Are You Too Old to Be Brilliant?

When are brilliant scientists the most brilliant? What age are you likely to be when the Nobel committee comes calling? Pick one of the following answers:

  • You need a lot of expertise and wisdom to make a big breakthrough. You need professional connections, lots of research money, and big laboratories. Scientific breakthroughs come from people in middle age, or maybe even at the end of their careers.
  • It’s the young upstarts who have lots of energy and fresh ideas. After all, the old scientists are stuck in ideas from the past. They’re already past their prime. They’re tired and don’t have much energy any more. Am I talking about myself at the ripe old age of 56? I didn’t get much sleep last night, and my knees are kind of sore 🙂

A new study gives us the answer: None of the above. There’s no relationship between age and creative scientific contribution. The authors of the study analyzed 2,856 physicists, working from 1893 to the present. They found that the best predictor of exceptional creativity is productivity. It’s lots of hard work. The scientists who do the most experiments, and test the most hypotheses, are the ones with the big contributions. The researchers found that once they’d controlled for productivity, age doesn’t add any additional predictive power.

The researchers identified a second variable that’s related to scientific impact: They called it Q, and it includes intelligence, motivation, openness to ideas, ability to write well. Another surprise: The variable Q doesn’t change over your career. (Otherwise, you’d be back to the theory that age predicts creativity.)

It’s still true that younger scientists are more likely to make a significant contribution. But it’s not because a person has more brilliant insights in your 20s, and it’s not because their ideas are fresh and unbound by old-fashioned tradition. It’s because they work harder and that’s why they’re more productive. So if you’re older, there’s still hope.

Now if only I could get a good night’s sleep.

Extending the creative lifespan

In each creative field, whether art, science, or invention, the creator’s productivity goes through a characteristic trajectory: it builds up, reaches a peak age of creative productivity, and then tends to drop off over the rest of the lifespan.  The curve looks different in different fields; for example, in math and physics, productivity shoots up early in life, for a peak age of creativity around 30.  Physicists joke that “if you haven’t done your Nobel-prize work by the time you’re thirty, it’s not going to happen.”  But in other fields the peak age is substantially older; in the arts and the humanities, it’s usually in the fifties.  And good news for those of us who are past the peak age: the drop-off can be very slight (and tends to be slighter as the peak age gets higher).  Exceptional creators continue to generate surprising, important ideas far into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.

When it comes to business invention, companies want to increase the number of years of maximum creativity.  A recent study by Kellogg professor Benjamin Jones* found that the age of peak invention has increased over the last 100 years, as technology becomes more complex and it takes more years to master the larger body of knowledge.  Prior to 1935, the peak was age 36.5; after 1965, the peak age was 40.  The onset of the peak productive years moved up, as well; and so did the age where innovation dropped off.  Before 1935, the drop off was 51; after 1965, it was at 55.

If a company can increase the number of peak creative years, that translates directly into top-line growth.  There are two ways: reduce the length of time it takes to become maximally creative early in a career, or extend the number of years at the older end of the career.  A Wall Street Journal article** reports that Texas Instruments is trying the first: assigning a mentor to each new college grad for intensive training that can get them up to speed in three years instead of five.  Sun Microsystems does the same.  And the possibility is that the pairing could actually increase the productivity of the older workers, as well.

Most innovative companies haven’t thought very hard about how to extend the creative lifespan at the older end.  Continuing education (credits for school tuition) and professional development is necessary, but not sufficient.  Eventually, every Steve Jobs (Apple) and Sergey Brin (Google), and everyone that started their companies with them, will get older.  If we don’t want to be replaced by younger, more creative upstarts, all of us need to stay creative as long as possible.  Organizations need to come up with ways to help us further that goal.  And because many societies are aging (including the U.S. and just about every OECD country), it’s critical for the wealth of nations that we figure this out.  Any ideas?

*“Age and Great Invention” Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming

**WSJ, Monday August 18, 2008, p. B5