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Are You Too Old To Be The Next Mark Zuckerberg?

Are You Too Old To Be The Next Mark Zuckerberg?

I was at a local networking event when a woman in her mid-40s approached me. "I think I'm over-the-hill in the creativity department," she sighed. I was about to give a talk to the group about identifying new growth opportunities in traditional businesses. A couple of other women overheard and chimed in.

"Mark Zuckerberg was 19 when he founded Facebook. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were 23 when Google popped into their heads. Bill Gates was only 20 when he founded Microsoft," said one.

"Maybe you have to be young to think up big ideas," agreed another.

At that moment, I knew I had to switch gears and address what seemed to be a pressing concern of these women, and probably a lot of other people who haven't been 20-something for more than a decade.

The age factor is an important question. The population is aging: By 2030, the average age will rise from 37 to 39 in the United States, from 40 to 45 in the European Union, and from 45 to 49 in Japan. If innovation is truly the domain of youth, we could be in trouble.

The good news is: it isn't.

Here are some of the facts I laid out about age and innovation that turned their thinking around:

1. Older entrepreneurs are more successful than younger ones. Generally speaking, the Zuckerbergs of the world are exceptions rather than rules. The average age of tech company founders is closer to 40, according to Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa, who looked at 549 people who started successful technology companies. Wadhwa also discovered that older entrepreneurs success rates are higher than their younger counterparts. That's because they bring more experience to the table, as well as a broad and deep network of relationships and a comprehensive knowledge of their field.

The Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based group that studies and encourages entrepreneurship, found that people older than 55 are almost twice as likely to found successful companies as people in their twenties and early thirties.

Female entrepreneurs, in particular, tend to start businesses as a second or third profession, and as a consequence, they tend to be older -- between 40 and 60 -- and better educated than right-out-of-college entrepreneurs, making their odds of success pretty good.

2. Older brains work better. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young (Hyperion Books, 2003), says our brain circuitry actually works better in our 40s and 50s than it does in our 20s and 30s. We think better and are better able to make innovative connections.

Small also notes that older people can have greater insights than young people because they have more knowledge and memories to draw on as they unpack and synthesize new information. The ability to both anticipate problems and use complex reasoning skills improves as we age.

3. Creativity self-germinates. Stay actively engaged in your business and you will naturally be better able to innovate ideas to make it better. Lars Nyberg, professor of neuroscience at Umea University in Sweden, found that brain maintenance is the primary determinant of successful cognitive aging and that includes maintenance at all levels: cellular, neurochemical, gray and white-matter integrity, and systems-level activation patterns.

While various genetic and lifestyle factors have an effect on brain maintenance in older people, consistent "interventions" such as social, intellectual and physical stimulation "reliably show greater cognitive performance with a brain that appears younger than its years," Nyberg says.

4. Competitive behavior peaks in your 50s. Older people are better at taking competition-oriented risks to achieve a bigger payoff. "Competitions are really important as people go after resources, political positioning, college admission, jobs and the like," said researchers from the University of Oregon who studied people ages 25 to 75. "How well you perform in them determines your success. Maybe it's all about choices people make.

Seeing competitive risk-taking going up to age 50 was surprising to the researchers, but reassuring to those of us past 40. We can still compete effectively for many more years. 

Maintain your brain health through the proven methods of eating well, exercising regularly, and consistently engaging in stimulating intellectual and artistic pursuits, there is no reason you can't come up with your best business ideas at any stage in life.

Reading about wunderkinds and their multimillion-dollar businesses, not to mention the emphasis on youthful images in advertising and other media can lead us to think only the young have something new to contribute. But we should know better.

If you're still not convinced, consider the average age at which twentieth century Nobel Prize winners made their greatest innovations: 39. According to Kellogg School of Management economist Benjamin F. Jones, the largest number of great technological and scientific advances – a whopping 72 percent -- came during an inventor's 30s and 40s. Only seven percent of them came before the age of 26.

No matter your age -- if you're in entrepreneurship for life, you'll likely succeed.
 

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Debra Kaye is a brand and culture strategist and partner at Lucule, a New York-based innovation consulting firm. She is author of the book, Red Thread Thinking (McGraw-Hill, 2013).

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