specific examples of criticism. Of course there are several people who write sarcastic/ironic reviews every week, but I think most of the people who take the time to comment are sincere in what they are saying.


    Blogs to not grant anyone authority. They just give an audience and outlet for any one who wants to express their opinion. I am exemplifying this by expressing how I feel about your article now.

    I really wish that you had put more effort and substance into your article, instead of just giving a “shout out” to your blogger friends. You have a prime piece of internet real estate and a large audience, but your advice is mostly useless.

    Thank you,

    Jesse Cline, CPA and member of Gen Y

  7. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    Ross, please accept this in the spirit in which it is intended: Go back to the Yahoo board, you hater. Your insensitive comment to her marriage counseling post, about how you’d “divorce her in a heartbeat”, tells us where you’re coming from. Nothing Penelope says will satisfy you. You want a timeline for her entire life, something you are not entitled to. She is not asking you for a job. She is presenting ideas, and generating discussion. If you find those ideas useful and “credible”, fine. If not, don’t let the door hit you.

  8. Andrew S
    Andrew S says:

    Penelope, you wrote “In the case of young bloggers, their tips and opinions are quirky, fresh, and interesting”. I agree, but that doesn’t make any of those ideas good. Being different, simply for the sake of being different, is just rebelling, something every generation has done. Additionally, knowing for certain if an idea is good or not requires implementation of that idea, and that means experience. Claiming authority over a topic or giving advice on a topic, without having experience to back up that authority or advice, is nothing more than arrogance. This is the main problem I see with your blogs and with many members of “Gen Y”. This feeling of superiority based simply on having ideas that are different, but lacking in any real world application and/or validation. I have ideas that are different, and by tomorrow could have them all posted online for millions to see. That would not suddenly make me an authority figure.

    Now, this does not mean you or someone from “Gen Y” is not an authority on anything. I enjoy reading articles posted by twentysomethings on life these days as a twentysomething, not that it is that different from my life as a thirtysomething, but I think you get the point. They are writing about something they have actually experienced and are experiencing, which makes them knowledgable on the topic and an authority on the topic. The same applies to you. You write about your experiences with marriage and counseling, and this then makes you an authority on the subject, having experienced it firsthand. In fact, imagine how you would feel if someone who was never married and had no kids starting telling you she was an authority on marriage, because she had a marriage blog with all her “quirky, fresh, and interesting” ideas on marriage. I’m sure your first question would be “Are the ideas good?”

  9. Ross
    Ross says:

    Perhaps I need to clarify. I would divorce my wife in a heartbeat if there was such little trust between her and I that she would see it as appropriate to post our relationship issues or summaries of our marriage counseling sessions on the Internet. So yes, if Penelope was my wife and was writing our marriage counseling session tidbits on the net, then I would consider the marriage over. All trust would have been thrown out the window. Usually couples divorce when a marriage is considered over. I’m sorry you see that as a hateful comment. It’s reality and, unfortunately, happen all too often with marriages.

    As for a timeline of Penelope’s life, I disagree with your position. Yahoo Finance clearly touts Penelope as an EXPERT, along with a host of other folks. There is nothing wrong in asking someone who is touted as an expert to justify that expert title. It happens in job interviews all the time. It happens when firms conduct due diligence all the time. Presidential candidates, who are essentially “selling” their various expertise to the voters, are asked about their expertise constantly during campaigns. If someone is sold as an expert, then those consuming the expert’s services (advice in Penelope’s case) have every right to know whether that expert is truly credible.

    Furthermore, as Jesse Cline states above, Penelope has a prime piece of Internet real estate on the Yahoo Finance website. As such, facts and advice that are posted there are going to be examined much more critically there than those same facts and advice posted on a blog. One cannot just “shout out,” as Jesse says, on the Yahoo Finance website. You’ll get eaten by the sharks! Yahoo Finance and blogs are two very different kinds of communication outlets (or sources) with varying levels of audience suspicion and perceived credibility. So when conflicting information arises that tugs at one’s credibility, it would probably be in one’s best interest to address the conflict. Perhaps Penelope did quickly climb the corporate ladder while in her 20s? I’m not quite sure I believe this now given that folks are pulling out what appears to be credible circumstantial evidence to suggest this is unlikely. So is Penelope’s advice that follows the corporate ladder climb comment credible? I don’t know? Do you?

  10. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    No, I don’t know. I also don’t know how relevant it is. 20s, 30s, who cares? What I do know is that questioning anyone’s credibility based on the anonymous nutjob rants at the Yahoo board is beyond absurd. Those guys are the least credible source of information imaginable. One guy makes something up, then ten others pick it up and run with it, as if it was fact.

    Anyway, I apologize for the rancorous tone of my earlier comment. It’s just that I can’t understand how people can have such vitriol for someone they’ve never even met, someone who has done nothing to attack them.

  11. maria
    maria says:


    Ross wasn’t basing his criticisms on the issues raised by ‘Nutjobs.’ He was talking about facts P herself has shared.

    As he and other commenters have said, there’s really nothing to suggest she’s an expert on anything.

  12. Phil
    Phil says:

    I think what Jackie fails to see is that on this blog you may have 10-50 comments from Penelope’s avid readers. They are typically 95% positive and essentially state, “you are the best ever, how could we live without your insight?” On Yahoo Finance, you have a myriad of viewers, most of which are not Penelope regulars. When hundreds of readers give 2 stars or less out of 5 for one entry, that speaks volumes statistically. Sure, some of the comments may be mean spirited, but it is no different than the regulars stating how great her insight is, regardless of whether it is or not. Joe Blow doesn’t just go to Yahoo Finance…he/she goes there because they are interested in business in some capacity and a good number of the readers are execs at various companies. These are real people working in the real corporate world. How many of the readers here are that? I take more stock in comments from Yahoo Finance readers because it is real people who are making the comments and they have no vested interested in Penelope Trunk. They go there expecting to read business advice.

    For this article, I do disagree with the democratization of opinion via the internet. I think there will always be people who can command those who I refer to as, “those who want to believe.” For instance, look at the websites for conspiracy theories of how 9/11 was staged etc. The websites are debunked time and time again, but they still capture an audience. I am sorry, but if a 25 year old kid is online telling me how to run a business or anything remotely like that, I will pay as much attention to that as I would someone telling me that Bush was two blocks from the Trade Center pushing a detonator on 9/11. Experience does gain authority, but more importantly, respect earned from experience as well as social skills gains authority in the workplace. Anyone can be in authority as titles are a dime a dozen. Whether or not that authority garners respect is the key factor in how you are viewed. A 20 something unemployed blogger is not going to gain my respect, nor will I look at her in a view of being an authority on anything remotely useful. In the time being used blogging, she could have taken online classes, been pounding the pavement, sending resumes out, or even working at a minimum wage position while she job hunted.

    Simply put, anyone can be put into a position of authority. How you use that authority will dictate whether you are good or not. Someone blogging who does not have true experience behind what they say does not put them into a position of authority…only amongst sheep are they an authority.

  13. Simon
    Simon says:

    Authority sucks when it stands in the way of achievement and success. Too many older people who are so called “experienced authorities,” take younger people as stupid and un-savvy individuals. But usually the tables are turned, and this scenario can often times be the other way around!

  14. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    This article really does make you think about authority. I mean, doesn’t authority come down to knowledge and how you respect that person. To me they are the same. Take any job; if someone is hired above you that has little knowledge of what you are doing you probably aren’t going to take them seriously. Now, turn that around to someone who has vast knowledge and you will be more prone to respect and listen which in turn gives them authority. I had to really think about this one…but that’s why I read P’s stuff. At times I curl an eye and say “WHAT”…but in reality those are the most interesting. The ones that make me sit back and think from a different angle.

  15. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Nice article on leadership, but I think your advice is too targeted towards people writing their own blog. Of course they don’t have to worry about authority because they don’t have any. Who do they report to?

    Authority isn’t dead. It’s a live and well for all of my working friends. They all report to bosses, and their boss reports to a boss. So, how about some more helpful stratigies?

    For instance, what do you do when your boss thinks your trying to outshine them? Or how do you get quality work out of a boss? How can you climb the ladder faster than the guy sitting next to you?

    I completely agree to the point that people have to bring something to the table. I think that most of Gen Y, which is so “Me” focused, easily forgets that hard work and bringing talent and capability to a job is the most important aspect of success.

  16. GenXandtiredof20itsallaboutmes
    GenXandtiredof20itsallaboutmes says:

    Hey Penelope,

    Can you give the gushy Gen-Y fan-girl thing a rest? Truly, I'm sick and tired of hearing about the 2nd most self-centered and selfish generation in modern American history. What ever individual 20 somethings may have to offer (and please tell us about them) the repeated annointing of glory to those-fabulicious-everyone's-a-winner- gush gush gush Gen Y as a group is sickening.

    You know what? There are people who aren't BABY BOOMERS or GEN Y who are interesting too!

    * * * * * *
    Hi. To clarify, when it comes to giving people credit for being revolutionaries in the workplace and in family life, I have given credit Gen X, not Gen Y. Here are two posts:


  17. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    This discussion of whether or not Penelope has the business experience to be an authority on the workplace is a perfect illustration of the slippery nature of authority.

    The old way of thinking about authority was static and hierarchical. Seniority and rank are crude, linear, black and white tools. While they have the advantage of being simple and clear, even organizations that are thought of as being strictly hierarchical, such as the military, have long abandoned such simplistic thinking.

    The Web has brought a new form of contextual authority. Mike Arrington has tremendous power in the Web 2.0 world. This is not because he has any great experience. While Mike is a smart guy, before he started writing TechCrunch, he was just another ordinary lawyer and entrepreneur. In the grand scheme of things, his background is no more or less impressive than Penelope’s.

    Mike gained authority because his writing ability (and hustle) allowed him to build a massive audience which trusts him to bring things to their attention. Ultimately, I doubt any TechCrunch readers care about whether or not Mike was successful in his prior life; what we care about is whether or not he keeps delivering scoops and insightful analysis.

    The same holds true for Penelope. Does it matter whether she is a 17-year-old kid from Bangladesh or Jack Welch dressing in drag and writing under a pseudonym? The point is that while I may not always agree with everything she writes, I know that she spends more time on these issues than I, and can help point me to interesting ideas.

  18. Stevie
    Stevie says:

    Yes, I agree with GenXandtiredof20itsallaboutmes

    Get over the Gen Y thing. Just becuase you are working with some fabulous people, doesn't mean you have to beat the damn horse. It is dead.

    I do like the generational information,just wish it was more about Generation Slacker, aka Gen-X.

    Maybe the trouble you have is finding a business blog by a Generation Slacker?

    I look forward to more Gen X stuff –

    * * * * * * *

    Thanks for the comment, Stevie. I think you’re right that I should write more about Gen X. So here’s my first thing: I would never use the word Slacker to describe Gen X. We revolutionized business with the Internet and we revolutionized parenting by actually doing it instead of just talking about it during long work hours. The Slacker term comes from Baby Boomer media trying to marginalize everyone who doesn’t think like Baby Boomers.


  19. Frank
    Frank says:

    Dear Penelope,

    I enjoy reading your observations, which, unfortunately, have lately become less frequent. I imagine you are working hard to start your company. Clearly, there are other major issues that are occupying your time, too.

    With respect, I suggest that you do what you can to stem a huge volume of negative publicity from your Yahoo column. You are writing in the same space as the business you want to launch. In particular, it can’t be helpful to have questions raised about your credentials and career timeline. You should set the record straight. Also, I believe that your last column was uncharacteristically weak. Yahoo is the big time, and readers there aren’t going to be as sympathetic as your blog audience. It takes time to write good columns; you know how to do it.


  20. Jesse Cline
    Jesse Cline says:

    In response to Chris Leh:

    Your comment is well written, and it sounds like you put a lot of thought into it. However, I disagree with you on several points.

    I’m not sure where you are getting this “old way of thinking about authority”, in my tenure in corporate America, I have never seen anything related to authority that is “static and hierarchical.” It is very common that people are promoted ahead of their peers, and likewise some are not promoted at all and are stuck in the same position for a very long time. As an auditor I witnessed this not only at my own firm, but within the structure of all of my clients as well. There is nothing automatic about corporate America, people have to put in the energy, and not just the time.

    However, one must also respect that with seniority comes experience, and background/experience is one of the many factors in commanding authority. I have seen a few first year people come into my firm with the attitude that they know everything and are here to save us from our own mediocrity. However, reality hits them firmly in the face once they realize they don’t know as much as they though and have to ask a more experienced person for advice.

    My beef with Penelope has never been her work experience, it has been the content of the advice she gives. I read this article 3 times now, and I still see no point to it besides directing web traffic to her friends’ blogs. Instead of writing about what makes authority, or how to earn/handle it properly, she basically just concludes that we should be like these bloggers since they present authority to other bloggers…I don’t see how that could translate into a career in banking or accounting.

  21. Stevie
    Stevie says:

    RECLAIM SLACKER the way gays and lesbians took Dyke and Queer back.

    The Boomer Box couldn't contain our Slack,as in not (up)tight thus slack.

    Give your life to ONE meaningless corprate machine with no hope for reasonable promotion?
    No – €“color me SLACKER
    – €“Not willing to give away life energy for naught.

    Give your kids a key and tell them you'll be home before dinner.
    No – €“color me SLACKER.
    – €“Not willing to put safety aside for work,or money.

    Consume, and Consume and Consume AND Consume.
    No – €“color me SLACKER
    – €“We know the true pleasures in life cannot be bought. This doesn't mean we don't spend or buy.

    Buy a great cup of coffee.
    Yes – €“color me slacker.
    Did the boomers buy good coffee? NO, not until the SLACKERS set the bar(ista).

    Make a mix tape.
    Yes – €“color me SLACKER.

    Live cheaply instead of work more.
    Yes – €“color me SLACKER.


    We are now in the process of revolutionizing healthcare, housing, spirituality, death and dying.

    Our voices of authority may be quiet, but they pervade popular culture, literature and well, just about everywhere.

    We're memetic.

    SLACKER. Use it with pride.

    SLACKER does NOT equal LAZY.

    SLACKER means to DEFINE OUR OWN DUTY, without comment from the overly authoritarian boomers.

    Boomers know how do everything, drugs, booze, sex, fashion, write, teach, business, law – etc. and they will definitly tell us about it. Look at your blog. Hell, half the boomers who comment miss every point you make. It's all about them and now their children.

    Penelope, you are a slacker. Come on, your office was a coffee shop. That is so Slack.

    * * * * * *

    This is such a fun and creative comment. Thank you.


  22. Bill
    Bill says:

    The concern over Penelope’s credibility on Yahoo does not come off as sincere. It smells more like an attempt at a “gotcha” to embarrass her, or even an insinuation that her entire corporate background is fiction. The premise that she needs to post her resume because she appears on Yahoo as an “expert” is weak, in my opinion. Yahoo calls their columnists “experts”. I have never seen Penelope refer to herself with that term. So if you have a beef on that basis, complain to Yahoo.

    Phil’s link above says Penelope was born December 10, 1966 (Happy Birthday in advance, BTW.) So even if she was in grad school for part of 1995, she could have been in a corporate job for a full year and a half while still in her twenties.

    Personally, I wouldn’t answer the question. If her answer was deemed inadequate, it would be followed by more detailed questions, requests for references, whatever. Penelope is not running for office, and none of you are personally paying her. She is merely offering her own personal opinions and perspective. You are free to disregard all of it as bunk if you wish. Why is that arrangement unacceptable?

  23. Dale
    Dale says:

    If it’s an idea you wouldn’t have conceived yourself, it’s an interesting gift.

    If it makes you think, good.

    If it makes you uncomfortable because it contradicts your thinking, great.

    If it stretches your imagination, fantastic.

    If it makes you see a different paradigm, you’ve been blessed.

    If it tells you what you want/like/expect to hear, ….. QUESTION IT!

    Don’t kill the messenger, debate the author!

    Advice from the boomer fringe:)

Comments are closed.