Your academic age starts when you publish your first papers. I know some of you are still babies.
So let’s look at the probability that you publish your highest-impact paper. And what you see is, indeed, the genius research is right. Most scientists tend to publish their highest-impact paper in the first 10, 15 years in their career, and it tanks after that. It tanks so fast that I’m about — I’m exactly 30 years into my career, and the chance that I will publish a paper that would have a higher impact than anything that I did before is less than 1%.
I am in that stage of my career, according to this data. But there’s a problem with that. We’re not doing controls properly. So the control would be, what would a scientist look like who makes random contribution to science? Or what is the productivity of the scientist? When do they write papers?
So we measured the productivity, and amazingly, the productivity, your likelihood of writing a paper in year one, 10 or 20 in your career, is indistinguishable from the likelihood of having the impact in that part of your career.
And to make a long story short, after lots of statistical tests, there’s only one explanation for that, that really, the way we scientists work is that every single paper we write, every project we do, has exactly the same chance of being our personal best. That is, discovery is like a lottery ticket.
And the more lottery tickets we buy, the higher our chances. And it happens to be so that most scientists buy most of their lottery tickets in the first 10, 15 years of their career, and after that, their productivity decreases. They’re not buying any more lottery tickets. So it looks as if they would not be creative. In reality, they stopped trying.
So when we actually put the data together, the conclusion is very simple: success can come at any time. It could be your very first or very last paper of your career. It’s totally random in the space of the projects. It is the productivity that changes. Let me illustrate that.
Here is Frank Wilczek, who got the Nobel Prize in Physics for the very first paper he ever wrote in his career as a graduate student. More interesting is John Fenn, who, at age 70, was forcefully retired by Yale University. They shut his lab down, and at that moment, he moved to Virginia Commonwealth University, opened another lab, and it is there, at age 72, that he published a paper for which, 15 years later, he got the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
And you think, OK, well, science is special, but what about other areas where we need to be creative? So let me take another typical example: entrepreneurship. Silicon Valley, the land of the youth, right?
And indeed, when you look at it, you realize that the biggest awards, the TechCrunch Awards and other awards, are all going to people whose average age is late 20s, very early 30s.
You look at who the VCs give the money to, some of the biggest VC firms — all people in their early 30s. Which, of course, we know; there is this ethos in Silicon Valley that youth equals success. Not when you look at the data, because it’s not only about forming a company — forming a company is like productivity, trying, trying, trying — when you look at which of these individuals actually put out a successful company, a successful exit.
And recently, some of our colleagues looked at exactly that question. And it turns out that yes, those in the 20s and 30s put out a huge number of companies, form lots of companies, but most of them go bust.
And when you look at the successful exits, what you see in this particular plot, the older you are, the more likely that you will actually hit the stock market or the sell the company successfully. This is so strong, actually, that if you are in the 50s, you are twice as likely to actually have a successful exit than if you are in your 30s.
So in the end, what is it that we see, actually? What we see is that creativity has no age. Productivity does, right? Which is telling me that at the end of the day, if you keep trying you could still succeed and succeed over and over.
So my conclusion is very simple: I am off the stage, back in my lab.
Download This Transcript as PDF here: The Real Relationship Between Your Age & Your Chance of Success_ Albert-László Barabási (Transcript)
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