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Race Against Time? The Achievement Vs Age Debate

11 Oct 2021
Panicked by the need to achieve young? Verity Johnson looks into where the pressures come from - and whether it rings true for creatives.

Age is such an inherently touchy, twitchy, testy subject that you never - ever - want to hear anyone complain about it. 

If you’re older than the person complaining, your instinctive reaction is to knock the sippy cup of self-pity juice from their bibbed chin. 

If you’re younger than them, you’ll just blink in bored incredulity that this decrepit old bat is still alive and breathing.

So now I’m going to do something that’ll make you crack your knuckles in irritation while wishing it was my skull, and talk about age. 

Specifically, has anyone else struggled with the crippling paranoia that they need to achieve young?

I don’t know what “young” means to you, although it’s probably a couple of years older than whatever age you are. So at the moment, “young” means being under 30 to me. But I’ll probably push that out further and further as I go, until I start buying shoes that have velcro fastenings and driving a jaunty-coloured Mazda Demio.

But it definitely meant under 30 to Einstein, who had some incredibly unhelpful advice on this topic. 

He declared that any great scientist has to make his great contribution to science by the age of 30 - or he never will. (Something that you’d only say if you were that smug git who was writing equations on the kindergarten walls when the rest of us were eating the crayons.)

And -by and large - we believe him. Maybe not 30 specifically, but I’ve bet that you and everyone you know has at some point started a sentence with, “Oh I need to achieve X by the time that I’m Y….” 

So, I decided to find out if the smug brainbox was right. Does success have to happen young? 

While trying to find the answer, I stumbled across Albert Laszlo Barabasi, a scientist who researches data patterns. In his TedTalk, he revealed that he and his team collected the data on scientists publishing scientific papers. And yes, on average, great minds tend to publish their groundbreaking work before they hit 30. 


But then he said something more interesting. This finding obscures two important factors that come together to produce success…

Creativity and productivity. 

He and his team found that creativity had no age limit - and you have the intellectual and creative capability to be the next Einstein at any age. However, productivity does have an age limit, it rapidly declines the older we get. Basically, the older we get, the more we CBF.

And crucially, it’s this productivity drive that is instrumental in tying success to youth and making it look like everyone achieves success young. 

When we’re young, we’ve got both the creative ability and the insatiable drive to prove it. Whereas when we get older, we’re less hungry. 

After a while, I started to find that explanation kinda reassuring. If it’s productivity that influences our success, then that means you can achieve greatness whatever your age. Provided of course you’re still driving your Mazda Demio around town like the devil, kicking in doors with those sensible, velcroed shoes. 

You can make a determined effort to stay productive, and not lapse into apathy and can’t-be-arsed-ness. 

Provided, of course, you’re not paralysed by panic.

See, that’s the real kicker in all this, isn’t it? I realised that actually, me growing older wasn’t the problem. Me panicking about getting older was the problem. 

Verity Johnson. Photo: Supplied.

Contrary to popular belief, fear doesn’t necessarily motivate you to be bigger, badder and stronger. 

All it does is send me into endless, jittery, overwrought hours of obsession, doom scrolling and hysteria. By 3am, I’m listening to podcasts by Instagram Youtube/Entrepreneur/Life Coaches and wondering whether I actually should start a drop shipping supplement company…

And that really, really, really does kill your productivity. No, not kill - rather douses it in petrol, sets it on fire, burns it into the ground, stomps on it until there’s nothing left but the flaky, grey ashes of a former dream and then gets a leaf blower and clears away the mess like your overzealous neighbour on his lawns at 6am this morning.

So what Einstein should have said is that the real danger to our creative success isn’t getting old. It’s the fear of it. 

But, unlike aging, we can actually do something about that.