Aging innovators know it: Amazing ideas aren’t the only way to go

Elizabeth HazenThe ability to come up with brilliant new ideas tends to decline with age, but that’s no problem for people whose innovations aren’t dependent on brilliant ideas.

They’re innovators who are experimental, rather than conceptual. For them, aging isn’t such a handicap, since they typically improve with experience. But they do face a particular problem of their own:

People tend to forget that they exist.

Despite the examples of middle-aged and older experimental innovators from Henry Ford to Sam Walton, experimental innovators are often overlooked when thinkers theorize about innovation.

A recent example this pervasive forgetfulness is Janet Rae-Dupress’s piece “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike” that the New York Times published Dec. 30.

In it, she explored the problems that conceptual innovators face as they age, with nary a mention of an experimental innovator:

“As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.”

Among the solutions she explores is to break through the rigid shell of expertise by bringing a newcomer into the midst of the veterans:

“When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed … it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems.”

That’s not how experimental innovators work. They build on past knowledge and experience, which tends to delay their greatest achievements until mid-career or later. Below are some examples of innovators in business, science and invention whose noteworthy achievements came in middle age or later. Many, perhaps all, are experimental innovators.

(For examples from the arts, see elsewhere in this blog and the related “Arts of Innovation” Web site, which explore the implications of the work of University of Chicago economist David Galenson about conceptual and experimental innovation.)

  • Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Co. at age 39 and, with plenty of expert advice and many factories’ examples to draw on, he geared up its assembly lines when he was in his late 40s. “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work,” he said.
  • Sam Walton was 44 when he launched the first Wal-Mart in 1962. It was an innovative variety of discount store, but so too were the first K-mart, Woolco and Target stores, which also opened in 1962. The success of Wal-Mart depended on what Walton had learned about efficiency, employee motivation and customer satisfaction earlier in his retailing career.
  • Baruch S. Blumberg was 44 and Irving Millman was 46 when they patented their blood test to detect the hepatitis B virus.
  • Robert R. Williams developed a method to synthesize vitamins to fight malnutrition at , 46.
  • Grace Hopper was in her mid-40s when she automated the nuts and bolts of computer programming by creating the first compiler, building on her decades of experience in math and computers. She went on to help invent the COBOL computer language in her 50s.
  • Percy Lavon Julian patented cortisone synthesis at age 51.
  • Ray Kroc was 52 when he incorporated McDonald’s. He could rely on years of experience in restaurant equipment sales when he began to create his unprecedented worldwide fast-food empire on the basis of the innovative food-preparation techniques that he acquired from the original McDonald brothers.
  • Maurice Hilleman developed 40 vaccines from his 30s to his 60s.
  • John C. Sheehan patented his process for penicillin synthesis at 58.
  • Alan Greenspan changed the way the Federal Reserve controlled the U.S. economy during his terms as Fed chairman, when he was age 61 to 79.
  • Elizabeth Hazen discovered the fungicide nystatin at age 65

For more about experimental and conceptual innovators, see Daniel Pink’s article “What Kind of Genius Are You?” in “Wired” (July 2006):

”We need those brash, certain, paradigm-busting youthful conceptualists. We should give them free rein to do bold work and avoid saddling them with rules and bureaucracy. But we should also leave room for those of us who have, er, avoided peaking too early, whose most innovative days may lie ahead. … We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age. ”

See also the February 2007 lecture “Age Before Beauty” by Malcolm Gladwell (a PDF file).


One Response to Aging innovators know it: Amazing ideas aren’t the only way to go

  1. Juli says:

    Thank you to post this article, so inspiring.

    I agree that old age is nothing to do with our motivation and strength, this what we can see at those people you listed above such as Henry Ford, Elizabeth Hazen, and so forth.

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