Age and success: why are we so obsessed? — by Tara Corry

Mozart wrote his first symphony aged 8. Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved child, was the first Black woman to have her poetry published in North America aged just 13. Greta Thunberg is changing the way governments are thinking about climate change aged 17. There is something uniquely depressing about the achievements of those younger than our-selves.

Why is it so disheartening to discover that children and teenagers have achieved these outstanding “milestones”? The idea that life is fleeting and no moment should be wasted is somewhat to blame for the panic that sets in when reading these accomplishments by young people, but does our ability to achieve the remarkable actually diminish with age?

Albert-László Barabási, a Physicist specialising in Network Theory, gave a 2019 TED Talk titled “The real relationship between your age and your chance of success”. His conclusion was that “Creativity has no age. Only productivity does… at the end of the day if you keep trying you could still succeed, and succeed over and over.” So whilst lists like Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ seek to highlight the success of those in their first three decades of life, by Barabási’s logic, we should reframe these achievements as markers of exceptional productivity, instead of success.

Linking age with markers of achievement begins at our earliest stages. Developmental milestones for babies give parents a framework for when they should expect crawling, first words and standing amongst other things. These markers can be useful but also provide an added stress for parents to measure their child’s development and don’t actually appear to be a marker of intelligence or success in later life. Einstein’s family are documented as being concerned about his late development of speech, although this was likely somewhat linked to his Dyslexia. This raises a clear issue with linking ‘milestones’ to age at any point in life, it doesn’t account for the differentiations in the way people experience the world.

If you have a so-called ‘learning difficulty’ such as Dyslexia, your information processing abilities differ to someone without Dyslexia, but this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. GCHQ have confirmed that they directly look to recruit people with Dyslexia into the intelligence services because of their distinct approach to problem solving.

Learning about the world through the vastly different life experiences of others is essential. Not only can we build connections this way but our own world-view is encouraged to stretch when encountering a different way of thinking or way of life that gifts us new concepts and insights. A rigid belief that success is for the young and specific achievements must be reached by a certain age for them to ‘count’, stifles our flexibility to adapt and sets us up to fail.

For every Mozart, there is J. R. R. Tolkien, who published The Lord of the Rings aged 62. As our life expectancy reaches into the 80s and 90s, should we not ask: what’s the rush?