In this essay, we’ll explore more insights from Albert-László Barabási, a physicist turned network scientist, and his team at Northeastern University. In his book, “The Formula,” Barabási examines examples of success from diverse fields, ranging from sports and arts to science.
Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton performed an analysis of numerous scientists and inventors’ career trajectories, including historical figures like da Vinci and Newton, as well as modern innovators like Edison. He found that many of these individuals made significant contributions to their fields before or around the age of 29. However, when his research extended to artists and writers, a similar pattern emerged. These findings led to an intriguing question: Why do many successful individuals peak early in their careers?
Enter Roberta, a young Sicilian postdoctoral researcher advised by Barabási. Fascinated by Simonton’s research, she started examining academic research and scientific publications, looking for patterns in non-superstar careers. Roberta discovered that a scientist’s most successful research typically occurred within the first two decades of their career. However, she noted that every paper published within this period had an equal probability of becoming the most influential, irrespective of when it was published within the twenty-year span.
Roberta’s findings upend the common belief that creativity and innovation are inherently tied to youth. She argued that the success of young professionals in various fields is not necessarily due to a heightened sense of creativity, but rather to their increased productivity. Each research paper, music release, art project, or innovative idea can be likened to a lottery ticket; the more tickets one has, the better their chances of success. Young individuals, enthusiastic and undeterred by failure, often produce more of these “tickets.”
However, with age, other factors such as shifting priorities, family responsibilities, and changing interests may cause individuals to “buy fewer tickets,” thus decreasing their chance of “winning” — achieving breakthroughs or high-impact successes. Despite this, Roberta’s findings highlight that creativity and the potential for significant contribution do not diminish with age.
In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence that challenges the notion that success is reserved for the young. A comprehensive study by Pierre Azoulay and his colleagues at MIT revealed that successful entrepreneurs were, on average, in their forties when they launched their companies. This speaks volumes about the value of experience, knowledge, and resilience—qualities often honed over time.
There are countless examples of individuals who achieved notable success later in life. Susan Boyle, for instance, captivated the world with her extraordinary voice at the age of forty-eight, having lived a quiet life in a small village until then. Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing in her forties, and her beloved Little House on the Prairie series brought her fame in her sixties. Charles Darwin, despite formulating his theory of evolution in his late twenties, published “On the Origin of Species” at fifty after over two decades of meticulous research.
The common thread among these late bloomers is persistent effort, proving that age does not limit innovation or creative brilliance. This is particularly relevant in today’s music industry, where youth is often idealized. However, as we embrace changing workplace dynamics, societal shifts in lifespan and retirement, and rising opportunities for older individuals, we must reconsider our biases and expectations around age and success.
My takeaways from Roberta and Barabsi’s research are:
A) Success often comes from increased productivity rather than just an outburst of creativity. Artists should consider creating and releasing more music regularly, rather than waiting for the “perfect” idea or inspiration. This consistent output can increase the chances of producing a groundbreaking record.
B) For managers or labels, as seen in the examples of Susan Boyle and Laura Ingalls Wilder, success can come at any age. It might be worth exploring artists from a more diverse age range.
C) Success is not just about creating a strong record. It can also be about longevity, influence, and the ability to connect with audiences in a meaningful way. Redefining what success means to you, and this could include pursuing more profound, personally fulfilling forms of creative expression.
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