Age, productivity, entrepreneurship, and life expectancy

This post was inspired by Marc Andreessen’s post on Age and the Entrepreneur. In the post, Marc shares his views of what ages are best to be an entrepreneur. Although Marc doesn’t give a definitive answer to the question, he proposes a framework to think about the problem.

The gist of the post is that there’s a tradeoff between enthusiasm and experience. Enthusiasm is usually higher at a young age and experience is greater at an old age. Your view on the best time to be an entrepreneur depends on whether you believe that enthusiasm or experience is a bigger determinant of an entrepreneur’s success.

My view is that enthusiasm is the first step to motivation, and that motivation with a baseline level of intelligence is what produces success. I therefore think that enthusiasm is more important than experience and this favors a younger age for entrepreneurship.

While this is my theoretical view, in practice I’ve seen successful entrepreneurs in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. So clearly this theoretical view oversimplifies the practical reality. The reality is that great entrepreneurship happens when you become obsessed about something and it’s difficult to predict the set of circumstances which will come together to make this happen.

In the post, Marc draws from the research of Dean Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis. Here are the interesting parts.

“One empirical generalization appears to be fairly secure: If one plots creative output as a function of age, productivity tends to rise fairly rapidly to a definite peak and thereafter decline gradually until output is about half the rate at the peak.

The location of the peak, as well as the magnitude of the postpeak decline, tends to vary depending on the domain of creative achievement.

At one extreme, some fields are characterized by relatively early peaks, usually around the early 30s or even late 20s in chronological units, with somewhat steep descents thereafter, so that the output rate becomes less than one-quarter the maximum. This age-wise pattern apparently holds for such endeavors as lyric poetry, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics…

The typical trends in other endeavors may display a leisurely rise to a comparatively late peak, in the late 40s or even 50s chronologically, with a minimal if not largely absent drop-off afterward. This more elongated curve holds for such domains as novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine, and general scholarship.

Indeed, because an earlier productive optimum means that a writer can die younger without loss to his or her ultimate reputation, poets exhibit a life expectancy, across the globe and through history, about a half dozen years less than prose writers do.”

There may be other reasons why poets live shorter lives than prose writers. However, if we assume that the difference in life expectancy is entirely the result of poets believing they’ve reached the top of their craft earlier than prose writers, avoiding this belief will help us live longer.

We need to get better at what we do each and every day no matter what we’ve accomplished in the past. The moment we stop doing this is the moment we begin dying.

Originally published at Thoughts of a VC.