Albert-László Barabási: The impact of age on success at work We often equate youth with success at work. Physicist and network scientist Albert-László Barabási put this belief to the test, and found that with persistence, we can be successful at any age.

What your age really says about your chance of success at work

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

So a biological ticking clock is one kind of pressure. Another one - professional success.

ALBERT-LASZLO BARABASI: You don't have to search too much in Wikipedia to realize that I passed 55.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

This is Professor Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. He's worked in academia for 30 years as a physicist and network scientist. And about a decade ago, he started asking himself a very tough question.

BARABASI: I was always wondering, how long can I keep up what I'm doing - that is, kind of running a research group, making discoveries, publishing papers and having an impact?

ZOMORODI: So he did a little digging around.

BARABASI: And I was surprised to see that a fellow physicist - his name is Albert Einstein - has made a very interesting observation. He claimed that a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.

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BARABASI: First, I was curious - why would he say that do begin with, right?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. Yeah.

BARABASI: And when he looked around himself, the people he knew and he admired, he saw lots of young people, people who were kind of in the mid-20s to late 30s, maybe early 30s, at which point they made their big discoveries. And he just generalized from this relatively limited observation.

ZOMORODI: I should say, it's not entirely clear if that quote does indeed come from Einstein. But the idea was compelling to Laszlo because he had found a lot of early success himself. But he wondered, was this always the case? What about other scientists and other professionals?

BARABASI: So about 10 years ago, we started exploring when and how do scientists succeed? We looked at the career of many, many scientists asking many questions about how early we can say that a scientist will make a phenomenal discovery. At what age did they make those discoveries? And, in general, how do we spot a promising scientist?

ZOMORODI: So you started with what you knew - the careers of scientists. But how did you go about trying to figure out whether Einstein's assumption that younger people achieve more was correct?

BARABASI: Well, the first thing we wanted to ask is, is this true only for highly accomplished individuals, or is creativity really peaks for ordinary scientists, as well? So the first thing we did is that we reconstructed the career of hundreds of thousands of scientists, starting with physicists and biologists and so on, and ask, when did people make their best discovery? We didn't care whether there was a Nobel Prize discovery or something that was forgotten immediately. We just wanted to know that, within a person's career, what was their best?

ZOMORODI: And you're saying the best is equated with the most public accolades that they got or the most citations?

BARABASI: The most citations because that's kind of a very measurable quantity that we can assign to scientific impact. It's debatable whether that really captures impact, but it's a very good proxy of that. And when we analyzed all these careers, we were surprised that the vast majority of the scientists published their highest-impact work within the 15, maybe 20 years of their career, the first 15 or 20 years. And then after 20 years, the likelihood of publishing something of high impact falls dramatically. So for example, I'm about 30 years into my career, and the chances of me publishing a paper whose impact would overcome my earlier papers is less than 1%.

ZOMORODI: That's depressing, huh?

BARABASI: On the face value, it's very depressing, and so was for me.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

In a moment, how Albert-Laszlo Barabasi found a silver lining for scientists and some lessons for all late bloomers. I'm Manoush Zomorodi and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, Late Bloomers. And before the break, we were talking to physicist and network scientist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, who left us with a pretty bleak statement.

BARABASI: I am about 30 years into my career, and the chances of me publishing a paper whose impact would overcome my earlier papers is less than 1%.

ZOMORODI: This sounds grim. But Laszlo looked at the data and realized he was missing a control. Here he is on the TEDx stage.

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BARABASI: So the control would be, how would a scientist look like who makes random contributions to science? Or what is the productivity of the scientist? When do they write papers? So we measured the productivity. And amazingly, the productivity, your likelihood of writing a paper in Year 1, 10 or 20 of your career is indistinguishable from the likelihood of having the impact in that part of your career.

And to make a long story short, after lots of statistical tests, there's only one explanation for that - that really, the way we scientists work is that every single paper we write, every project we do, has exactly the same chance of being our personal best. That is, discovery is like a lottery, right? And like a lottery ticket, and then the more lottery tickets we buy, the higher is the chance. And it happens to be so that most scientists buy most of their lottery tickets in the first 10, 15 years of their career. And after that, their productivity decreases. They're not buying any more lottery tickets. So it looks like as if they would not be creative. In reality, they stop trying.

So when we actually put the data together, the conclusion is very simple. Success can come at any time. It could be your very first or very last paper of your career. It's totally random in the space of the projects. It is the productivity that changes.

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ZOMORODI: So basically, scientists tend to put out more papers early in their careers, and therefore, their chances of having an impact are greater. But as they get older, you found they're less productive for all kinds of reasons, and therefore, their chances diminish.

BARABASI: You're right. The conclusion is that there is no connection between creativity and age. There's only a connection between productivity and age. And if you, as a scientist or any creative person, are willing to continue trying over and over, you have the same chance of making a discovery later in your life or early in your life. For example, John Fenn was a chemist, and at 65, he was forcefully retired by Yale, but he was still full of ideas. So he moved to Virginia Commonwealth University, and it is there, after retirement, where he published a paper for which 15 years later, at age 85, got the chemistry Nobel Prize.

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ZOMORODI: So you have expanded your research beyond science and academia. You've started to research how these ideas apply to other fields - for example, entrepreneurship. What does success look like for entrepreneurs? When does it happen?

BARABASI: One of the areas where the equation youth equals creative is very strongly held is in the Silicon Valley, right? We can look at the founders of Google or Facebook and you name it, and you're seeing very, very young faces. At least at the moment when they founded the company, they were in their 20s. And the press and the media is full of it, the image that youth equals kind of talent when it comes to starting a new company.

ZOMORODI: Well, it becomes a legend, doesn't it?

BARABASI: It does become a legend.

ZOMORODI: Right?

BARABASI: But when some of my colleagues actually looked at the data, they asked the question, what's the difference between a company founded by a young person versus founded by more elder individuals? What's the likelihood for exit - that is, that the company will either go in the stock market or will be successfully sold?

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ZOMORODI: You're reminding me of this moment in your TED Talk where you lay it on people, on the audience, that the chances of having a successful exit for an investor are far greater if you were to invest in a sort of midlife career entrepreneur. Do you remember that?

BARABASI: Oh, yes. And it turns out that, yes, those in their 20s and 30s put out a huge number of companies, form lots of companies, but most of them go bust. And when you look at the successful exits, what you see in this particular plot, the older you are, the more likely that you will actually hit the stock market or sell the company successfully. This is so strong actually, that if you are in the 50s, you are twice as likely to actually have a successful exit than if you are in your 30s.

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ZOMORODI: Surely, though, it's more complicated than that, right? We're talking about investing, let's say, in a 50-year-old founder who maybe has had smaller successes as well, right? Like, it's not just like, pick a random 50-year-old founder of a company and invest in them. What are some of the quantifiables that there need to be for that, the variables?

BARABASI: Of course, it's never random, right? You don't pick a person on the street based on the age profile and give them 200 million...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BARABASI: ...To start funding a company, ****

BARABASI: *** And of course, you should. If you have a talented young individual that you feel that he or she has what it takes to form a successful company, by all means, bet on them. But at the same time, don't disregard the very practiced hand.

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ZOMORODI: OK. So, Laszlo, I need to ask. The two fields we've talked about, science and technology, those are dominated by white men - always have been - who could work in a far more linear fashion than, say, women who might have had their careers disrupted by pregnancies and child care and Black and brown people who may not have been given the same opportunities. So how do you factor in those two groups of people into your idea that success can come later in life?

BARABASI: This is actually a very important topic of research in my lab, and we specifically asked the question, what really distinguishes woman and man scientist? Ethnicity and race is much harder to quantify, but gender is something that we can easily distinguish. And when we started this research, there were lots of previous results that were not encouraging. It indicated that when you look at the career of a woman scientist versus a man scientist, woman have smaller career impact and smaller productivity. But when we looked much more carefully at the data, we realized that when we look at the yearly productivity of men and women, they are largely indistinguishable.

Then why there is a career difference? Well, that's because at any year of their career, women have about 3% higher chance of leaving academia than men. You know, at every year people leave because they go to industry, because they have personal reasons. But at every year of their career, women are 3% more likely to leave the scientific career than man. As a result, women have shorter career, as a group seem to have lower productivity, and that explains the part of the difference in the impact as well.

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ZOMORODI: OK, so let's talk about a field where, you know, to measure performance, it's not that easy. Things get a little squishy. Art - the art world. I am reminded of something that you said, which, I believe, to artists - you said, tell me the first five places where you ever showed your art, and I will tell you the trajectory of your career. Did I get that right?

BARABASI: (Laughter) Yes. Art's a particular interesting area, right? When it comes to art, it's all about networks. And what I mean by that is that if I look at this glass of water in front of me, is this an artwork, or is this a glass of water? Well, it depends, right? If you see it in the MoMA under a glass box, it's a repurposed object that is acting as an artwork. And if you see it in my office, it's obviously a glass of water. So value in art only emerges through networks, meaning that who was the artist who put that glass there? What did that artist do before? What other museums have works by him or her? These are all network effects. So I like to study art, and in my lab, we study art because art is the perfect example where only networks generate value.

ZOMORODI: Because the rest is so arbitrary.

BARABASI: I wouldn't call it arbitrary. It's community based.

ZOMORODI: Community based (laughter).

BARABASI: At the end, who gets rewarded and how for a given performance? It's fundamentally a network effect. Your performance is about you, but your success is about us as a community.

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ZOMORODI: I'm so curious what you think about some of the movements that there have been in the last couple of years about younger people saying, you know what? We're not doing this anymore. There's the lie-flat movement in China; here in the U.S., quiet quitting. People saying, produce, produce, produce is draining us. As someone who studies success and how to get it, what do you think of all that?

BARABASI: There is such a thing as internal success that is not quantifiable, and that's really the most important thing. You know, I would consider internal success, my children - right? - that I have three children that I'm very proud of. And even internal success is the fact when I climb the mountain, right? These are the little pleasures of life that are unmeasurable to us scientists. But if you do seek success in the way we use the word success, then you better engage with it on its own terms, and you better understand the patters and the laws that govern it because not everybody needs to go to the moon, but if you want to go to the moon, you better understand the loss of gravity.

ZOMORODI: And I'm guessing the next thing that you would say is be persistent.

BARABASI: That's the key to the story, right? Because don't believe that creativity vanishes with age. Creativity doesn't. The willingness to try, that's what vanishes. And if you can overcome that, you have a chance for success, no matter your age.

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ZOMORODI: That's physicist and network scientist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. His book is called "The Formula: The Universal Laws Of Success." You can see his full talk at ted.com.

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