Your Work Peak Is Later Than You Think, According To Research

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What we’ve been told about aging is wrong… or at least only half the story.

Growing up, I rarely saw role models over 60 in the media, and I heard almost entirely negative things about people over 6o…

  • “They’re taking jobs from recent grads by not retiring and making space.”
  • “Because a higher percentage of people are older, they are eating up all of the social security benefits and there won’t be anything left by the time my generation retires.”
  • “Aging is a gradual decline of mental and physical faculties.”
  • “Life satisfaction decreases as we get older.”
  • “Retirement is about winding down.”

This story needs to change because it’s not true.

To evolve our thinking, we need to look past the averages.

As individuals age, interindividual heterogeneity increases more than most people appreciate. This is an academic way of saying that as we get older, we become more and more different from people our same age. We age at different rates physically and mentally. In addition, our different values and attitudes put us on very different paths.

For example, while one group of retirees may view retirement as a short time of winding down before death, the other group follows healthy habits that could keep them active for decades. While one group views retirement as an opportunity to do things they always liked but didn’t have time for (rest, time with family, long vacation, and reading), the other group also views it as an opportunity for reinvention and developing new likes. While one group stops working and essentially goes on a long vacation (averaging 7 hours of TV viewing per day), the other does the best work of their career.

What this means is that there is a hidden group of hundreds of millions of people globally in their 60s, 70s, and beyond making their best contributions in the arts, sciences, entertainment, and leadership as they age. Rather than following the “expected” story of gradual loss, they are evolving and growing. They are the Earth teaming with evolving life amidst a universe moving toward heat death.

Many of History's Greatest Artists, Scientists, And Artists Had Their Greatest Works When They Were Older

"Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young." —Henry Ford

These artists are an inspiration for us all…

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Furthermore, many of today's leading CEOs are in their 70s and 80s.

CEOs like Michael Bloomberg, Fred Smith, Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch, Martin Sorrell, and Sheldon Adelson. Similarly, many of the top women CEOs in the world are in their 60s. Women like Meg Whitman, Indra Nooyi, Margaret Keane, Phebe Novakovic, and Carol Tomé. And, of course, the top US presidential candidates in the last two elections have been about 70 or above.

Other great late achievers didn't even start the career they became known for until mid-life...

  • Vera Wang didn't begin her career as a designer until she was 40.
  • Sam Walton didn't found his first Wal*Mart until he was 44.
  • Julia Child wrote her first cookbook when she was 50.
  • Rodney Dangerfield didn't have his big break until he was 46.
  • Tim and Nina Zagat were both 51-year-old lawyers when they published their first collection of restaurant reviews.
  • Samuel L. Jackson didn't have his first big role until he was 43.
  • Henry Ford created his first Model T car until he was 45.
  • Stan Lee (creator of the Marvel universe) didn't create his first comic until he was 38.
  • Ray Kroc bought McDonald's at 52.
  • Colonel Sanders was 62 when he franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).
  • Full list...

Finally, one exhaustive study found that a 50-year old founder is approximately twice as likely to get acquired or go public compared to a 30-year old founder. The same study found that the mean founder age for one of the 1,000 fastest growing new ventures is 45 and that 20 year olds have the lowest likelihood of success.

This same trend of late achievement is even showing itself in the sports world. In tennis, Serena Williams and Roger Federer are both near the top of their games and approaching 40 years old. One of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, Tom Brady is 43 and plans to play until he’s 45. Lebron James (35) just won his fourth championship ring and doesn’t have any plans to slow down any time soon.

This entire group of late achievers is important to study, because they didn’t suddenly become creative and successful when they reached mid-life. Rather...

The success of these late achievers is the result of compounding habits they held throughout their career. This means that the lessons from their careers apply to all adults, not just those on the verge of retirement.

So what do these late bloomers have in common that others their same age don’t? How do these leaders become smarter even when their body declines?

Research has the answer.

Beyond, staying physically healthy or winning the genetic lottery, these long-term achievers do a few things differently…

#1. They experiment and explore at a whole other level

Economist David Galenson has spent his entire academic career studying two types of creativity: conceptual innovation and experimental innovation.

The first type is conceptual innovation. These innovations typically come from brashly self-confident young geniuses, and it’s the kind that is the most celebrated in the media. Conceptual innovations tend to seemingly come out of nowhere and are radical.

The other type is experimental innovation. It is gradual and based on the compounding gains of experimentation and learning. This form of creativity is often underappreciated and underreported. Experimental innovators typically have their biggest breakthroughs later in their career.

Galenson describes the experimental approach in his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity...

Artists who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goals.

Takeaway: As we age, it can be easy, to simply focus on capitalizing on or optimizing what we already know. Experimental innovators show us that the gains of continued experimentation and learning can be compounding.

#2. They stay as productive as when they were young

As we enter mid-life there are big, new, simultaneous demands on our time

  • More work responsibility
  • More exercise time needed to keep energy
  • Taking care of aging parents
  • Raising kids

Given these demands, it’s easy to drastically reduce our productivity. But, reducing our creative output has a drastic impact on our results.

One of the most fascinating group of studies I have ever seen, shows that the reason young people in their 20s and 30s often have creative breakthroughs compared to their older counterparts is simply because of their creative output, not because of their age.

According to the Equal Odds Rule, which has been primarily tested with scientific papers, when you look at people’s hit-rate, it actually stays the same throughout their career. In other words, at any given moment in their career, their odds of having a hit are roughly the same. This rule is extremely surprising, because one would anticipate that as people get more experience, their hit-rate increases. Therefore, it seems to partially contradict Galenson’s finding, which is based on studying the arts more than the sciences.

One takeaway from these findings is that luck plays a much larger role in creative careers than most people account for, and the way to get lucky is to publish more.

Researcher Albert-Laszlo Barabasi explains it like this in his book, The Formula (which I highly recommend)...

We find that the highest-impact work in a scientist’s career is randomly distributed within her body of work. That is, the highest-impact work can be, with the same probability, anywhere in the sequence of papers published by a scientist…

This random-impact rule holds for scientists in different disciplines, with different career lengths, working in different decades, and publishing solo or with teams and whether credit is assigned uniformly or unevenly among collaborators.

The good news is that if you stay productive as you age, you’ll have more insights later in life. The following video summarizes the research perfectly:

Take-Away: If you want to stay equally productive as you age and you have more demands on your time, you will need to get better at time management.

#3. They build a durable, cross-disciplinary database of knowledge that pays them back forever

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” - Benjamin Franklin

The idea of creativity I heard growing up is that the most creative people are younger. The reason they are more creative is that they have less knowledge. Therefore, they haven’t been brain-washed into the dogma of conventional thinking and can think outside of the box.

David Galenson’s work (mentioned above) shows that this is actually true for conceptual innovation. His work also shows that it’s not true for experimental innovation. For experimental innovators, knowledge compounds. Galenson states…

Both the accumulation of great knowledge and the construction of new technical means are “only to be acquired through very long experience,” and this implies that their greatest results will almost always appear late in a career. In the presence of appropriate technical expertise, greater knowledge affords the experimental innovator a larger and more trustworthy foundation for generalizations, to support ever broader and more far-reaching conclusions.

Researcher Robert Weisberg, author of one of my favorite books, Creativity, agrees with Galenson’s premise that creativity can be compounding. By pain-stakingly studying the journals and histories of some of history’s greatest innovators, he finds that what seems like hugely creative ideas to the public are rather many incremental improvements from the innovators perspective.

Based on his research he comes to this conclusion…

“The broader the knowledge base possessed by a person, the more elements will be available to enter into combinations, which will increase the probability that a useful configuration will happen.” —Robert Weisberg

Perhaps the person in the world who has most applied the power of compound interest is Warren Buffett. He has not only compounded his capital, he has also compounded his knowledge. Buffett spent an amazing 80% of his entire career just on reading and thinking. This quote from him best summarizes his perspective on knowledge compounding...

"Read 500 pages every day. That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it." —Warren Buffett

It’s also interesting that his only authorized biographer walked away with knowledge compounding as the #1 lesson she got from his life. In The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, she explains…

If you are investing in your education and you are learning, you should do that as early as you possibly can, because then it will have time to compound over the longest period. And that the things you do learn and invest in should be knowledge that is cumulative, so that the knowledge builds on itself. So instead of learning something that might become obsolete tomorrow, like some particular type of software [that no one even uses two years later], choose things that will make you smarter in 10 or 20 years. That lesson is something I use all the time now.”

Takeaway: If you invest in durable, cross-disciplinary knowledge throughout your career, you can set yourself up to do your best work as you get older. It is this realization that led me to co-found the Mental Model Club.

#4. They keep developing rare and valuable skills

In a Harvard Business Review article, the famous researcher behind the 10,000 hour rule, Anders Ericsson, points to surprising research showing that we can operate at a surprisingly high level into old age if we maintain our skills…

Research has shown that musicians over 60 years old who continue deliberate practice for about ten hours a week can match the speed and technical skills of 20-year-old expert musicians when tested on their ability to play a piece of unfamiliar music.

In addition, Ericsson’s research shows that we are able to retain our high-level skills with ongoing practice…

Experts deliberately maintain a level of performance in music by engaging in solitary practice activities designed to improve and preserve specific aspects of their domain specific performance.

Takeaway: The story of decline we’re told isn’t true. This story often assumes there isn’t ongoing investment in growth and maintenance. If we stay actively mentally, we can retain a surprising amount of our cognitive faculties and skills.

Researching this article gave me a fundamentally different perspective on successful aging

First, I became more hopeful. It's possible for our best years in terms of creative output and life satisfaction to be ahead of us rather than behind us. And not only is it possible, it's realistic if we have the right habits. Just as investing in healthy habits at a young age sets us up for a longer health span, there are smart habits (learningexperimentation, high creative output) which can set us up for a longer creative career.

Second, I became concerned on a societal level. According to research, what we believe about aging impacts how we age to a surprising degree. Therefore, how we collectively think about aging is arguably one of the most important long-term issues. In a world filled with uncertainty, demographics are surprisingly predictable. According to United Nations research, one in six people (16%) in the world will be over 65 years by 2050. And in some countries, the numbers are more extreme. In Japan, for example, more adult diapers are sold than baby diapers.

If we don’t start preparing for successful aging now, then we are all in trouble or what Elon calls the population bomb. Healthcare and social security costs will skyrocket as a percentage of total government spending and become untenable. But, if we do prepare, we will prosper economically, we will see leadership that is more wise, and we will have creative breakthroughs that are impossible to fathom now.

Finally, in the 16th century, at the age of 87, Michaelangelo famously said...

I'm still learning. —Michaelangelo (age 87)

Maybe we should all follow these wise words.

If you want to read my best writing, I recommend reading my articles on Medium. I spend dozens of hours researching and writing each of those articles using the blockbuster approach.