Breakthrough Success Depends on Your Productivity, Not Your Age

Drake Baer

If you’re about to hit 30 or 40 or 50 or whatever, and you haven’t had your Breakthrough Success yet, don’t give up. Because according to a fancy new analysis of some 2,800 physicists — which is a hard field — your age isn’t nearly as important as your hustle.

The researchers wanted to see where in a career those breakthroughs were situated, and as Benedict Carey reported in the New York Times, they found that age itself wasn’t the primary driver of success. Rather, productivity ruled: The more experiments a given researcher did, the more likely they’d score a hit paper. 

“[T]he highest-impact work can be, with the same probability, anywhere in the sequence of papers published by a scientist — it could be the first publication, could appear mid-career, or could be a scientist’s last publication,” Sinatra and her co-authors wrote. “This random-impact rule holds for scientists in different disciplines, with different career lengths, working in different decades, and publishing solo or with teams and whether credit is assigned uniformly or unevenly among collaborators.”

It should be noted that accomplishments did tilt toward youth, but that was because physicists, like the rest of us, have more time to work in their 20s and 30s than later, when the many responsibilities of life start to pile up.

The authors developed another factor, which they call “Q,” to explain a physicist’s likelihood to maximize the impact of their research, which takes into account soft skills like being able to work well with others, write clearly, find the most compelling results in a given experiment, and other aspects of getting things done.

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