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Study Shows Youth Isn't the Key to Making a Mark

What matters far more than your age: The Q Factor

By Richard Eisenberg

A fascinating study in the journal Science, reported in The New York Times, has disproved the popular myth that the greatest achievements in work are made because their initiators are young. No, the researchers say, it’s really all about The Q Factor.

Albert Einstein

In their article, “Quantifying the Evolution of Individual Scientific Impact," five researchers from Northeastern University, Northwestern University and the University of Miami analyzed the publications of 2,887 physicists going back to 1893, as well as data on scientists publishing in a variety of fields. They wanted to see when in their careers the scientists published their “impact” papers.

Although the physicists were more likely to achieve recognition earlier in their careers, the study’s authors say that wasn’t due to their age. It was about their productivity. As The Times’ Benedict Carey explained, “Young scientists tried more experiments, increasing the likelihood they would stumble on something good.”

Work Success at 50

If productivity was kept equal, the article's authors determined, the scientists studied were just as likely to “score a hit at age 50 as at age 25,” Carey wrote. The researchers were Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Roberta Sinatra, Dashun Wang, Pierre Deville and Chaoming Song.

“The bottom line is: Brother, never give up. When you give up, that’s when your creativity ends,” Barabasi, a Northeastern physicist, told Carey.

The researchers determined that rather than age, it’s what they call The Q Factor that’s key for turning hard work into recognition. And here’s where I think the study offers broad implications for all of us — not just physicists.

What Is The Q Factor?


Q is essentially shorthand for skill, and it includes things such as drive and an openness to new ideas. “Or, simply, an ability to make the most of the new work at hand: to find some relevance in a humdrum experiment, and to make an elegant idea glow,” as Carey put it. (Aside from Q, to make an impact, it also helps to have particular strengths and to be lucky, the authors said.)

Next Avenue blogger Chris Farrell has noted that when University of Chicago economist David Galenson looked into the relationship between aging and innovation, he discovered that many famous artists were at their creative best in their 60s, 70s and even 80s. Examples: Cezanne, Matisse, Twain and Hitchcock. And as Stephen L. Antczak wrote on Next Avenue, these renowned scientists are still making important contributions: Noam Chomsky (87), Jane Goodall (82), Stephen Hawking (74) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (58).

Why Older People Will Make the Big Discoveries

The Science study reminded me that Rosalind Barnett wrote in the book she co-authored, The Age of Longevity, that she believed more and more of the big scientific discoveries will be made by older people, not young geniuses.

When I interviewed her for my Next Avenue blog about the book, Barnett explained why: “One reason is that these days it takes a lot longer to get up to speed. Years ago, if you were going into a field, you’d have to master what had gone before you, but there was less to master than there is now. Plenty of people are making incredible scientific breakthroughs into their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. If you have a contribution to make, age should be no barrier and it isn’t for a lot of people.”

Especially ones who mind their Ps (productivity) and Qs (The Q Factor).

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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