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It's not too late to be a genius


In the web/tech world (and many other domains), it seems the Big Ideas belong to the Young. Barely 27, David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the Ruby on Rails framework, has changed the world and given the Ruby language a reason to live. Then there's Caterina and Stewart, creators of Flickr. And don't get me started on the creators of the blog service I'm entering this post in...Six Apart's Ben and Mena.

Then there's Larry and Sergey, the "boys" behind Google, and Jeff Bezos was just 30 when he founded Amazon. At O'Reilly's first Foo Camp, I learned later that the young guy who kept bugging Bert about games was Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent (named to the Time 100 Most Influential People list).

If you're over 40, is there still hope? Could you be a late bloomer like Doc Searls who said in response to being called an "A-List Gatekeeper":
"Nearly all of what I'm known for I've done since I was fifty."

Apparently yes. Frank Lloyd Wright did his best work at 70. Alfred Hitchcock got it all together just shy of 60. Beethoven's 9th? 50's. You get the idea.

An economics researcher named David Galenson (a late-bloomer himself) plodded along for years and eventually discovered a way to reverse-engineer creativity... finding that creative innovators come in two flavors: Conceptual and Experimental. Conceptual innovators, it seems, get their Big Ideas out early, many peaking out before they leave their 30's. They can change an industry (sometimes the world) almost overnight. Experimental innovators are those who quietly crunch along, doing creative trial and error but staying largely under the radar until much later, often having no visibility until their 50's or beyond.

There are, of course, some Big Idea people who've managed to start early and NOT peak out. Unlike many of their Conceptual counterparts, these folks didn't flame out after a spectacularly run through their twenties. My publisher and friend Tim O'Reilly is certainly one of those. Guy Kawasaki is another... as Apple's original Mac evangelist, he wrote a bestseller Selling the Dream (a classic, still useful!) in 1992 and just kept on going. And from what I know of David HH, he might just be getting warmed up. I reckon we'll be hearing (and using) more of his Big Ideas for years or decades to come.

All this is from an article (that most of you have probably already read) by one of my favorite people, Dan Pink, author of the life/business-changing book A Whole New Mind. The article titled, "What Kind of Genius Are You", appeared in the July issue of Wired, and you can read it online here.

I skimmed the article when it first came out, saving it for a long coffee break, but lost the magazine in the shuffle of moving and travelling, until this morning. I'll never be a genius, and given that the chances of me being in the "young/conceptual" camp are pretty much zero, I still found the article inspiring. There's hope for me-- and all of us who are past our 30's--still.

At the end of the article, he talks about how we need to make sure that the brash and bold aren't stifled by, say, their managers (or work policies too inflexible to handle a creative genius). So, yeah, another "duh" thing (one that all managers acknowledge but few really DO). He doesn't leave out the slow-starters, though, because he adds:

"But we should also leave room for those of us who have, er, avoided peaking too early, whose most innovative days lie ahead... we need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age.
Of course, not every unaccomplished 65-year old is some undiscovered experimental innovator. This is a universal theory of creativity, not a Viagra for sagging baby boomer self-esteem. It's no justification for laziness or procrastination or indifference.
But it might bolster the resolve of the relentlessly curious, the constantly tinkering, the dedicated tortoises undaunted by the blur of the hares."

So... to all the hares out there... watch your back! We're coming. Just really, really s l o w l y. And we have an advantage today that previous generations didn't... the internet. Blogs. The opportunity to reach people online--across the globe--with nothing more than a free blogging account. See, there was actually more to Doc Searl's quote than I put at the beginning. What he really said was:

"Nearly all of what I'm known for I've done since I was fifty. And without the Net, there would hardly be any of it."

It's never too late to be creative. It's never too late to make a difference. Just...keep...trying s***. And remember the quote from the 90-something woman who, when asked about her regrets said, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken up the violin at 60. I'd have been playing for almost 40 years by now..."

So, what kind of genius are YOU?

(Whatever type you are--conceptual or experimental--note the computer both David and Doc are using in the pictures. I'm just sayin'...)

Photo credit: pictures were taken by James Duncan Davidson who, uh, managed to create the Tomcat Java web container (and drove the astonishing effort that led Sun to donate it to Apache as open source), and Ant, all around the age of 30. Not content with being merely a tech genius, he recently launched a second part-time career as a pro photographer. Bastard! ; )

Posted by Kathy on September 27, 2006 | Permalink


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This gives me hope. I've heard that the peak is at 27. Otehrs say it is at 30 if you were going to do something *great*. It's nice to know humans still don't live in boxes ;)

Posted by: hollyster | Sep 27, 2006 8:17:10 PM

Kathy, with all due respect... DHH is *definitely* a smart and talented guy who has accomplished a great deal, but do you really think he has "changed the world" and "given the Ruby language a reason to live"? I'm just not seeing that at all. I appreciate the marketing that he has been able to pull off as much as the next guy. In fact, I find the marketing aspect of Rails to be more impressive than the technical aspects. But, those statements just seem outrageous to me.... "changed the world"??

Posted by: Steve Akers | Sep 27, 2006 9:11:37 PM

Thank you, I needed this !!!

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Sep 27, 2006 9:23:09 PM

I'm not sure if Genius comes with a date. As Edison says: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

How can anyone be a genius? By perfecting the art of execution.

See - creativity and innovation is easy. Mixup two existing ideas and you've got a third novel idea.

There are many rules and systems which you can follow step-by-step to become creative. The easiest one is "SCAMPER". Then there is "TRIZ" - which says there are only 40 ways to innovate (and you can go through these 40 ways step-by-step.) And there are a dozen other such systems that allow anyone to become creative.

Coming up with ideas is very easy with such systems. Implementing these ideas is what is hard.

There are very few people who perfect the art of execution below the age of 20. Most people perfect this art between 20-30 or they don't perfect it at all. There are quite a few who get it right after 40 too - and you might call them late bloomers.

If you want to become a genius - don't study the one-hit wonders who had one bright stroke. Rather study the people who have had hits after hits - because these are the people you can learn the art of execution from. Learn from the consistent geniuses. Edison. J.P. Morgan. Tiger Woods. Oprah.

Posted by: Ankesh Kothari | Sep 28, 2006 12:02:15 AM

Quote: "I'll never be a genius, and given that the chances of me being in the "young/conceptual" camp are pretty much zero, I still found the article inspiring. There's hope for me-- and all of us who are past our 30's--still."

Ummm Kathy... aren't you one of the co-founders of the Head First series?

You ARE a frickin' genius! I should know, I'm one of your "passionate users" and a self-appointed Head First evangelist!

Posted by: Mike Farinha | Sep 28, 2006 12:19:59 AM

In all fairness, I should add that, at my age, Beethoven was dead.


Posted by: Doc Searls | Sep 28, 2006 12:42:38 AM

I am a long time reader of this site but this is my first post.

Thanks for this. I turned 42 last weekend !

Posted by: Peter Anderson | Sep 28, 2006 1:36:59 AM

Meh, i've got some good ideas but lack the resources to make them real, i'm 21, but i feel that if i don't put them to practice now someone else will, i've seen some news about 'things' that share the some of the 'primary colors' of my 'composed color', quite frustrating..

Posted by: apoc | Sep 28, 2006 2:19:37 AM

This article also gives a lot of hope to a generation in developing countries (like Malawi where I'm from) who did not have a chance to play with computers and other gadgets in their early curious days.

Thanks Kathy and Dan Pink!

Posted by: Soyapi | Sep 28, 2006 2:27:37 AM

I am 26 nearing 27...I reckon I have to wait for me blooming into a genius.

Posted by: Balaji M | Sep 28, 2006 3:42:31 AM

Richard Feynman was always concerned about losing his creative edge in later life.

I wonder if the phenomenon of creativity well past your 40's is something that we are going to see more of in the future due to changes in the social/corporate structure?
The fact that it was reasonable to have a discussion about "Success should not mean management" hints at a change going on in the structure of a working life. If more people ensure that they are in positions in which they are expected to remain creative throughout their careers, then we're going to see fewer people with creative atrophy. (imho, of course)

Posted by: omni | Sep 28, 2006 4:44:46 AM

I'm with Doc. This applies to me too. "Nearly all of what I'm known for I've done since I was fifty. And without the Net, there would hardly be any of it."

In case you aren't aware of Time Goes By and all its dynamic late blooming followers check out http://www.timegoesby.net/. This is the flagship site for people even older than baby boomers, who like to be called elders. You'll find a bunch of elders who are kicking butt as experimental innovators.

Posted by: Virginia | Sep 28, 2006 6:38:32 AM

There is a lot of quality, time between 30 and death. Don't count anyone out. ;)

Posted by: Schmanz | Sep 28, 2006 7:10:51 AM

FYI Beethoven did MUCH before his 50s, in fact most of his ouevre comes before the 9th Symphony. You can see his genius even back to his early piano sonatas, and a gradual increase in sophistication as he matured.

The difference is, the 9th Symphony premiered to great acclaim when Beethoven was thought to be a washed-up has-been. That's the genius of it. (...despite the German nationalistic subtext of the last movement, which probably brought it more acclaim.)

Posted by: Sean Cribbs | Sep 28, 2006 7:25:29 AM

Malcom Gladwell gave a talk about this same topic back in February and I blogged about it.

It is an interesting division, but the gray areas in between seem quite large. But you're absolutely right - it's inspirational for us post 30ers!

Posted by: Vinod Kurup | Sep 28, 2006 8:18:31 AM

Whether you can be a young genius depends partly on what domain you pick. Math, physics, CS -- yes. Biology and psychology -- not so much; they're too messy and have too much data.

Charles Darwin had his most brilliant insight as a young man, but he spent the rest of his life marshalling the evidence and arguments for it, without which nobody would have bought it. If he'd published the idea of evolution by natural selection as soon as he got off the Beagle, he wouldn't have changed the world, because he would have been thought a wacko. And/or he would have been a footnote when Alfred Wallace published the theory, with evidence.

Posted by: Janet Swisher | Sep 28, 2006 9:50:05 AM

As I like to say, I spent the first 41 years of my life pulling my head out of my ass; I'd like to spend the next 41 (and more, lord willing and the creek don't rise) helping other people pull theirs out faster.

Famous or not, the great work of my life has just begun...

Posted by: communicatrix | Sep 28, 2006 10:05:17 AM

I doubt age has nearly so much to do with it as "free" time. Young before you have too many responsibilities/distractions, older when those things have passed. Paul Graham has written on this, but it is hardly his or a new idea...

Look at Ive and Apple, the stories that surfaced about Ive lately talk about their fanatical dedication to rework and rework and rework to get it just right. Clean house, take care of kids, hold a day job, care for aging parents, those take time and energy. Doesn't seem to be any surprise...

Posted by: Doug | Sep 28, 2006 11:23:02 AM

Amazingly timely. I was just commenting to someone yesterday that I don't think I'll really attain the proficiency I'm looking for in the field of software development until I'm in my 50's (I'm 35 now). Not that I'm a newbie, either: I've been a professional software developer for almost 16 years. It's just that now I'm starting to dig a little deeper into my craft and research how pointy-headed academic research like functional programming and lambda calculus can be applied to the kind of development I do every day in C++ and .NET. Early on I was more concerned with how much code I could write and how much cool stuff I could invent. Now I'm more concerned with the lasting quality of it all, and what it contributes to the state of the art.

Looking forward, I can't WAIT to explore parallel processing on quantum machines. That's why I'm studying the stuff I'm studying now.

Absolutely, I'm looking forward to hitting my stride. Thanks for the post.

Regarding Ruby on Rails, I have to agree with Steve Akers. Creative? Sure. World-changing? Not yet -- we'll see. Excellent marketing? No doubt whatsoever.

Posted by: Paul M. Parks | Sep 28, 2006 12:43:57 PM

Erma Bombeck did a wonderful column that was originally published under the title "It's Never Too Late". In it she listed women who achieved their greatest successes later in life. They include Margaret Chase Smith, Grandma Moses, Anne Marrow Lindbergh, Golda Meir, Shirley Temple Black and of course Erma herself. She wrote her first column at age 37.

So here is my question, how many of those people found success with something they had been doing all along? How many either did something they always wanted to do but had never done? How many of them went back to something they were passionate about as a child and left behind at some point?

Posted by: Julie | Sep 29, 2006 10:54:32 AM

"I'll never be a genius, and given that the chances of me being in the "young/conceptual" camp are pretty much zero, I still found the article inspiring. There's hope for me-- and all of us who are past our 30's--still."

Wouldn`t you say you`re already a late bloomer? Having thought out and executed the first of a series of IT books that are the most popular at the moment and probably for years to come. We`ll surely see this learning form being adopted by other fields within science. Speaking of witch, I can`t wait for the Head First Algebra to get a good clue about it at the age of 25 :)

At the present maturity of Internet technology, you just need to be naturally creative and self critical, which many people are, young and old. Most importantly one needs to learn how to execute. The only resource you need is your head, all the tools are free (or close to it). It`s a great age to innovate, only most people came a bit late into it, and haven`t got time to execute because of daily responsibility (as pointed out in an earlier comment).

Posted by: Haakon | Sep 30, 2006 3:59:16 AM

I'm a firm believer in the late start - what choice do I have? There isn't a morning that goes by without my gazing into the bathroom mirror and reminding myself that by the time Mozart was my age he'd been dead for 15 years.

Posted by: robbo | Oct 1, 2006 7:20:14 PM

I've turned 50 this year and am launching a startup based on computer graphics tech I developed over the last several years to automatically rotoscope a video (like "A Scanner Darkly") without labor-intensive human animation in the loop. I resonate with your comments about creative spurts later in life and definitely think of myself as a late bloomer. I also think there can be an advantage coming into a field late and learning it on your own - you're less likely to be saddled with traditional metaphors and paradigms (where people may have gotten stuck) and are freer to come at it with your own fresh insights. In my case I had dabbled in image processing math in grad school (as a psych student hanging around a robotics/computer vision lab), but I found that coming back to it and working through it on my own 20+ years later that I've gotten much further. Part of it is I didn't know all the cases of "don't bother with that, we always do it this way," so I just made my own best guess of how to build things from scratch, experimented, and some of them worked. Anyway, thanks again.

Posted by: Stan Schwartz | Oct 2, 2006 11:47:18 AM

I've just finished watching an episode of Catalyst (http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/) - one of the stories was on the behaviour of the brain in later life.

It seems that while there are some faculties that do decline with age, there are some that improve into your 50s. Most noteworthy (for this article) is the ability to recognise patterns and to be able to make quick (and correct) decisions based on those patterns.

As I have said earlier, I think that one of the keys to maximising the potential of people beyond what has been seen as their most creative years is to be able to harness this experience - and this improving ability in pattern recognition.

Posted by: omni | Oct 5, 2006 5:03:57 AM

I completely agree with you.there are early and late bloomers out there. I would also like to add that at whatever stage you are two considerations apply:one is that success often eludes people because they tend to throw in the towel(out of frustration) after a long period of activity and just before they hit the gold veins of success. Second, people often go through long periods of quiescence-hibernatory episodes if you like .Both phenoms. can be solved by putting in just that much extra effort and working with a mentor/coach.

Posted by: jude ero | Oct 13, 2006 7:36:31 AM

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