This question gets tossed around all the time, especially amongst people who are over the age of 25. I’m not a sociologist, but I would guess this has a lot to do with how images of young, successful geniuses have been propagated throughout our society.
Couple that with frequently-mentioned but empirically weak concepts like the “10,000 hour rule” (which posits that mastery is a matter of putting in 10,000 hours, which most young and successful people put in when they’re kids) and “older” people start to feel some anxiety.
The tech industry is particularly brutal towards anyone who isn’t a child prodigy, and too many people are shying away from pursuing a career because of perceived age-related biases. This is especially true for software engineering positions.
What makes this all the more odd is the fact that many of the people who feel this way just flat out aren’t old. Here are a few gems I found by doing a basic search for “am I too old” on Quora:
- My age is 18. Am I too old to learn sketching?
- I am 24 years old. Am I too old to apply for MIT or Harvard EECS?
- I’m 18 years old. Am I too old to join college next year?
- Am I too old to succeed in my life at age 32?
- I’m 25 and wish to learn programming. Am I too old to become successful?
This is a small sample of what I came across. There are many, many more just like these.
Anecdotes vs. Data
You may have seen this topic covered by a self-help person or looked at some of the answers on Quora. You’ll probably notice that the majority of people who want to talk about this want to talk about it through the lens of anecdotes. Here are a couple I could give you:
- I didn’t start programming until I was 26. Now, only a couple of years later, I do it professionally.
- A guy from my hometown, at the age of 50, was broke and had no idea what to do. He scraped together a few loans from family and friends (if I remember correctly, it was something to the tune of $10,000) and started a business. That was about a decade ago, and he’s a now millionaire.
At this point, I could elaborate on of these examples and say “look, there’s always hope, keep feeling good about yourself.” Boom, end of blog post and on to the next one.
But since this is 52 Aces, I want to go a step beyond this “self-help” approach and be more rigorous about it. Specifically, what does the research literature say about the impact of age on our learning abilties, and what are the implications of those findings?
Let’s find out.
Before diving into the meat of this topic, we need to cover two important concepts: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.
Fluid intelligence (aka fluid reasoning) is the component of your intelligence that allows you think through and solve problems in new situations, independent of previous knowledge. In other words, fluid intelligence is your ability to think on your feet and adapt to change.
Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, is composed of your accumulated library of knowledge. Everything you’ve effectively learned and retained in long-term memory falls into this category.
A 2005 study found that working memory was strongly correlated to fluid intelligence. If you’ve read my book, you know that working memory is the memory register that deals primarily with what is classified as “thinking.” Working memory capacity is limited and using it burns through glucose in the brain like crazy.
Someone with a higher capacity working memory can hold and reason about more information and make better decisions at a faster rate than someone with a smaller working memory.
It’s also tied into your learning abilities, as it dictates how rapidly you can take on new information and facilitate a transfer to long-term memory.
The bad news is that working memory is, as far as we can tell, primarily genetic. You can’t do anything about it, and you should accept that some people will have a natural advantage over you in this regard. Please do not waste your time on “brain games” – they don’t do anything except make you good at those games.
This isn’t that big of a deal. If you think about it, it isn’t really news: we all know (or should know) that there are people smarter than us. What many of us suspect about people being born with a higher cognitive capacity ends up being true.
Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, can (and should) be improved. That’s a major focus of the content I produce here at 52 Aces: using whatever cognitive resources you have to build a robust long-term memory. That same 2005 study I cited above had this to say about crystallized intelligence:
Reasoning correlated comparatively highly with general knowledge; working-memory capacity correlated comparatively highly with processing speed.
Working memory gives us a speed advantage (or disadvantage), but overall reasoning ability relies heavily on our general knowledge (aka crystallized intelligence). Think of it this way: someone else may have a superior working memory, but if you have a stronger internal library of knowledge, you may very well have the upper hand.
If they have the same level of knowledge as you, you both will likely come to similar conclusions – the other person will probably just get there a little faster.
The Impact of Aging
So what does all this mean for those of us who weren’t child prodigies with billion dollar startups by our mid-20s? Let’s consider the results of a famous long-term (aka longitudinal) study.
The Seattle Longitudinal Study has been studying the intellectual development of over 5000 people since 1956. Researchers, lead by K. Warner Schaie, started the study because they were interested in seeing how age impacted a person’s ability to learn. Here are some particularly relevant findings that they’ve picked up over the years:
- There was not a uniform pattern of age-related change when it came to intellectual abilities.
- Certain intellectual abilities that are associated with a person’s genetics tend to decline before abilities that were picked up from an external source, such as schooling. In other words, working memory starts going downhill first.
- Reasoning, spatial orientation and verbal memory abilities appear to peak somewhere in young adulthood (around age 25). Oddly enough, the decline that comes after the peak revolves almost exclusively around processing speed, not quality.
- Declines in overall cognitive ability cannot be reliably observed before the age of 60, although that starts to change at age 74. An interesting caveat here is that by age 81, fewer than half showed reliable decreases in cognitive ability since age 74.
- There are some factors which appear to play outsized roles in the severity of cognitive decline:
- Chronic disease
- Regular intellectual stimulation
- Flexible personality
- Intelligent spouse
Another large study conducted by the OECD, which compared many of its results to the Seattle Longitudinal Study’s data, came to similar conclusions.
What It All Means
The story that these studies tell is pretty remarkable.
For one, our brains are incredibly resilient in the face of aging. We can, for the most part, maintain our cognitive abilities into old age. This can change if disease, brain injury or other external factors come into play, but an otherwise healthy human brain can withstand the sands of time surprisingly well.
Second, there clearly is a decline that begins sometime around our mid-20s and slowly progresses from there. That being said, it isn’t nearly as bad as many people (especially anxious older people) may believe. Instead, what appears to happen is a gradual slowdown in processing speed, with general knowledge being left more or less intact.
You might have a hard time thinking on your feet as you age, but if you’ve taken the time and effort to build up a strong base of knowledge it will likely remain with you for life.
Third, there are steps you can take to preserve what cognitive capacity you already have. After reading through the risk factors I listed above, I think we can summarize them as follows:
Take care of your body, expand your mind regularly, don’t marry a stupid person and be willing to roll with the punches.
Fourth, your learning abilities stay remarkably intact throughout your life and you should never shy away from trying to learn. Yes, as you get older the time required to get up to speed will increase. There’s no escaping that. However, if you are determined enough to consistently work on a skill, you are absolutely capable of picking it up.
There isn’t really an age limit on this, it’s more about how much time you’re willing to dedicate to learning. Getting older means you’ll need to realistically allocate more time.
Fifth, if you aren’t already, you absolutely must start building up your knowledge base. I cannot emphasize this enough. As you get older and your working memory/fluid intelligence starts to slow down, you’ll need to fall back on your long-term memory store more frequently.
If you never took the time to build it up while you were young and in your cognitive prime, you’re going to have a harder time in life.
For all you 18 year olds out there who think you’re “over the hill”…well, all of us “old people” were already shaking our heads. It was primarily because we know that younger people generally lack perspective on such things. But now we have a concrete, scientific reason to back up our “get off my lawn, young whippersnapper!” mentality.
If you’re a little older older (30s, 40s, 50s and beyond): get started now. The clock is ticking on your fluid intelligence and, even though it isn’t too late, you don’t have time to waste.
Stop worrying about the optimal routes, the perfect opportunity, or anything else that you’re concerned will stop you from doing it. It’s going to take longer than if you were younger, but your larger general knowledge base can act as an advantage.
The bottom line is this: just do it. Don’t worry too much about younger competitors. You might take a little longer than them, but you’re still just as capable.
Since we’ve walked through the science, I feel alright with sharing one of my favorite stories about this subject from Quora. It’s from a question with a pretty ridiculous title: What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they are over 35?. I won’t spoil it for you – do yourself a favor and read it all the way through – I’ll just share my favorite line:
There is no such thing as being “over the hill.” There is only becoming irrelevant.
I couldn’t agree more.
Sign up for my one-of-a-kind newsletter that’s read by over 1,000 people and I’ll send you my free, 7-part Learning Basics course.