What impact does homeostasis have on your career as you get older?
What are some of the practical implications of this?
And, now that you have this information, how can you use it to become successful and reach the top of your field?
These are some of the questions that I’ll now jump into. . .
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Break out of Homeostasis.
Be Who You Want to Be Before Age 30
“A man’s character is formed before he is 30.“
“By the time you are past 30 your character is formed. You will not change.”
—Lee Kuan Yew, First Prime Minister of Singapore
“A man without a heroic bent starts dying at the age of thirty. “
–Nassim Taleb, philosopher and author
The brain–including one’s personality, habits, and world view–is most malleable under the age of somewhere around 30. Neuroscientist Jay Giedd says that our personalities change more during our twenties than at any time, before or after.
Homeostasis grows not just stronger, but also more dangerous to disrupt, the older a person gets. Young people tend to greatly underestimate how much stress (discomfort, pain, change, fear, etc.) they can bear, while older people are prone to overestimate their physiological capacity for breaking out of their homeostasis, and changing their brain and body.
The philosopher William James, who lived between 1842 and 1910, wrote much about the phenomenon that we now know to be homeostasis. Science, at that point, had little information about the brain and its functions, the endocrine system, and the formation of habits. James was ahead of the curve when he wrote that:
The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.
Most ground-breaking innovations and great achievements are made by young people
Over the years, many people have observed that the greatest–most original and creative–work done by musicians has been done in their youth. Under the age of 30, to be specific. Is there any truth to this observation? If so, could it also be that this holds true for other career fields too, other than just music?
Albert Einstein said that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.” Historically speaking, there is a very clear trend suggesting that this is correct. Two facts which support this are that:
- Young people are less cognitively challenged when it comes to accepting and adopting new information, scientific theories (as noted by Max Planck), and technology.
- In addition to being born into a new paradigm, young people have more energy, ‘faster’ brains, and less physiological resistance to change (a weaker homeostasis).
. . . This allows young people not only to see patterns that older people don’t, but it also affords them the fortitude to follow-through on their ideas, do something about it, and have an impact.
Here are a couple of people that you probably know of, who achieved extreme success, or made exceptional discoveries at an early age:
- Blaise Pascal created the first version of the calculator as a teenager, and went on to innovate theories on geometry and probability theory in his early twenties.
- Isaac Newton’s early scientific innovations, in mathematics, optics and mechanics, were made in his mid-twenties, at home, during the Great Plague.
- Napoleon Bonaparte got promoted to brigadier general at age 24, general of the army of Italy at age 26, and became First Consul of France at age 35.
- John D. Rockefeller–at the age of 31–had created Standard Oil, consolidated 22 out of 26 rival refineries in Cleveland, and built the foundation that would go on to make him the richest man in history.
- Nikola Tesla’s first well-known invention, the induction engine, was finished at age 30.
- Thomas Edison’s first truly successful invention, the phonograph, was completed at age 30.
- Albert Einstein conceived of most of his ideas in his twenties (and accomplished relatively little for the rest of his life).
- Steve Jobs founded Apple at age 21 with Steve Wozniak.
- Bill Gates founded Microsoft at age 20 with Paul Allen.
- Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google, both aged 23.
Obviously, you could argue that this is merely anecdotal evidence, and that it doesn’t necessarily prove anything by itself–and that is a valid argument. But when you couple it with the fact that the human brain–in particular the prefrontal cortex–is ‘evolutionarily complete’ around the age of 30, and combine that with the fact that homeostasis grows in strength as you get older, you wind up with some pretty convincing evidence suggesting that it is not just an anecdotal observation.
Still, many people will not want to believe this–because it is a very disconcerting idea; a harsh reality. Those people will want to dispel their discomfort by, for example, pointing to the success stories of Colonel Sanders (who founded KFC at age 65), or Sam Walton (who founded Walmart at the age of 44).
And that’s also true: those guys went on to do great things at an older age. But there are two things to consider:
- These people are outliers (among extreme-achievers).
- And, while they did not achieve their success before age 30, they certainly did not squander their youth. On the contrary: they spent it well; acquiring knowledge, positive work habits, and facing fears; breaking out of homeostasis.
Another popular ‘late bloomer success story’ is that of Ray Kroc (who made McDonald’s popular at the ripe age of 52). But that example is also taken out of context, for Kroc himself said that “I was an overnight success alright, but 30 years is a long, long night.” In other words, he had spent years in preparation and practice.
Therefore, the theory that most major accomplishments are achieved by young people likely does have some truth to it.
There is a consistent historic trend of extremely successful people, high-achievers, pioneering innovators, scientists, and inventors making their biggest contributions around the age of 30, or younger.
And, the people who make great scientific contributions, accomplish impressive achievements, or reach massive success in business at a later stage in life, nearly always spent their youth well; looking upon it as training, as an investment into their future. For example:
- While Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did not publish Faust until 1808, when he was 59 years old, he had spent most of his life prior to that reading, writing, and studying.
- Ted Turner created CNN in 1980, when he was 42 years old. But he had spent his childhood reading hundreds of books educating himself, and had been working 16-hour days in the billboard industry since age 24, making large sums of money. He was no stranger to business.
- Mythologist Joseph Campbell was relatively unknown until he published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, at age 45. However, between age 25 and 30, Campbell did nothing but read classics and history books for nine hours per day.
I could go on and list many more examples, but I won’t. I repeat: These people did not squander their youth. They used it for the deliberate aim of acquiring positive habits, to learn, and to build work ethic.
There is an even more consistent trend among extremely successful people, high-achievers, pioneering innovators, scientists, and inventors to deliberately use their youth (20s) as a ‘launching pad’ for propelling them to greatness.
As managerial guru Peter Drucker said: “There is but one requirement for managing the second half of your life: to start creating it long before one enters it.”
The million dollar question: Will this trend go on?
In the latter case, of people achieving greatness as a result of deliberately spending their youth in training for it? Yes—without a doubt. In the former case, of people making their biggest (scientific) discoveries and ground-breaking innovations in business before age 30? No, not necessarily. Let me explain why. . .
While the cerebral advantage of younger people–that of being born into a new paradigm, being better equipped to notice and adapt new technology, and being less confined by their homeostasis–will remain, as it is a part of the human condition, other things are changing–rapidly. Such as the rate at which information is being produced, and the amount of existing knowledge.
Going into the future, this is likely going to reduce the number of people capable of achieving extreme accomplishments at an age under 30, because: the ‘bar to greatness’ is being pushed higher at an exponential rate. Let me explain why this is so.
The Accelerated Growth of Information and Scientific Knowledge Since the Time of Isaac Newton
- According to mathematician Richard Hamming, the knowledge of science has doubled for every year since the time of Isaac Newton (in the mid 17th century). In other words: despite standing on the shoulder of giants–or rather, because of it–every new generation has to solve more advanced (scientific) problems than the previous generations.
What I did [in mathematics] would not make me successful if I were starting now.
- All of Hammings’ discoveries that were considered to be great contributions to the scientific community and the general good, were made in his first 15 years. He said that: “In mathematics, theoretical physics, and astrophysics–in the past–the best work was done by a person very young. . . Most great scientists’ work was done surprisingly young. . . If you want to go into a field like mathematics, and you’re 40–forget it, you’re not going to do much.”
- In Newton’s time there was only one branch of science, called ‘Natural Philosophy’. Even at the time of Benjamin Franklin, scientists were still hobbyists, who often had to build their own tools. Today, we have LOTS of specialties, laboratories, and institutes. Hamming estimated that there existed around 10,000 fields of specialty in 1995.
- If you assume 10,000 specialties as of 1995, then 340 years from that time–in 2335–there would be 10 billion fields of specialties, given the rate of growth. While this is just an estimate, it seems extremely unlikely. Clearly, the doubling of scientific fields cannot go on forever. In fact, it will probably not go on for many more generations. However, it is most likely still going on, as of right now, in 2015.
- Then you also have to consider that we now have the Internet. Nowhere is this trend of accelerated growth more visible–or faster–than when it comes to information online. Here’s what Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said in 2011:
Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes of information created. We now create five exabytes every two days. See why it’s so painful to operate in information markets?
- Economist and futurist Tyler Cowen, in his book Average is Over (from 2012), writes that scientific problems are becoming increasingly complex in most areas; that they are less susceptible to simple, intuitive, and big breakthroughs. By and large, this also holds true for business–except in novel industries, such as the Internet-related fields online marketing and social media.
- Cowen explains that the reason young people, like Mark Zuckerberg, who’ve achieved extreme success, did so because they went into industries where the threshold–the ‘bar to greatness’-–hadn’t yet been raised very high. In established industries, this is becoming more difficult to do for each day that passes.
Mastery within nearly all fields is taking longer, and becoming increasingly challenging. Even in fields where creativity and youth are huge advantages–such as mathematics or physics–the ‘bar to greatness’ continues to get higher.
- Cowen goes on to explain that in 1905 Nobel-wining physicists, on average, made their breakthrough discoveries at the age of 37. In 1985, the corresponding age was 50. In chemistry, the age increased from 36 to 47 during the same period, and for medical scientists the age rose from 38 to 46. So, as you see, the trend is evident: it is taking longer to become ‘world-class’ in the established fields of science.
Homeostasis Will Make You or Break You as You Grow Older
In some fields, maturity is the best thing. But not in mathematics, theoretical physics, and astrophysics, where RAW creativity counts, youth is a great advantage, and experience is not.
Statistically speaking, the chances of you entering a new industry are low. Why? Because the school system is set up in such a way as to train you for the already established industries.
So, assuming that you do not enter into a new industry, you must realize this: you are running a marathon, not a sprint, where your ability to defy homeostasis, and remain adaptive, will determine whether or not you’ll become an innovator.
If you want to reach world-class standing in an already established industry where, as Hamming put it, “maturity is the best thing”, then you must use your youth as a launching pad.
Whatever you do, you must not waste your 20s. You must start living a lifestyle conducive to breaking out of homeostasis, so that you will remain crisp as you get older.
Practical Tips if You Should Decide to Enter Into a New Industry or Scientific Area
If your goal is to enter a new industry and have as much impact as possible, do this: maximize the potential of your youthful brain.
When you are young and ambitious, you want to put yourself in a position where you have maximum incentive to learn as much as you can, and work as hard as possible. For example, by being an entrepreneur, or by working for a small company where people listen to you and you’re given a lot of responsibility.
Alternatively, if your interests are not related to business, you should get involved in some (scientific) field where you have the opportunity to pursue your curiosity unhinged by bureaucracy, obsolete tradition, regulation, and other things that put your brain on a leash.
* * *
That was a lot of condensed information I just threw in your face!
Let’s consider the implications of these things, shall we?
Here’s How All This Stuff Relates to Homeostasis
You may have heard about elderly people who were ‘shocked’ and fell sick by being relocated, moved out of their homes, and put into elderly care. This is homeostasis at work; too much change, too suddenly, happening too late in life is dangerous.
As you get older, starting around age 30, you will become more conservative. You will slowly begin to drift–instinctively–towards routine, safety, and monotony. This is because homeostasis grows in power the older you get, and if you do not deliberately practice breaking out of homeostasis starting from an early age, you’re not going to be able to do it later in life.
There are two conclusions to draw from this:
1) From a physiological standpoint, your brain and body may not allow you to take risk, or endure change, as readily as when you were younger.
2) Therefore you need to start doing things that require change early in life, to increase your adaptability. Work hard and spend more energy than you need to ‘just get by’, use your brain as much as you can, deliberately incur stress on yourself, flood yourself with novel stimuli, take on increasingly large challenges, and face your fears. Break out of homeostasis.
By doing this you’ll not freak out, get shocked, or become sick when you get put through too much change. Like inoculating a child with smallpox to save its life later on, a lifestyle conducive to breaking out of homeostasis will act as a preventive measure to strengthen its practitioner. . .
. . . and ensure that you’ll win the marathon.