Too Old to Be Awesome?

On my way downtown this morning, I was skimming an article in this week’s New Yorker that asks the question: Why do we equate genius with precocity? In the story, author Malcolm Gladwell tries to dispel the widely held belief that all true innovators — geniuses — make their mark on the world at an early age by pointing to writer Ben Fountain, who hit his stride at age 48 after writing for nearly two decades, and Cezanne, whose later paintings, created in Cezanne’s 60s, are valued fifteen times more highly than his work as a young man.

The piece reminded me of another I’d read recently in Wired, where author Clive Johnson argued why “veteran visionaries will save the world.” Citing a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation survey of 652 U.S.-born high-tech company founders whose median and averages when they started their companies (between 1995 and 2005) was 39 years old, Johnson asked why it is that our society seems to associate innovation with age. His own answer? “Because young and old founders create different types of startups.”

“Mature entrepreneurs tend to launch startups that require huge amounts of capital — biotech companies, energy firms, outfits that make expensive hardware,” wrote Johnson. “Startup costs in these areas include tens of millions for research resources, large staffs, maybe a laboratory. Then, to take their invention to market, they have to navigate complex, entrenched industries, which requires connections…In contrast, those sexy Web-service firms that have dominated headlines on and off for the past decade require almost no capital. The ‘social software’ market also rewards people who intuitively understand new media experiences…In essence, the high tech world divides itself: Young people create the way-kewl consumer software — the Twitters and the Loopts — and older folks tackle the heavy-industry stuff. Young founders hack information; old founders hack atoms.”

I’m trying to decide what I think of both pieces. I believe wholeheartedly that this country wrongly writes off anyone who hasn’t achieved a certain standard of success — particularly financial — by middle age. In fact, I was a little surprised when I recently received an invitation to attend an all-day leadership competition for people aged 21 to 40. (Older than that? Don’t bother.)

But Gladwell’s piece is a little squishy, while Johnson may be overreaching. I don’t necessarily believe that more “mature” entrepreneurs tend to launch startups that require huge amounts of capital. Some of those “sexy Web-service firms” started by young entrepreneurs quickly become incredibly capital intensive, owing to their huge ambitions — and number of employees. Meanwhile, younger entrepreneurs don’t always go after social software. We just tend to celebrate them more in the press because, frankly, social software is something that everyone — reporters and our readers — can easily get our minds around.

What do readers think? Have you read either piece, or both? Do you have thoughts about whether genius/leadership/the potential for success has an expiration date, and why? I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I sort out my own.