Advice for a Forty-Odder from a Twenty-Something

At the Kilgour lectures, OCLC President Robert Jordan said some rather challenging things to the assembled SILS throng. As an MBA and business guy, he up front admitted that his ideas might rub people the wrong way (but then, so did Fred Kilgour’s).

One of his ideas that stuck with me was his notion that, since UNC SILS requires a student to take more hours and do more work than comparable programs, it’s reasonable to ask whether the degree will make you more money or give you a chance at a more prestigious institution when you graduate.

That idea rattles around in the back of my brain during my classes, even the fun intellectual ones I take. And then, so do articles like this one by Penelope Trunk, on what to do in college to be more successful in your career. Of course, she’s talking to twenty-somethings rather than forty-odders, but let’s see how much of it I can apply to my situation.

  • Get out of the library. Hm, well, the point of my going to back to school is to get out of the office and spend time in a library (and it is a library school, after all). I have a lot of work and life experience, but I want the education to formalize what I know and give me a framework to learn new things.

  • Get involved on campus. It’s tough to be involved with many school activities because I don’t live on-campus, parking is a joke, and I have to give up the hours I would normally work to be on campus for special events. I read somewhere that being involved in career-oriented organizations–like ACM or ASIS&T–are preferred over school-related ones, given the brief time I have to devote to extracurriculars. Also, although I’m plenty involved with outside groups, I’ve never been asked about such participations in an interview and I don’t put them on my resume. At this stage, I have plenty of career experience that takes precedence.

  • Separate your expectations from those of your parents. I would amend this to include co-workers and friends. I would also amend this to yourself. Some older adults going back to school see the degree as the end-all and that the degree will, on its own, open doors to new opportunity. It won’t. My expectations are that my pursuit of the degree will open the doors–the hours spent studying, reading, thinking, meeting people, and so on. By the time the degree is handed to me on graduation day, I should already have plans in place for what happens the day after.

  • Try new things you aren’t good at. Just going back to school is a big new thing. To me, any other new thing is a little new thing.

  • Make your job search a top priority. Ye-e-es, I agree, to a point. If you hate your job, or don’t have a job, getting a job should be the most important thing. In my case, since I’m already working, I’m more concerned with meeting people affiliated with the school and its mission who are in a position to offer jobs. So I would say that meeting people and expanding my network is a top priority.

  • Take an acting course. I used to act in community theater and in college; it’s a great place for meeting people. I think most people, though, would get more out of an improv comedy course: learning to think on your feet, under pressure, with people watching you, is a great experience to have. I took one at Dirty South Comedy Theater in January 2006 and it was a great experience. I actually felt my brain make new connections and re-shape itself. Bizarre. I’d like to take another course again.

  • Get rid of your perfectionist streak. My goal in school is to get B or better grades so that I can 1) get tuition reimbursement from my employer and 2) not obsess over my schoolwork. As one of my managers drilled into me, “Just give me 80 percent. Your quality level is already high enough that it’ll be better than someone else’s 100 percent.” The key is to balance effort against value: if it’s a paper that only counts 10 points, it’ll get less attention than the presentation worth 30 points. Depend on your teachers/teammates for feedback indicating if the work isn’t good enough.

  • Work your way through college. Heh. Next.

  • Make to-do lists. I’m performing much better in school having spent the last 20 years learning about productivity and efficiency systems. My favorite methodology at the moment is Mark Forster’s book Do It Tomorrow. (Here is Mark’s website, filled to bursting with great and actionable ideas.)

Considering that I’m now juggling a full-time job, family, banjo practice, and school, efficiency and productivity help me keep it all together.

(originally posted 2007-08-19, updated for

Penguin Great Loves series

Penguin has recently published 20 titles under the series title “Great Loves.” I’ve posted 6 of my favorites here; check them all out at the Penguin site. Out of the 20, there’s only about 2 or 3 that appear to lie just a bit outside the style and feel of the whole series; that the one that seems farthest away from the rest (the Freud title) is called “Deviant Love” makes me smile.

A really cool bonus: Penguin designer David Pearson describes one of the production processes employed in the creation of these covers. Fantastic stuff.

There’s a little bit more information over at the Penguin blog.

Penguin Great Loves series

Dictionary of Symbols


In art, literature, film and life, even the littlest image or reference can open a world of interpretation. This thick encyclopedia, with contributions from scholars in various disciplines, is an excellent guide to the major and more esoteric origins of seemingly everything – from “abracadabra” to “Zodiac.” There are a ton of spiritual, mythological and/or cultural tangents that hopscotch the globe and back in time. Whenever I pick it up, I learn something new. I find the animal and food-related facts particularly enlightening (ex; oranges, a fertility symbol, are given to young married couples in Vietnam; and in Ancient China a formal offer of marriage was accompanied by a gift of oranges to the girl). The book’s title is somewhat misleading. It does not have illustrations – it’s all text. Some entries are a couple sentences, others stretch for a few pages. If you have plans to deconstruct the next season of Lost, you might find this one handy.

– Steven Leckart

Dictionary of Symbols
Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant
1996 (current translation), 1184 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

This charm was used throughout the Middle Ages. ‘One only had to write it down in the triangular pattern shown below and wear it round one’s neck as a sort of phylactery or charm to be protected from various diseases and to be cured of fever’:


The word derives from the Hebrew abreg ad habra meaning to ‘strike dead with thy lightning.’ In Hebrew it comprises nine letters. ‘Placing aleph on the left side of the triangle - and its ninefold repetition - is the magical element.’ By arranging the letters in a reverse triangle, the celestial energies which the charm claims to entrap are directed downwards. According, the figure should be seen three-dimensionally as a funnel… Like amulets, talismans and pentacles, this charm seeks to give the individual a sense of protection through communication with the higher powers and with the mysterious laws which govern the universe.

almond (Italian: mandorla)
Because of its husk, the almond is generally taken to symbolize the substance hidden within its accidents; spirituality masked by dogma and ritual; reality concealed by outward appearance; and, according to the secret doctrine, the eternally hidden Truth, Treasure and Fountain… The almond is Christ because his divine nature was hidden in the human, or in the womb of his virgin mother. It is also, according to Adam of St Victor, the mystery of light, that is to say the end of contemplation, the secret of inner illumination… The geometrical shape of the almond associates it with the symbolism of the LOZENGE, since it is a lozenge with the lateral angels rounded off. Like the lozenge it symbolizes the union of Heaven and Earth, of the upper and the lower worlds and, for this reason alone, would be ideally suited to frame the figures of the saints. It symbolizes the harmonious marriage which transcends the dualism of matter and spirit, fire and water, Heaven and Earth… In esoteric tradition the almond symbolizes the secret (a treasure) which is hidden in some dark place and which must be discovered in order to nourish the finder. The husk around it is compared with a wall or a gate. To find the almond or to eat the almond means to discover or to share in a secret.

The otter, which rises to the surface of the water and then dives below it, posses lunar symbolism and from this derive the properties for which it is used in initiation. Otter-skin is used in initiation societies both among North American Indians and among Black Africans, especially the Bantu of Cameroon and Gabon… The shamans of the North American Ojibwa Indians keep their magic shells in an otter-skin bag. The messenger of the Great Spirit, who acts as intercessor between him and mankind, is supposed to have seen the wretched state of human weakness and disease and to have revealed the most sublime secrets to the otter and interfused its body with Migis (symbols of the Mide or members of the Midewiwin Medicine Lodge) so that the creature became immortal and could, by initiating humans, make them holy. All members of the Midewiwin carry otter-skin medicine bags. These are the bags which are aimed at the candidate at initiation ceremonies as if they were fire-arms and ‘kill’ him. They are then laid on his body until he is restored to life. After song and feasting the shamans present the new initiate with his own otter-skin bag. The otter is therefore an initiating spirit which kills and restores to life.

Dictionary of Symbols

If I don’t type to you before we leave, have a nice weekend, be sure to eat and dress sensibly, and be good to your mother. Unless she’s a roaring bitch hag who deserves the worst you can dish out without going to jail for it.

Comments by readers on the last few posts

I do enjoy the comments I get and am grateful for them as I do learn a great deal from them.

My guess on tennis players and their tummies seems to be confirmed by several commenters, a tennis coach and a Spaniard who knows what Nadal eats. Their diets will shorten their careers and leave a competitive edge to someone who takes the next step toward fitness by abandoning outmoded and incorrect advice from fitness experts.

As to Barry Bonds, I do not know if he ever took steroids or if he unknowingly took them, thinking they may have been flax seed oil. He has never tested positive. Even though his “trainer” had a protocol that included steroids, he has said Barry was not on that. My main point is that you cannot see what his critics seem to see in his statistics.

Too many people are seeing patterns where there is only randomness. Humans do that. It may have been adaptive in the evolutionary environment, which though complex did not approach the complexity we confront now. This is really a failing; a failure to see randomness rather than pattern. Nassim Taleb has written a nice book on this called Fooled by Randomness. This whole home run thing is a problem of being fooled by randomness.

Barry may or may not have taken steroids. His increased mass is easily attainable by someone who trains for mass and speed without steroids. I weighed just a bit less than he at the age of 65, though I have recently gone for more power to weight in my body composition. The decline of other athletes that is cited as evidence of steroid use is illusory. Aaron did not decline by much either. And nobody among older players trained like Barry. Moreover, there is not a shred of evidence that steroids alter aging patterns.

Journalists have to sell papers. Ted Williams was excoriated in the Boston press, largely by a single sports writer who later told Ted that he had to sell papers. This is one of the greatest and most disciplined and moral players ever to play the game. So, ignore the journalists. What do they know or care about but to sell papers.

Thus, where do we go for the “truth”? What do you want for truth? You seldom will get it when things are as variable as home run hitting is. The truth is that we can’t see patterns in the data that confirm any belief and yet, if we are eager enough, we can see things that confirm any belief you want to have.

Comments by readers on the last few posts

My friend David Warlick gave me a great tip about searching the Web. Instead of starting with a huge search engine such as Google, start small. Pick an engine with a smaller database, such as Yahoo, and work through its directory, which is arranged by subject and sub-topic. Then, having identified one or two high-quality Web sites, go back and create a search phrase based on frequently found terms in the pages you’ve found. Now proceed to a big search engine and plug in these keywords for your search. Focus is everything: Get the search terms right and you’ll wind up with a much more useful list of results.

I give money to beggars. Am I a sucker? Probably. Yes. I am a sucker. I’m proud to think that I am a sucker and not a mean, judgmental, suspicious tightwad. So in that one tiny respect I think that I am little bit more like Jesus than I am like George W. Bush. And sometimes, that IS the choice we have to make.

I also learned that a twinkie is about half sugar, sulfuric acid is the most produced chemical in the world, sugar is used to clean out cement mixers, phosphate rock and limestone make Twinkies light and airy, Twinkies’ butter flavor is created out of gas, Twinkies contain only one preservative (sorbic acid), and the original 1930 Twinkies were filled with banana flavor, not vanilla.

For the past several years I’ve been actively auditing podcasts while in my car. I’ve tried all kinds of stuff – one time talks, home-made riffs, occasional raves by brilliant geniuses, and regular fragments of broadcast material. I have two criteria: I want to be surprised, and I want to learn.

Visuals of the World

“Scroll through yards of inspirational images. Share and contribute, see what you can do. Add a personal link to your submission or just engage anonymous. Be part of the longest visual website in the world!” (Note: Could have NSFW images…)

Visuals of the World

Fighting overextension; First look at Numbers; “Linkable” notebooks; Doing v. tracking; Better 404s

Start Here - Notebooks

Fighting overextension; First look at Numbers; “Linkable” notebooks; Doing v. tracking; Better 404s

Age and the entrepreneur, part 1: Some data

A short time back, several smart bloggers engaged in an enthusiastic debate about age and entrepreneurs – some taking the position that kids have a leg up on older entrepreneurs at least for certain categories of startups, and others theorizing that age is largely irrelevant (or as Ali G would put it, “geezers is good entrepreneurs as well, man”).

I have opinions on this topic, but rather than just mouthing off like I would normally do, I decided to go get some data. This post presents that data – the next post will have the mouthing off.

I’m not aware of any systematic data on age and high-tech entrepreneurs. As far as I’m aware, all we have are anecdotes. However, a professor of psychology at University of California Davis named Dean Simonton has conducted extensive research on age and creativity across many other fields, including science, literature, music, chess, film, politics, and military combat.

Dr. Simonton’s research is unparalleled – he’s spent his career studying this and related topics and his papers make for absolutely fascinating reading.

For this post, I’ll be concentrating on his paper Age and Outstanding Achievement: What Do We Know After a Century of Research? from 1988. I haven’t been able to find a PDF of the paper online but you can read a largely intact cached HTML version courtesy of Google Scholar.

Let’s go to the paper:

For centuries, thinkers have speculated about the association between a person’s age and exceptional accomplishment: Is there an optimal age for a person to make a lasting contribution to human culture or society? When during the life span can we expect an individual to be most prolific or influential?

You can see why I think this is relevant.

Here we adopt the product-centered approach, that is, our focus is on real-life achievements rather than performance on abstract… measures. …

[A]chievement [takes] the form of noteworthy creativity… the goal is to assess how productivity changes over the life span… [I] focus on individual accomplishment in such endeavors as science, philosophy, literature, music, and the visual arts. …

[Studies like these focus] on three core topics: (a) the age curve that specifies how creative output varies over the course of a career, (b) the connection between productive precocity, longevity, and rate of output, and © the relation between quantity and quality of output (i.e., between “productivity” and “creativity”).

Dr. Simonton also discusses leadership as distinct from creative production, but I’m ignoring the leadership part for now since it’s quite different.

One empirical generalization appears to be fairly secure: If one plots creative output as a function of age, productivity tends to rise fairly rapidly to a definite peak and thereafter decline gradually until output is about half the rate at the peak.

This is the centerpiece of Dr. Simonton’s overall theory across many domains. And is probably not unexpected. But here’s where it gets really interesting:

[T]he location of the peak, as well as the magnitude of the postpeak decline, tends to vary depending on the domain of creative achievement.

At one extreme, some fields are characterized by relatively early peaks, usually around the early 30s or even late 20s in chronological units, with somewhat steep descents thereafter, so that the output rate becomes less than one-quarter the maximum. This age-wise pattern apparently holds for such endeavors as lyric poetry, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics…

The typical trends in other endeavors may display a leisurely rise to a comparatively late peak, in the late 40s or even 50s chronologically, with a minimal if not largely absent drop-off afterward. This more elongated curve holds for such domains as novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine, and general scholarship.

Well, that’s interesting.

It must be stressed that these interdisciplinary contrasts do not appear to be arbitrary but instead have been shown to be invariant across different cultures and distinct historical periods.

As a case in point, the gap between the expected peaks for poets and prose authors has been found in every major literary tradition throughout the world and for both living and dead languages.

Indeed, because an earlier productive optimum means that a writer can die younger without loss to his or her ultimate reputation, poets exhibit a life expectancy, across the globe and through history, about a half dozen years less than prose writers do.

You know what that means – if you’re going to argue that younger entrepreneurs have a leg up, then you also have to argue that they will have shorter lifespans. Fun with math!

You may not be surprised to find that in creative fields, the power law rule – also known as the 80/20 rule – definitely applies:

A small percentage of the workers in any given domain is responsible for the bulk of the work. Generally, the top 10% of the most prolific elite can be credited with around 50% of all contributions, whereas the bottom 50% of the least productive workers can claim only 15% of the total work, and the most productive contributor is usually about 100 times more prolific than the least.

Here’s where it gets really interesting again:

Precocity, longevity, and output rate are each strongly associated with final lifetime output – that is, those who generate the most contributions at the end of a career also tend to have begun their careers at earlier ages, ended their careers at later ages, and produced at extraordinary rates throughout their careers. …

These three components are conspicuously linked with each other: Those who are precocious also tend to display longevity, and both precocity and longevity are positively associated with high output rates per age unit.

OK, so on to the main question, which is, when’s the peak?

Those creators who make the most contributions tend to start early, end late, and produce at above-average rates, but are the anticipated career peaks unchanged, earlier, or later in comparison to what is seen for their less prolific colleagues? Addressing this question properly requires that we first investigate the relation between quantity and quality, both within and across careers. …

This is a very complex topic and Dr. Simonton goes into great detail about it throughout his work. I’m going to gloss over it a bit, but if you are interested in this topic, by all means dig into it more via Google Scholar.

First, if one calculates the age curves separately for major and minor works within careers, the resulting functions are basically identical…

Second… minor and major contributions… fluctuate together. Those periods in a creator’s life that see the most masterpieces also witness the greatest number of easily forgotten productions, on the average.

Another way of saying the same thing is to note that the “quality ratio,” or the proportion of major products to total output per age unit, tends to fluctuate randomly over the course of any career. The quality ratio neither increases nor decreases with age…

These outcomes are valid for both artistic and scientific modes of creative contribution. What these two results signify is that… age becomes irrelevant to determining the success of a particular contribution.

OK, that’s interesting. Quality of output does not vary by age… which means, of course, that attempting to improve your batting average of hits versus misses is a waste of time as you progress through a creative career. Instead you should just focus on more at-bats – more output. Think about that one.

If this sounds insane to you, Dr. Simonton points out that the periods of Beethoven’s career that had the most hits also had the most misses – works that you never hear. As I am always fond of asking in such circumstances, if Beethoven couldn’t increase his batting average over time, what makes you think you can?

[C]reativity is a probabilistic consequence of productivity, a relationship that holds both within and across careers.

Within single careers, the count of major works per age period will be a positive function of total works generated each period, yielding a quality ratio that exhibits no systematic developmental trends.

And across careers, those individual creators who are the most productive will also tend, on the average, to be the most creative: Individual variation in quantity is positively associated with variation in quality.


OK, next step:

[This] constant-probability-of-success model has an important implication for helping us understand the relation between total lifetime output and the location of the peak age for creative achievement within a single career.

Because total lifetime output is positively related to total creative contributions and hence to ultimate eminence, and given that a creator’s most distinguished work will appear in those career periods when productivity is highest, the peak age for creative impact should not vary as a function of either the success of the particular contribution or the final fame of the creator. …

Thus, even though an impressive lifetime output of works, and subsequent distinction, is tied to precocity, longevity, and production rate, the expected age optimum for quantity and quality of contribution is dependent solely on the particular form of creative expression.

Wow, again.

Anyone who demonstrates… an age decrement in achievement is likely to provoke controversy. After all, aging is a phenomenon easy enough to become defensive about, and such defensiveness is especially probable among those of us who are already past the putative age peak for our particular field of endeavor…

I think Dr. Simonton is ready to start blogging.

His paper then goes on to discuss many possible extrinsic factors such as health that could impair later-life output, but in the end he concludes that the data is pretty conclusive that such extrinsinc factors serve as “random shocks” to any individual’s career that do not affect the overall trends.

He then goes on to discuss possible intrinsic factors that could explain a relationship between age and creative accomplishment:

G. M. Beard was not merely the earliest contributor [in 1874] to the empirical literature on age and achievement but its first theorist as well. According to him, creativity is a function of two underlying factors, enthusiasm and experience. Enthusiasm provides the motivational force behind persistent effort, yet enthusiasm in the absence of the second factor yields just original work. Experience gives the achiever the ability to separate wheat from chaff and to express original ideas in a more intelligible and persistent fashion. Yet experience in the absence of enthusiasm produces merely routine contributions. Genuine creativity requires the balanced cooperation of both enthusiasm and experience.

Beard postulates, however, that these two essential components display quite distinctive distributions across the life span. Whereas enthusiasm usually peaks early in life and steadily declines thereafter, experience gradually increases as a positive monotonic function of age. The correct equilibrium between the two factors is attained between the ages of 38 and 40, the most common age optima for creative endeavors. Prior to that expected peak, an individual’s output would be excessively original, and in the postpeak phase the output would be overly routine. The career floruit in the late 30s thus represents the uniquely balanced juxtaposition of the rhapsodies of youth and the wisdom of maturity.


Beard’s theory is not without attractive features… Beard’s account, for all its simplicity, can boast a respectable amount of explanatory power. Besides handling the broad form of the age curve, this theory leads to an interpretation of why different endeavors may peak at distinct ages.

The contrast between poetic and prose literature, for instance, can be interpreted as the immediate consequence of the assumption that the two domains demand a different mix of the two factors: poetry, more enthusiasm, and prose, more experience. Indeed, in fields in which expertise may be far more crucial than emotional vigor, most notably in scholarship, we would anticipate little if any decline with age, and such is the case.

Dr. Simonton, however, then goes on to explain that this theory does not really match the data – for example, the data shows that quality of output in practically all fields does not decline systematically with age, which is what you’d expect from Beard’s theory.

The paper then digs into possible correlations between intelligence as measured by such metrics as IQ, and creative output:

[E]ven if a minimal level of intelligence is requisite for achievement, beyond a threshold of around IQ 120 (the actual amount varying across fields), intellectual prowess becomes largely irrelevant in predicting individual differences in… creativity.

So what have we learned in a nutshell?

  • Generally, productivity – output – rises rapidly from the start of a career to a peak and then declines gradually until retirement.
  • This peak in productivity varies by field, from the late 20s to the early 50s, for reasons that are field-specific.
  • Precocity, longevity, and output rate are linked. “Those who are precocious also tend to display longevity, and both precocity and longevity are positively associated with high output rates per age unit.” High producers produce highly, systematically, over time.
  • The odds of a hit versus a miss do not increase over time. The periods of one’s career with the most hits will also have the most misses. So maximizing quantity – taking more swings at the bat – is much higher payoff than trying to improve one’s batting average.
  • Intelligence, at least as measured by metrics such as IQ, is largely irrelevant.

So here’s my first challenge: to anyone who has an opinion on the role of age and entrepreneurship – see if you can fit your opinion into this model!

And here’s my second challenge: is entrepreneurship more like poetry, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics – which exhibit a peak age in one’s late 20s or early 30s – or novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine, and general scholarship – which exhibit a peak age in one’s late 40s or early 50s? And how, and why?

[Update: Naval Ravikant has written a particularly interesting response to this post here.]

Age and the entrepreneur, part 1: Some data

The Information Machine

A 1957 animated short by Charles And Ray Eames: “Applies graphic sensitivity to medium in cartoon form, and traces the history of storing and analyzing information from the days of the cavemen to today’s age of electronic brains.”

The Information Machine