What Do You Call a Middle-Aged Genius? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

What Do You Call a Middle-Aged Genius?

What Do You Call a Middle-Aged Genius?

By Sean Braswell


Because, unlike youth, genius is not wasted on the young.

By Sean Braswell

No less than Albert Einstein once remarked that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” Or, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a mere 22 years old at the time, put it to a Stanford audience in 2007, “Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30?”

Einstein and Zuckerberg, whiz kids in their own right, are hardly alone in their belief that creativity, innovation and even genius are the near-exclusive domains of the young. Sure, the silver-haired have the advantage of wisdom and experience, but once you pass the age of 30, you might as well give up on ever entering the hallowed halls of genius. Such an assumption is a pernicious, and ageist, notion that is “not just nasty,” says University of Chicago economist David Galenson, “it’s wrong.” In reality, for every Mozart or Einstein, there is a Charles Darwin or Virginia Woolf, toiling in obscurity until his or her innovation is unleashed upon the world. Perhaps it’s time we gave our older, late-blooming geniuses, innovators and visionaries the attention they deserve, and even branded them with a new moniker.

The average age of great innovators is older than you think.

Part of the problem is that the term “genius” is overused these days, deployed to refer to everything from a football play call to an overachieving barista. As overinclusive as the word may be be today, it has a history of exclusion too: Women and minority groups have long been underrepresented among the ranks of those touted as “geniuses” (touting yourself doesn’t count, Kanye). It’s the privileging of the young, though, that is perhaps the longest-running application of the term. “The word ‘genius’ is derived from the Greek word for birth,” writes Galenson in Old Masters and Young Geniuses, “and since the Renaissance, philosophers and critics have associated creative genius with youth.” To this day, if you ask most people to conjure up an image of the quintessential tech genius, they will imagine a young (and white, and male) geek tinkering away in a garage or dorm room à la Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

Despite this perception, though, the average age of great innovators is older than you think. One 2011 study of hundreds of Nobel Laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine found that Nobel Prize winners tend to make their biggest breakthroughs around age 40; in recent years, great work almost never occurred before age 30. The average age of last year’s recipients of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants” — five-year fellowships awarded to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work” — was close to 50. 

The many silver-haired MacArthur recipients receiving “genius” billing, however, are the exception, not the rule. According to Galenson, older innovators do not receive nearly the attention and publicity of their younger counterparts — and what that neglected group really needs is a new identity, and a champion.  But what to call them? In his book, Galenson calls them “Old Masters,” and “masters” does have a nice Jedi, martial arts ring to it. But it also smacks of hierarchy, patriarchy and many other -archies. Perhaps a related, more exotic term like “maestro” would be more appropriate? “Maestro” is a title of respect used in a variety of fields to apply to gifted conductors, composers, performers and fencers (of all genders), although it has predominately been used in the fine arts.

And who would stand up as the champion of the older innovators or maestros, confront the forces of ageism and sound a Feminine Mystique-esque clarion call to the world? Would we look outside science and Silicon Valley for an older influencer like Oprah or Warren Buffett to make the case? Or, to bend Silicon Valley’s ear, is it best to have an aging genius and one of their own — a Bill Gates, say — sound the alarm?

What do you think? Do older innovators deserve more of our respect? Their own name?

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