By Oliver Burkeman New York
At what age are you too old to achieve breakthrough success in your field? That question fascinates so many people, I suspect, because almost nobody considers themselves already entirely successful.
The unpublished novelist longs to be published, the published one yearns for bestsellerdom, the bestselling superstar craves the Booker prize. (Also, everyone always thinks they’re just a few years from being “over the hill”. The web is cluttered with listicles offering the supposedly reassuring information that, say, JK Rowling wasn’t a publishing sensation until, well, her early 30s.)
But a huge new study, examining the careers of nearly 3,000 physicists from 1893 on, reaches an unexpected result. It’s not that youth wins out, nor that years of experience lead to late triumphs.
Rather, age just isn’t much of a factor.
A physicist’s highest-impact work “could be the first publication, mid-career, or last publication”. What counted more was productivity.
If you want to publish a celebrated physics paper, the crucial thing isn’t to be young and energetic, nor old and wise.
It’s to publish a lot of papers.
To be fair, other studies show age does matter sometimes: maths favours the young; and physical pursuits, such as ballet or athletics, aren’t exactly welcoming to the achy-kneed.
Personality also influences the age at which success strikes.
The economist David Galenson splits creative geniuses into “conceptual” prodigies such as Picasso – who burst on to the scene with a radical new viewpoint – and “experimental” ones such as Cezanne, whose brilliance emerges through trial and error. (In his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell applies the Cezanne model to Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, which sounds as if it popped into existence as a perfect gem, yet went through years of being turgid.) But even Galenson’s work implies age matters little.
He once polled literary scholars to make a list of America’s 11 most important poems, then looked up the ages at which they’d been composed: a wide span, from 23 to 59.
We’re back in the world of the “focusing illusion”, whereby we exaggerate the importance of one variable (in this case, age) merely by thinking about it lots.
Something similar happens in romance: we fret about whether partners should have similar personalities, or whether opposites attract – when in fact, psychologists argue, neither plays a big role in predicting relationship success.
Then there’s childrearing. As a new parent (of which more, doubtless, in future columns), I’ve been buffeted by endless contradictory advice on what works, so I was pleased to stumble across Do Parents Matter?, a new book by Robert and Sarah LeVine.
On all sorts of fractious debates (sleep training, attachment parenting) they show how neither side holds the key: cultures around the world take every kind of approach, and most kids turn out OK.
In short: you’re probably not too old to find success.
You don’t need to worry about “romantic compatibility”. And your parenting style probably won’t end in disaster – though that last one might be wishful thinking on my part.
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