Does Experience Have a Negative Correlation with Success?

Scott "Dilbert" Adams says so:

If you look at the great achievements in history, they are usually accomplished by younger people. Those people continue to acquire relevant experience throughout their careers but their successes do not continue at the same rate. For anything important, experience probably has a strong negative correlation with success. If that weren’t true, all the hit songs, hot startups, and new inventions would be coming from geezers.

Yes, but the ideal situation is some experience but not too much experience. To quote an old post of mine:

We theorized the best time to start a company was around age 27. On the one hand, you have acquired enough knowledge and experience to do something meaningful. On the other hand, you aren’t weighed down by the baggage of too many experiences and the tendency for such baggage to reinforce preconceived notions. And you aren’t overly jaded. And you probably don’t have a family to care for. Also, when you’re 27, you’re still free from the status worries that bedevil adults — you don’t give a shit what the neighbor thinks.

(hat tip Jeff Nolan)

12 Responses to Does Experience Have a Negative Correlation with Success?

  1. This seems very meaningful in general, but I’m wondering how many truly exceptional people fit the general rules? There are older people who don’t do “baggage” at all. Maybe their numbers will increase, in the future…

  2. Cory Levy says:

    Interesting post.

    Didn’t know that the best time to start a company in theory is 27. If I were to follow that theory and wait till I am 27, I would be pretty bored for 11 years ;)

  3. @ “…experience probably has a strong negative correlation with success.”

    This is nonsense.

    I would say experience has a strong positive correlation with success.

    Those who’ve had spectacular success in their younger days have more opportunity to acquire new experience.

    Young hotshots forget that Silicon Valley isn’t the world, where the geriatrics are still firmly in control.;-)

  4. Willy says:

    I think your quote from an old post is getting at the right think. Higher risk tolerance should lead to larger successes – and more miserable failures. You tend to notice the successes.

  5. Krishna says:

    Average age of Nobel laureates is well past 50. Negative correlation still…?

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    Cory – If you start younger, all the better. 27 then becomes 22 — or whatever.

    Krishna – Nobel prizes are usually awarded many years after a person’s had his/her invention.

  7. Krishna says:

    Ben,

    Thanks… You may please check out their age at the time of publication of their thesis / invention and come back.

    Had I referred their age at the time of awarding Nobel, I would’ve put the average age well past 80’s…:)

  8. Hate to break the news to you, but do you remember Colonel Sanders? He’d failed at many things before he started Kentucky Fried Chicken. And he was on in years when he did so.

  9. LP says:

    I think Willy has it right — young folks take more risks and do more things that no one with any large investment in their image would try. Thus, from a business perspective, we should expect to see more blockbusters and more total flops among the young. In science, here’s what you see: lots and lots of grad students and postdocs working under a respected researcher. Their job is to try lots of weird ideas; their failures aren’t a blemish on the senior scientist’s reputation, but their successes are his successes.

  10. dave says:

    Young people have an advantage for conceptual breakthoughs, but success in general is a very broad term. How about Jack Welch and Warren Buffett?

  11. Cory – 27 might be the ideal age to start a successful company, but that doesn’t mean you should just wait around until then. Most people don’t get everything right on their first try so if you do start a company now you might find that the experience helps you start another one when you’re older. Doing that has the potential to give you experience a lot faster than other alternatives. Since I have yet to start a profitable business that’s based on something other than the hours I work, I have a few years to go too :)

    Back to the topic: although an isolated example doesn’t prove a point, I’m sure anyone reading this could think of a few people who were repeatedly successful or grew more successful with experience. On the other hand there are lots of people who do one big thing and never manage to repeat it.

    I think there’s some hidden traps in success that could prevent you from creating something as good the second time, whether it’s because of overconfidence; getting too invested in your first big idea; or just having more interest in keeping things the way they are than in changing them. LP’s point fits in to this – if a scientist makes a big discovery that disproves the previous foundation of their field they usually won’t be excited to see someone else do the same thing to their idea, much less do it themselves. A few people can get past this though, and they are the ones who get more even successful with experience.

    Thus experience doesn’t necessarily reduce your chance of success, but earlier success might put you in the wrong mindset to repeat it.

  12. gregory says:

    heck, i am about a hundred, and am finally, finally, finally, wise enough to do something useful.

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