Breakthrough Success Depends on Your Productivity, Not Your Age

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If you’re about to hit 30 or 40 or 50 or whatever, and you haven’t had your Breakthrough Success yet, don’t give up. Because according to a fancy new analysis of some 2,800 physicists — which is a hard field — your age isn’t nearly as important as your hustle.

Published this month in Science, a research team led by Roberta Sinatra of Central European University in Budapest dug back to right around the birth of the field, 1893. The researchers collected 2,856 physicists who had 20-year careers and had published “impact papers” — the kind of research that gets cited by fellow academics and covered by the press.

The researchers wanted to see where in a career those breakthroughs were situated, and as Benedict Carey reported in the New York Times, they found that age itself wasn’t the primary driver of success. Rather, productivity ruled: The more experiments a given researcher did, the more likely they’d score a hit paper.

“[T]he highest-impact work can be, with the same probability, anywhere in the sequence of papers published by a scientist — it could be the first publication, could appear mid-career, or could be a scientist’s last publication,” Sinatra and her co-authors wrote. “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.”

It should be noted that accomplishments did tilt toward youth, but that was because physicists, like the rest of us, have more time to work in their 20s and 30s than later, when the many responsibilities of life start to pile up.

The authors developed another factor, which they call “Q,” to explain a physicist’s likelihood to maximize the impact of their research, which takes into account soft skills like being able to work well with others, write clearly, find the most compelling results in a given experiment, and other aspects of getting things done.

The paper adds to the body of work building up around age and creativity. Harvard education theorist Howard Gardner told the Washington Post that early creative breakthroughs are likely to happen in fields where the work itself is suited to a shorter form, like math or poetry. But in law, psychoanalysis, history, or philosophy, you’ve got to spend more time marinating. “You need a much longer lead time, and so your best work is likely to occur in the latter years,” he said.

To that end, a 2011 study found that contemporary physicists make their biggest discoveries around 48, and a 2013 paper found that modern-art painters make their highest-priced work nearly two-thirds of the way through their lifespans. In Old Masters and Young Geniuses, University of Chicago economist David Galenson reasons that there are two types of artists: the experimental, who paint the same thing often, and rely on their sense perception to discover new ways of working — Paul Cézanne and his many apples and Claude Monet and his haystacks come to mind, both of whom were doing some of their most ass-kicking art well past their 60s. Then there are conceptual artists, who try to invent a new form and do lots of preparatory, deliberate sketches: They’re more given to earlier breakthroughs, like Pablo Picasso in painting or Orson Welles in film.

Sinatra’s work on physics presents a heartwarming finding: In the truest sense, your age isn’t that important — but your ability to create the time for your work, collaborate well, and make sure your results get in front of the right eyes can make all the difference.