No one is over the hill to start a new venture or make a discovery; entrepreneurs strike it big at age 45, reveals a study

Recently, Pierre Azoulay, an MIT Sloan professor and the researchers from Kellogg School of Management and the US Census Bureau came together to analyse ‘the ages of founders of growth-oriented startups’. They looked at ‘1,000 fastest growing new ventures’ of the last 10 years and arrived at a startling conclusion. As most of us might tend to believe, the average age of the founders of these companies did not turn out to be 20 or even 30 but 45. In fact, even more surprising conclusion was arrived at when the researchers went on to find the mean age of an entrepreneur when he or she actually lays the foundation of a startup. When a total of 2.7 million founders were examined, the mean age of when they are founding startups unexpectedly turns out to be 42.

Interestingly, similar results have emerged from the field of arts and sciences when we examine the relationship between age of a person and major breakthroughs achieved. In 2014, Jones and Weinberg examined ‘Nobel Prize winners and great technological innovators in the 20th Century’ and found that the average age when one achieves ‘great scientific output’ is 40. Truly, as an example, Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered Penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic.

The results of such studies are vital - not only for those in their mid-twenties and already starting to wilt under the pressure but also for the ones in their mid-forties who assume that they are well over the hill to embark on an entrepreneurial or an experimental journey.

Representational Image. Reuters

Representational Image. Reuters

Worryingly, the outlook is now firmly established that if our generation were to produce great achievers it has to launch itself as early as possible. As it was the case a decade ago, graduates achieving the feat of starting their career at a $100,000 salary is no more a headline. People are now interested in the stories of the ones who could publish a book, start a Youtube channel, become a social media influencer or get their startup stories go viral even before hitting their twenties. Carefully crafted headlines on child prodigies, teenage entrepreneurs, tech wizards or the all aspiring lists of 30 under 30 create false reality and bring significant pressure at the doorstep of our generation.  Indeed, this is a result when we try evolving our minds only through the headlines instead of following deep learning.

If we deeply reflect on the combined result of above mentioned studies on why the average age of achieving success hit forties, following lessons can be learnt:

  1. A curious and experimental mind is key to achieving success. Richard Feynman, the prodigious Nobel Prize winning physicist, whom Bill Gates lovingly call as ‘the best teacher I never had,’ considered curiosity as key to breaking new grounds. Hence, as contrary as it may sound,we should throw the age deadlines out of the window and freely expose ourselves to diverse experiences, travel, read, engage with alternative viewpoints and also allow us the freedom to remain uncertain.
  1. It is amazing to see how the word failure is often marked with red, starting right from our school assessments. People are often advised to craft their CVs and polish stumbling stones in their life’s journeys as successful halts. Those who have achieved consistently would vouch for the fact that the actual route to a long successful story often goes through a series of failure. Jonas Salk, the discoverer of polio vaccine, was often made fun of by his scientific peers for adopting unconventional methods. Eventually Salk proved that his failings were truly the stepping stone to achieve the vaccine that now saves lives of millions every year. When those who try and fail are encouraged then a nation has a better chance to produce discoverers and inventors and in turn knowledge driven start-ups, which is key for it to keep pace with the other economies.
  1. Another important lesson which, although goes beyond the commercial realm, could be the most important one for our lives. It is to do with falling in love, building relationships, and raising children. The pressure to achieve success in thirties is resulting in younger generation avoiding nurturing long-term relationships and delaying having children. Take for instance the case of the UK. For the first time in UK's history, there are now more women in their 40s who conceive than the ones below 30. The understanding of the fact that one can very well begin in their 40s and yet achieve greater success than their younger counterparts can takeaway the pressure of falling off the track from the minds of those wanting to raise families along with developing their careers.
  1. Finally, it is crucial to realize that when one lives with the principle that life is a journey, which requires us to keep trying, opportunities gets thrown at us from most unexpected corners. The iconic poet-writer Rabindranath Tagore was in his forties when he decided to pick brush and turn into a painter but failed miserably. He gave up only to pick it up again at the ripe age of sixty and eventually went on to create several masterpieces, which are now part of our proud national heritage.


(The writer is a PhD in education from the University of Oxford and currently an associate fellow at Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies. Some of the ideas have been taken from his upcoming book Fluid – the approach applied by geniuses over centuries.)

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Updated Date: Aug 03, 2018 11:27:57 IST

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