Untapped technical people near the end of their careers may have more potential than young people

There is a strong narrative around the power of youth and fresh thinking to do things that people expect to require a lot of experience (most physicists publish their most impactful work before age ~35! Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook at age 21 or whatever!). There are also still rafts of examples of people consistently being blocked by their youth or lack of experience rather than because of the quality of their ideas or their actual capabilities. As a result, there are a good number of people and programs focused on scouring the world for talented young people.

The (mostly implicit) narrative that goes along with the “power of untapped youth” narrative is that people with more age and experience have less untapped potential. This lower level of untapped potential happened in one of three ways: high potential people turn it into career momentum and have either accomplished the things they will accomplish or are well-positioned to accomplish them; high potential people never get a chance to use it and that potential decays over time thanks to the erosion effects of life, time, and age; or someone never had potential in the first place. As a result, we often treat older adults as a ‘known quantity.’

Notice that there is an implicit assumption both narratives. In our stories about both young untapped talent and old tapped talent we imply that ‘potential’ is a fixed, inherent trait that people are born with that gets tapped to some greater or lesser extent at any given time and decays over time. This model doesn’t allow for the possibility that someone’s potential could wax and wane over time. I want to argue that this notion is absurd.

Another implicit piece of “untapped potential” is that entering any potential well requires some activation energy. Technically every baby has oodles of untapped potential but you need to wait years and educate them etc. Intuitively, that doesn’t go into the activation energy so what we’re actually going after is “counterfactual potential.” I don’t want to discurse too far on the nature of potential.

It’s pretty clear that Connections create new knowledge. This has been reframed many ways, from Jerry Neumann’s One Process - Post, to Stuart Kauffman’s concept of the Adjacent Possible, to my §Tech Tree Model of Heuretics. Given new knowledge’s dependence on connections within a single mind (New ideas need to come out of a single mind), obviously that mind’s ability to create new connections depends on what’s inside of it. People tend to learn more over time (especially Tacit Knowledge) which should suggest that people would build more knowledge-creation ability over time.

We don’t talk about the new-knowledge-generating power of built-up experience much. One straightforward reason is the assumption that this increased knowledge-creation ability has already been “priced in” and there are plenty of mechanisms to tap it: people with power tend to have more experience, most people and institutions defer to people with more experience, etc. Another reason (especially among the sort of people who are thinking about young people’s potential) is that the ability to create new connections also depends on the ability to connect things and time/age do tend to calcify people’s thinking. As a result you have the competing trends over time of increasing experience and tacit knowledge (WIS?) and decreasing mental agility and worn thinking grooves (INT?).

Just creating new knowledge connections isn’t enough. Their creator also needs to disseminate them. (Yes there can be some division of labor — see the bulldogs for both Einstein and Darwin — but at least some of the original convincing needs to come from the creator.) Knowledge dissemination requires both willingness/desire and ability.

Pushing new ideas into the world is hard, scary, and opens you up to attack and humiliation. There are secretly two things going on here: fear of hamstringing your future self (Shadows of the Future) and aversion to losing the things you already have (money, status, stuff, relationships, etc.) (Loss aversion). The standard narrative is that young people have a lot of risk tolerance and then it tends to decrease over time. Young people are definitely less susceptible to the latter piece of risk aversion because they just have had less time to accumulate stuff. However! There isn’t actually a structural reason why they would be less susceptible to Shadows of the Future besides maybe “youthful optimism.” In fact, I suspect on average the shadow of the future decreases over time (maybe not monotonically) and loss aversion increases.

Pushing new ideas into the world is difficult and exhausting. Like willingness, it might be possible to decompose the ability to disseminate ideas into two factors: ‘vigor/energy’ and ‘power.’ Both are Nebulous. Vigor is just the ability to just take lots of actions quickly, especially in the face of adversity or fear. The idea of ‘youthful vigor’ seems grounded in fact so on average it seems reasonable to say that vigor decreases over time. Power is the ability to have the things you want to happen happen — it comes from people’s inclination to listen to you, your ability to be heard, etc. Power tends to increase over time as you accumulate credentials, experience, and connections.

Focusing on youth makes sense if loss aversion dominates shadows of the future and vigor dominates power when it comes to pushing ideas into the world, along with the fact that in the long run people’s potential converges with their ability to tap it (ie. High-potential people either end up in a good position or their potential gets beaten out of them). That may not always be the case.

Specifically, in contrast to the intense focus on people at the beginning of their careers, there seems to be a distinct focus paucity on people at the end of their careers.

The characterization of people at the end of their careers is that they are tired, risk-averse, and fixed in their mindsets around old paradigms and ways of doing things, and generally tapped out potential-wise. If they had the potential to do something awesome, they would have done it.

While many people at the end of their careers may be tapped out, let’s play with an alternative narrative. People at the end of their career have very few fucks left to give: they aren’t subject to the shadow of the future except around their legacy, which can only be enhanced by high-variance work; they don’t have to worry about supporting a family; and they’re planning to retire soon anyway so they’ll likely be willing to work on something for low pay if it’s awesome enough. People at the end of their career are brimming with Tacit Knowledge and secrets. If indeed Connections create new knowledge and an area is shot through with tacit knowledge, there is new knowledge that only older people can create. These people can also act like bridges to past eras or bodies of knowledge. We like to think that the knowledge frontier grows monotonically along all dimensions with time (The knowledge frontier is a high-dimensional garden) but that’s demonstrably not true. Beyond the trite examples like Greek fire, things like high quality program design appear to be lost (or at least withered) arts. (See Instead of planning not working as well as people in the past thought, as a society we’ve become worse at technological planning.) Finally, we don’t live in a true meritocracy — people don’t get tapped to their full potential and often their power isn’t commensurate with their knowledge. There are plenty of extremely intelligent, skilled people who through different life circumstances get stuck in a back room, a derpy company, or a third-tier university. While those environments may many people’s potential, that’s probably not universally true.

Now, the trick may be that the way to unleash these people’s potential may look very different than the ways we’re used to unleashing young people’s potential. To unleash young people you generally hook them up with mentors and resources and let them rip. It’s not clear exactly what unleashing old people might look like — perhaps helping them find execution-minded collaborators and resources. This difference is both worth taking seriously and may be one of the reasons we overlook old people’s potential: they don’t pattern match against the kind of empowerment we’re used to providing.

There’s of course a question of how many high-potential old people there are. Maybe the anecdotes I can think of are just crazy bizarre outliers. But there seem to be enough anecdotes without extremely restrictive conditions that it’s not absurd to think that we’re talking about one in a hundred thousand type numbers not one in a billion. If that’s the case, it’s worth pursuing because compared to the hundreds? of organizations that scour the world for young potential, I really can’t think of a single one that does the same for old potential.

Some examples:


Web URL for this note

Comment on this note