Why Big Ideas Happen In Your Late 30s

If you’re looking to win the Nobel Prize, you better be closing in on 40. This is why.

Why Big Ideas Happen In Your Late 30s
[Image: Flickr user Camdiluv ♥]

We have a preoccupation with the precocious: When Yahoo acquired the British news-aggregator startup Summly last year, the media went into a brief tizzy over its 17-year-old founder. Before he was the America’s leading philanthropist, Mark Zuckerberg was the boy CEO.


But as more research shows, genius takes time to ripen.

A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research sorted through the lives of inventors and Nobel-Prize winning scientists looking for their ages of peak performance. Rather than breakthroughs coming in their twenties, as Einstein once asserted must be, the prime years of discovery lie in the late thirties.

Why Your Late 30s?

A few factors contribute. On one hand, think about the length of time a research scientist is going to spend in school: undergrad degree at 22 and then into their PhD up until 30, which leaves a scant few years to get work done before catching the eye of the prize committee.

Another intriguing theory for strokes of genius coming closer to midlife is due to the “burden of knowledge“: science has accumulated so much understanding about the world that there are way more bits of information for a researcher to process before she can start making her own original discoveries.

But that figure gets more subtle: As Olga Khazan notes at the Atlantic, the age of breakthrough depends on the field you’re in. A 1977 study found the distribution was like this:

  • Physics winners were 36
  • Chemists were 39
  • Medical doctors were 41

Why the differences? Khazan argues that abstract fields like art and physics are more accommodating to early bloomers, while high-context areas like history or medicine demand a lot more marinating.


But innovation comes in different guises. Economist Daivd Galenson separates creators into two different piles: you’ve got the conceptualists on one end and the experimenters on the other.

Conceptualists tend to turn a whole field on its ear: Orson Welles upended cinema when he made Citizen Kane at 26. But experimenters are continually improving upon their techniques: Oliver Sacks, for instance, is determined to be massively creative into his 80s.

Hat tip: the Atlantic


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.