What Kind of Genius Are You?

July 11, 2006

Wired 14.07: What Kind of Genius Are You?: This article describes an economist’s findings that some well-known artists do their most important work when they are young, while others do it when they are older. Mathematicians say this all the time; that you’re best work is done while you’re young. Frankly, I don’t buy this at all. It conflates correlation with causality (you wouldn’t expect mathematicians and economists to make this mistake). Consider any academic field. Hundreds of grad students are working hard at open problems. It is likely that a few will do something impressive. Does this mean there is something special about those people that should lead them to do further great work? The answer – echoed by conventional wisdom – is NO. There are a few people who consistently do great work. Those are the people you want to pay attention to. But most of the young turks who are hailed for some discovery just got lucky. There’s no reason to expect more from them, and most fail to deliver.

It turns out that being young isn’t what leads to big discoveries. The secret is in having lots of people working on open problems. If more people are funded to work on more open problems, more big discoveries would be made. It’s just a matter of statistics.

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