The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Grow Ahead and Dream

Is it true you're never too old to achieve your dreams?

Oliver Burkeman, Friday 25 November 2011 
This column will change your life: dreams
This column will change your life: 'Nobody likes to feel their best days are behind them.' Illustration: Hannah Rollings for the Guardian. Click on image for a fuller frame.
Excellent news for those of us who don't have vastly many years to go before we're 40: there is still a chance of winning a Nobel prize in science! According to a new analysis of 525 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine, under-40s no longer predominate, and the average age at which scientists make breakthroughs is rising. Between 1901 and 1934, less than a quarter of physics prizes went to over-40s; by 2000, that proportion was four-fifths. Admittedly, I have no post-GCSE training in these fields, but how hard can cutting-edge physics be? I've read my Deepak Chopra: the universe is a cosmic field of pulsating consciousness, so be nice to each other. ("Also, eat plenty of oatmeal, and animals never had a war," as Futurama's Professor Farnsworth puts it, encapsulating the rest of Chopra's outlook.) I can almost taste the food at the Nobel banquet, which I imagine is probably meatballs.

Since nobody likes to feel their best days are behind them, it's hard not to suspect personal motivations are behind much of the effort psychologists and others have invested in teasing out the links between age and creativity. We know it varies by field – mathematicians famously peak early – but the American economist David Galenson has shown it also varies with the nature of innovation. Radical conceptual revolutions are for youngsters, while "experimental innovators" take longer, accumulating knowledge, improving incrementally, learning from mistakes. This helps make sense of the war of anecdotes into which the subject usually descends, especially when it comes to literature: Fitzgerald and Melville were stars in their 20s, while Woolf and Dickens flowered later, but for Galenson that's because they were creative in different ways. This may explain the Nobel findings, too. At certain points in science, such as the birth of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, the advances it's possible to make rely less on cumulative wisdom and more on fresh thinking, so younger people can make them.

The self-help world loves the message that you're never too old to achieve your dreams – It's Only Too Late If You Don't Start Now is the snappy title of one such book – and the web is clogged with lists of late-blooming celebrities, designed to offer solace: did you know Harrison Ford, in his early 30s, still made most of his money from carpentry? But the truth is that, in any individual case, the question of whether you're too old may just be too complex to answer. The research points to the conclusion that an accomplishment isn't just something you do, and thus solely a matter of the shape your brain or body is in. Instead, it's a complex relationship between you, your environment, the thing you're attempting, and the state of the field you're in. Those lists of late bloomers are a case study in "survivorship bias". Ford was a carpenter at 30, but so were numerous people who went on to be lifelong carpenters.

Not that there's anything wrong with being a carpenter. The uncomfortable question is why we're so addicted to the notion that life should be what the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom calls "an eternal spiral upward, into a bigger and better future". You can accomplish great things as a carpenter. But can you be OK with being a carpenter (or novelist or academic or anything) in decline? It's a tough thing to confront. So I'm going to postpone it until after I've won a Nobel prize in physics.