Nobody has ever accused me of genius-like behavior, except in jest. And I’m OK with that, especially as I settle more comfortably into Geezerville, where there is little to prove and less to regret. That doesn’t mean I’m unimpressed by older folks who shine in their chosen arenas long past retirement age. What bugs me is when the culture tries to turn them into demigods.
Take John Goodenough, who 37 years ago invented the lithium-ion battery at the rather ripe (for an inventor) age of 57. Goodenough, a University of Texas scientist, is making headlines again with his recent patent application for a solid-state battery that, according to Pagan Kennedy in the New York Times, would “revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.”
Go ahead and do the math. Yes, he is 94 years old.
“We tend to assume that creativity wanes with age,” Kennedy writes. “But Dr. Goodenough’s story suggests that some people actually become more creative as they grow older. Unfortunately, those late-blooming geniuses have to contend with powerful biases against them.”
Kennedy wants us to believe there are potent cultural forces that discourage geezers like me from ascending to creative heights generally reserved for younger, more ambitious folks. She quotes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who, as a 22-year-old social-media phenom in 2007, remarked that “Young people are just smarter” and cited as evidence the middle-age preoccupation with “boring possessions” and “stale ideas.”
But Zuckerberg is a bit of an anomaly in the inventing business. When researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Japan’s Hitotsubashi University examined patent histories, they found that American inventors tend to hit their stride in middle age — they submitted their first patent application at an average age of 47. And the most valuable patents tended to come from inventors over the age of 55.
The same can be said of the average Nobel Prize winner, who tends to make the discovery that eventually earns them the award at around age 50.
And we now know that the gray matter between our ears doesn’t necessarily congeal into a lump of know-nothingness when we hit retirement age. Neuroplasticity research has long shown that we can maintain — and even improve — our cognitive abilities well into our golden years.
So why should we be surprised when someone like Goodenough — who has accumulated 37 years of battery-technology knowledge since his first big discovery — comes up with another breakthrough? The guy has been working on this stuff for a long time.
“Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking,” he tells Kennedy. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together.”
My powers of invention are limited to lame excuses for small disasters, but I can relate to Goodenough’s turtle. It should remind us all that what makes us constructive in our later years isn’t some rare superpower, but simply the willingness to keep moving.