"People under 35 are the people who make change happen. People over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas," Sun Microsystems co-founder-turned-successful VC Vinod Khosla told a conference a few years back, igniting a minor kerfuffle about Silicon Valley agism.
But while many decried his bias against older founders, more than a few observers (many of them worried 35+ "oldsters" like me) probably secretly wondered if he was right. Creative breakthroughs are pretty much a young person's game in much of the popular imagination, after all.
But if you were wringing your hands that you are possibly over the hill before you hit 40, a massive new study has good news for you. Age, apparently, really is just a number.
"Brother, never give up."
That's what the New York Times recently declared in its writeup of the research, which examined the careers of 2,856 physicists who published impactful papers. The huge data set goes all the way back to 1893 and the scientists were able to mine it for some encouraging conclusions that bolster previous research questioning popular notions about age-related declines in creativity.
"Sure enough, the physicists were more likely to produce hits earlier rather than later. But this had nothing to do with their age," the paper's Benedict Carey reports. "It was entirely because of productivity: young scientists tried more experiments, increasing the likelihood they would stumble on something good."
"It's not the age or order of the papers that matters," Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, the study's lead author and a physicist at Northeastern University, said summing up the team's findings.
Of course, as you may have observed in your own life, keeping your productivity steady as you age and your life responsibilities multiply is often easier said than done. But the heartening central message of the study seems to be that if you keep working just as hard, there's nothing about the passing of a few years that should keep you from accomplishing great things.
Or, as Barabasi boils it down for the Times: "The bottom line is: Brother, never give up. When you give up, that's when your creativity ends."
So what does matter if age isn't a factor in whether your career takes off? The study isolated several other factors (including a mysterious-sounding quality dubbed "Q" by the research team) that do seem important, which are discussed at length in the Times article. Check it out in full here.