Is there anything that we can get continuously and consistently better at by extensive and sustained work longer than a decade or so?
A question that has been asked a number of times on discussion boards is “could someone of decent fitness reach Olympic standard at some sport if they started at the age of 25?”. The usual response is that there are some examples—equestrian sports, sailing, archery, shooting—where there are serious international competitors aged in their 40s and 50s, and so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that someone could get there starting at 25. A further strand to this argument is that there aren’t only competitors in that age range there. There are perfectly competitive people in, say, their twenties competing against the older competitors. It isn’t as if you need to start at 5 years old and put in 50 years of practice before you stand a chance of being up there with the best. You plateau out—whether at local club level or Olympic gold medal level—after a number of years of sustained effort. You don’t just continue, Duracell-bunny-like, to get better and better as you put in the effort over the years.
So, experience might not be a disadvantage in these activities, but beyond a certain (rather advanced!) point it isn’t an actual advantage either. Are there any areas where it is almost necessary to have put in the years to be any good? I struggle to think of anything. Let us consider some other areas of human endeavour.
In science and maths, there doesn’t seem to be anything like this. The rather addleheaded idea that “mathematicians are burned out at 25/30/35″ is on the wane. Nonetheless, it seems that with the right combination of study and focus and talent you can get to a research-frontier understanding of most areas of science and maths in about ten years of hard study, from a fairly standing start. Some topics have gotten pretty complex, but not so much that you need to spend ten years learning the basics, then another ten years learning how to use those basics, then another ten years learning about the real frontier stuff.
Craft skills similarly seem to need a number of years to reach professional standards, after which there isn’t really a notable advance in skill. There might be more diversity of practice, richer application of skill, etc., but isn’t as if we only regard as world-class the craft-work of makers in their 60s, say. We would probably make a distinction between the work of a one-year-experience potter and that of a ten-year-experience one in terms of basic skill. But, we wouldn’t make the same distinction between one of twenty-one-years-experience and one of thirty-year-experience; we would talk instead of the ideas that they use their skills to execute, not that the thirty-year one was better at handling the materials.
The arts are more complicated. It is possible to be a child-genius performer. Less so a creator. With the exception of the occasional high-concept work, the number of writers/composers/painters who gain recognition equal to that of the established practitioners at the age of 15 are nugatory. Novelists in particular are generally older. This is presumably something to do with the sheer length of novels. To bash through a few hundred mediocre poems, songs or drawings is just part of the process of becoming a practitioner in those areas; to bash out a few hundred novels whilst getting to grips with the medium is impossible. In music the 10,000 hour “rule” seems to hold sway, overall. A top-ten band might seem to be full of fresh-faced youths, but probably fresh-faced youths who have been practicing guitar in the garage every spare hour since they were 11. Again, the high-concept exception applies, with punk as a clear example. But, again, once we are past the 10,000 hour mark, we aren’t really into “improvement” any more, we are into depth and diversity. Orchestral conductors are usually older, but that is probably a “second job” phenomenon, you probably don’t become a conductor until you have spent a good number of years studying an instrument and being a player. A similar argument applies to football managers, another wunderkind-free zone.
Talking about second jobs, there are the areas in which a certain amount of relevant lived experience is appropriate. There aren’t going to be any whizzy 12 year old marriage guidance wunderkinder. But the relevant experience isn’t in the job as such; it is that the job builds on reflection on life experience.
Perhaps parenting? Parents are said to be much more relaxed with their second an subsequent children, and I’ve met the occasional parent of four or five kids who basically seems to have “a system” after the first two or three, but it doesn’t seem like the tenth would be any better parented than the fourth (indeed, sheer weight of numbers might make it harder). Similarly, the advice of well-intentioned grandparents doesn’t seem obviously better than that of the parents.
So, are there any examples? Any area where the second decade or more of work gets you to a different level of achievement, such that people at the end of that first decade are regarded as amateurs/students? I struggle to think of one.