Wunderkinds Aside, Most Founders Innovate at 40
You can’t help but know about them--those wunderkinds who come up with brilliant ideas that create wealth beyond even their wildest dreams: Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook at age 19; Larry Page and Sergey Brin were 23 when they developed Google; Jack Dorsey was 30 when he launched Twitter; Bill Gates was 20 when he founded Microsoft. Maybe our technologically focused world has no room for innovators past the age of 35. Does that mean we’re toast by the time we hit 40? What about those of us who are, ahem, beyond our fourth decade? Do we stand a chance as innovators and entrepreneurs?
This is actually an important question not only for us, as we age and evolve as business people, but for brain science and society too. The population is aging, and in many European countries it isn’t replacing itself--the U.S. the birth rate among college-educated citizens is also in decline. By 2030, the average age will rise from 37 to 39 in the U.S., from 40 to 45 in the European Union, and from 45 to 49 in Japan. If innovation is truly the domain of youth, we could be in trouble. Obviously we need to keep thinking up and starting new businesses for as long as the spirit moves us--for the good of our own economic engines as well as the globe’s.
Relax. If you’re 40+, your best years are not behind you--and if you’re a young person who has just begun to innovate, you’ve got a lot of productive years to look forward to. The latest discoveries about our potential to think innovatively and to use our intuition and analysis skills to solve problems break down many old paradigms about the brain and show us that we’re capable of doing something different and new at nearly any point in life.
Older founders are more successful than younger ones.
Rather than being typical, Zuckerberg, Page/Brin, and Dorsey may be anomalies. Data analysis of new technology ventures shows 40 as the average age of founders, according to Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa, who looked at 549 people who started successful technology companies.
Wadhwa also found that older entrepreneurs have higher success rates when they start companies than their younger counterparts. The experience they bring to the table, along with a network of relationships built up over the years and the deep knowledge and understanding they have of their field and its customers, gives them the best chance of survival. People who have been in business for a while have a long view of what works and what doesn’t; they have sound financial judgment and established relationships that give them business insights.
The Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based group that studies and encourages entrepreneurship, also found that people between the ages of 55 and 64 have the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America. People older than 55 are almost twice as likely to found successful companies as people in their twenties and early thirties. Entrepreneurship has increased in general since 1996 in most other age brackets as well, but, interestingly, it has declined among Americans younger than 35. Men are great at innovating well past their middle years.
Age tends to give women an advantage, too; female entrepreneurs tend to start businesses as a second or third profession, and as a consequence, they tend to be older (between 40 and 60) and better educated than right-out-of-college entrepreneurs.
Older brains are better brains.
Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young, says that neurocircuitry factors actually favor age when it comes to innovation. He also points to empathy, “the foundation of a human-centered design process,” as being critical for innovation because you need to understand the appeal your innovation will have for people. Older people have a greater capacity for empathy because it is a learned skill that is refined and heightened with age.
Small contends that older people can have greater insights than young people because they have more knowledge and memories to draw on as they unpack and synthesize new information. The ability to both anticipate problems and use complex reasoning skills improves as we age.
Creative longevity begets creative longevity.
Lars Nyberg, professor of neuroscience at Umeå University in Sweden, found that it’s what you do in your old age rather than what you did during your youth or in your prime that matters in terms of keeping your brain young--in other words, middle age or later may not necessarily be too late to ramp up your brain cells and innovate. In a paper published in the May 2012 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Nyberg argues that brain maintenance is the primary determinant of successful memory aging, and that includes maintenance at all levels: cellular, neurochemical, gray- and white-matter integrity, and systems-level activation patterns. While various genetic and lifestyle factors have an effect on brain maintenance in older people, consistent "interventions" such as social, intellectual, and physical stimulation, "reliably show greater cognitive performance with a brain that appears younger than its years."
In looking at older people who have sharp and creative minds, Nyberg found that previous education doesn’t save the brain, and that PhDs are as likely as high school dropouts to experience memory loss with old age. Likewise, people who have a complex or demanding career enjoy a limited advantage over those with simpler jobs, but the benefits quickly dwindle after retirement if the individual does not remain intellectually and physically active. "In other words, maintaining a youthful brain, rather than responding to and compensating for changes, may be the key to successful memory aging," he says.
Competitive behavior peaks in your fifties.
More mature people may be better at taking competition-oriented risks to achieve a bigger payoff. This ability continues to increase (for men slightly more than women) in your fifties, when it reaches its peak and then begins to decline slightly.
"Competitions are really important as people go after resources, political positioning, college admission, jobs and the like," said researchers from the University of Oregon who studied people ages 25 to 75. "How well you perform in them determines your success. Maybe it's all about choices people make. The results of our study were striking and novel. We expected to find the competitive risk-taking going down," they said. "Seeing it going up to age 50 was surprising." The conventional wisdom, based on previous research, had always assumed that risk-taking behavior and competitive actions declined after age 25--but the Oregon economists found that simply isn’t true.
If you maintain your brain health through the proven methods of eating well, exercising regularly, and consistently engaging in stimulating intellectual and artistic pursuits, there is no reason why you can’t come up with your best business ideas later on in life. This opens up tremendous possibilities to try out many different jobs or living environments while you’re young, as a way of collecting experiences and building a network--both of which will serve you well throughout life.
Kellogg School of Management economist Benjamin F. Jones has documented that the average age at which the 20th century Nobel Prize winners made their greatest innovations is 39. In fact, the largest number of great technological and scientific advances--a whopping 72 percent--came during an inventor's thirties and forties. Only 7 percent came before the age of 26. So no matter your age the odds are if you’re in entrepreneurship for the long haul you will succeed--and probably more than once.
DEBRA KAYE is a Partner at the innovation consultancy Lucule and a former CEO of TBWAItaly. Her book, Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections that Lead to Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation, was The Washington Post's Leadership Book of the Week. A frequent commentator on American Public Radio's "Marketplace," she also writes for Fast Company and is a sought after speaker at venues such as SXSW.
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