It’s Never Too Late to Start a Brilliant Career

This article is authored by Rich Karlgaard and is originally published by The Wall Street Journal.

In 1980, I was 25 and hadn’t yet bloomed. This hit home one night while I was working as a security guard in San Jose, Calif. Just after dark, as I started my perimeter patrol of a fenced rent-a-truck yard, I heard barking from the lumber yard next door. I swung my flashlight around and came face-to-face with my counterpart on the other side of the fence: a guard dog. The implication was sobering. I was a Stanford graduate, and my professional peer was a Rottweiler.

In a few months, Steve Jobs, also 25 at the time, would take Apple public, change the computer industry and become fabulously rich. I, on the other hand, was poor and stuck. My story is embarrassing, but is it that unusual?

Today we are madly obsessed with early achievement. We celebrate those who explode out of the gates, who scorch the SAT, get straight A’s in AP courses, win a spot at Harvard or Stanford, get a first job at Google or Goldman Sachs , and headline those ubiquitous 30-under-30 lists. In 2014, Time magazine started an annual list of “Most Influential Teens.” Yes, teens.

But precocious achievement is the exception, not the norm. The fact is, we mature and develop at different rates. All of us will have multiple cognitive peaks throughout our lives, and the talents and passions that we have to offer can emerge across a range of personal circumstances, not just in formal educational settings focused on a few narrow criteria of achievement. Late bloomers are everywhere once you know to look for them.

‘There’s probably not one age at which you’re peak on most things, much less all of them.’—Neuroscientist Joshua Hartshorne

Shifting our attention in this way can spare us much of the unhappiness generated by our worship of youthful success. How we evaluate young people places needless emotional burdens on families and has helped to spur an epidemic of anxiety and depression among teens and young adults. The effort to forge young people into wunderkinds is making them fragile and filling them with self-doubt: It suggests that if you haven’t become famous, reinvented an industry or banked seven figures while you’re still in your 20s, you’ve somehow off track. But the basic premise is wrong: Early blooming is not a requirement for lifelong accomplishment and fulfillment.

Recent research suggests that we need to modify our understanding of how people mature from adolescence to adulthood. Between the ages of 18 and 25, most people are still living in a volatile post-adolescence. In both adolescent and young adult brains, the prefrontal cortex—the processing center of our frontal lobe—is the last part to fully develop, and it is responsible for complex functions such as planning and organizing, problem solving, memory, attention and inhibition.

In the human adult, the prefrontal cortex is massive compared with that of other species. It constitutes nearly one-third of the neocortex, the part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions. By comparison, the prefrontal cortex makes up just 17% of the neocortex in a chimpanzee, 13% in a dog and 4% in a cat.

Many critical changes in our prefrontal cortex occur in our early-to-mid 20s. Myelination, for instance, is a process in which nerve fibers are more extensively covered with myelin, a substance that insulates them so that nerve signals can be more efficiently transmitted. Extensive synaptic pruning also occurs during this period. This may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not. It pares back the web of possible connections resulting from explosive nerve growth, allowing the remaining ones to transmit signals more effectively. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex develops the ability to better communicate with other parts of the brain, especially those associated with emotions and impulses, so that all areas of the brain can be included in complex processes such as planning and problem solving.

The term that psychologists use for this sort of neurological maturity is executive function. Executive function has nothing to do with IQ, potential or talent. It is simply the ability to see ahead and plan effectively, to connect actions to possible consequences, to see the probabilities of risk and reward.

As a young man, this is exactly what I lacked, which goes a long way toward explaining my immaturity and inability to hold a serious job. Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, calls the phase from 18 to 30 years old “emerging adulthood,” which he says needs to be recognized as a distinct stage of life, partly spurred by social and economic changes.

The vast majority of us will be better served not by high SAT scores or STEM degrees but by discovering and embracing our true talents.

Nor is the emergence of mature executive function the end of our cognitive journey. In a 2015 study published in the journal Psychological Science, neuroscientists Laura Germine and Joshua Hartshorne measured the abilities of nearly 50,000 adult subjects of various ages on online cognitive tests. “At any given age, you’re getting better at some things, you’re getting worse at some other things, and you’re at a plateau at some other things,” said Dr. Hartshorne in summing up their conclusions. “There’s probably not one age at which you’re peak on most things, much less all of them.”

In their study, the speed of information processing appeared to peak early, around 18 or 19. Short-term memory continued to improve until around 25 and then leveled off for another decade. The ability to evaluate complex patterns, including other people’s emotional states, on the other hand, peaked much later, when participants were in their 40s or 50s.

These findings validate what previous cognitive research has revealed: Each of us has two types of intelligence, known as fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is our capacity to reason and solve novel problems, independent of knowledge from the past, and it peaks earlier in life. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use skills, knowledge and experience; it shows rising levels of performance well into middle age and beyond. According to Georgia Tech psychology professor Phillip Ackerman, the best way for older adults to compensate for declines in youthful “fluid” intelligence is to select jobs and goals that optimize their “crystallized” knowledge and skills. Continue reading…

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