In 1946, a 23-year-old Army veteran named John Goodenough headed to the University of Chicago with a dream of studying physics. When he arrived, a professor warned him that he was already too old to succeed in the field.
Recently, Dr. Goodenough recounted that story for me and then laughed uproariously. He ignored the professor’s advice and today, at 94, has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity. He and his team at the University of Texas at Austin filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles. His announcement has caused a stir, in part, because Dr. Goodenough has done it before. In 1980, at age 57, he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package.
We tend to assume that creativity wanes with age. 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.
“Young people are just smarter,” Mark Zuckerberg pronounced at an event at Stanford in 2007, when he was the 22-year-old chief executive of Facebook. He added, according to a VentureBeat writer, “I only own a mattress,” and then expounded upon the putative correlation between youth and creative power. His logic didn’t exactly make sense (and he later apologized), but his meaning was perfectly clear: Middle-aged people are encumbered by boring possessions (gutters, dental floss, orthopedic shoes) and stale ideas.
Since that speech, Silicon Valley’s youth worship seems to have grown even more feverish. Recently, a 12-year-old inventor named Shubham Banerjee received venture-capital funds from Intel to start his own company.