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In praise of age

The ad industry often seems like a young man’s/woman’s game. But there’s no substitute for experience, as renowned copywriter Paul Burke wrote recently. And, if you’re wondering when you’ll come up with that brilliant product innovation, that revolutionary campaign idea or perhaps that long-awaited solution to the world’s energy needs, turns out you might have to wait a while. 

According to a new paper from NBER, which analysed Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, the high point for wonderous discoveries and world-changing creations came when they were in their late 30s and early 40s.

As the story in The Atlantic said:  

Innovators have been peaking slightly later in life as the 20th century has progressed, in part because today’s scientists have more to learn than their predecessors did. 

What’s more, people who excel in abstract fields, like art or physics, tend to be younger than those who win prizes in fields that require more context, like history or medicine.

So why the late 30s? The most obvious factor is education: Scientists spend ages 5 through 18 in school, and then ages 18 through 30ish getting their academic degrees. Then a few years of learning on the job, and presto! You dig up an uncertainty principle. Meanwhile, scientific breakthroughs tend to be less common in old age because we invest less in learning as we get older, and our skills gradually become less relevant.

There’s evidence from the humanities, though, that genius doesn’t decline with age at all. Over 40 percent of both Robert Frost’s and William Carlos Williams’ best poems were written after the poets turned 50. Paul Cézanne’s highest-priced paintings were made the year he died.

The NBER paper found that scientists who are theoretical (coming up with new ways of thinking) tend to peak earlier than those who are experimental (coming up with answers based on existing knowledge) by about 4.6 years.

This happens for two reasons: First, theoretical scientists don’t necessarily have to wait for a bunch of experiments to get completed and published. Second, and perhaps more importantly, being relatively new to their fields allows them to see the holes and fissures that veterans might not. 

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