Can It Ever Be “Too Late” For a Career Breakthrough? Research Says No

A few months ago, in the heat of our hot vax, hot girl summer, I turned 30. Up until that point, it had hardly been the year I’d been dreaming of to ring in my next decade: I spent winter and spring cooped up alone in my apartment, trying out new hobbies to fill the time where I would normally be out and about. But just in time for summer, the stars aligned: social life opened up, and travel was possible again as my 30th birthday approached.

I started to consider: What comes next? When the summer slides into fall and we migrate indoors once again, what will become my focus? More existentially, will I have bid all my best years adieu? Or are they just around the corner? 

Looking for advice, wisdom, and inspiration grounded in science, I did a lot of reading. Conventional wisdom tells us to sharpen our focus in four realms in our lives: relationships, finances, health, and our careers. In terms of relationships, there is ample research on friendships, dating, and long-term romantic partners. There’s also extensive literature on how to establish healthy habits, and financial advice to help us save for later life.

But what about our careers? Is the window for a career breakthrough gone by the time our twenties run out? In other words, if I spent my twenties diving into different interests and concerns, but had not yet found “the one” (in many senses other than my career), had I missed the boat? I needed only to open my iPhone to be reminded of Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble, Daniel Ek of Spotify, or Evan Spiegel of Snapchat, who all had their big break before they turned 30.

A research paper published in September continues in a line of research on the “hot-streak” phenomenon. It turns out, reaching career greatness might not be so age-dependent as we might think, but instead dependent on a particular style of work.

Exploration vs. exploitation

A 2021 paper by Lu Liu and colleagues1 looked at the career trajectories of thousands of famous painters, film directors, and scientists. They found a unique pattern among those with mega fame. Across the three fields, those who became superstars had a period of exploration before their hot streak. After the hot streak of success began, the superstar became more focused on their pursuits, in a process the researchers called “exploitation”: milking an effective style/approach/methodology for all it was worth.

Neither exploration nor exploitation alone predicted a hot streak. It was the pattern of exploration followed by exploitation that was the winning combination—the key to the breakaway success of figures like Jackson Pollock in his “drip period,” or Peter Jackson in the era of The Lord of the Rings, among others. 

This finding is a blessing for millennials everywhere, who have taken to heart the wisdom that one should try everything once in their 20s—and who have not yet found their calling. However, a few questions remain: How do we know to stop exploring and start exploiting? Furthermore, how do we know when the period of exploration has turned into good old procrastination? And what role does productivity play?

If exploration plus exploitation is the secret sauce, when do I start either?

Received wisdom tells us that peak performance comes in our 30s and lasts until our 40s—when we have built up experience in our fields but still have “the energy and enthusiasm to sustain high productivity.”11 Conventional thought also implies that when we have reached our 30s, it’s time to settle down and get serious. In other words, we should stop exploring and start exploiting. 

However, this intuition does not match up with the evidence. When looking at people who have excelled in film, writing, music, and academia, the timing of superstardom appears to be random. A scientist’s highest-impact publication (the metric for scientific excellence) can happen at any time in their career, not necessarily when they were young and full of energy.10

Similarly, for creative careers in film, books, and music, luck is found to be an important driver of career success. Researchers have dubbed this the “random-impact rule.”4 For scientists, this principle applies across various disciplines and career lengths, regardless of the decade an individual came to fame or if they published in teams or alone10 (see note 3 for more on the role of teams).  

What is the catch? Productivity still had a defining effect on the timing of an individual’s highest-impact work.10 Looking at the achievements of scientists, researchers found that, on average, impact increased over time, and that this was a result of increasing productivity, not growing ability or excellence.

It appears, then, that if we can maintain high productivity and remain open to new opportunities, our big break might be just around the corner. 

When the going is good, get going?

When you are in a flow, and you have found a sense of career confidence and success, what do you do next? Must we produce as much as possible when the going is good?

Researchers have found that, in general, artists and film directors experience hot streaks lasting for around five years; for scientists, such bursts typically last four years.11 The same researchers also stressed that hot streaks were not characterized by increased productivity; individuals did not produce more during these periods, but what they did produce was more impactful than their previous or future work.

What’s more, it is not just the first big break that happens at random: A second and even third big break also happen randomly.10 That means, even at mid-life (assuming 80 is the average lifespan), there is still potential for another big break to happen virtually at any time (see note 1). 

In conclusion, when the going is good, try to maintain your flow, but do not stress about pushing out as much content as possible. It also tells us that an ebb and flow of excellence can be expected: We cannot always be on top. 

What is the advice to nearly 30-year-olds?

Is it all over at 30? The simple answer is, no, not for those who persevere. Dame Zaha Hadid, the renowned architect, produced her internationally recognized graduate thesis, “Malevich’s Tektonik,” at age 27—but it was not until 1997, at 47 years old, that Hadid received her first big commission to design the Cincinnati Art Museum.3 By the 90s, the technology required to bring her groundbreaking visions to life was finally available, and from there, she became the internationally famous architect we know today. 

No freshly minted 30-year-old has gotten there unscathed: As Scott Barry Kaufmann (2015) writes, “doing things differently sometimes involves doing things badly or wrong.” This is a message anyone in their early thirties (hopefully) learned through trial and error. What we can learn from the careers of outstanding artists, scientists, and filmmakers is that having spent one’s 30s exploring may not be a waste of time. Looking at figures like Jackson Pollock (see note 2) and Hadid, we see that even into our 30s, exploration can yield astounding success and superstardom. Furthermore, only recently have longevity researchers like Laura Carstensen of Stanford started to come out to say that full-time careers should/could start in one’s 40s.9

It seems, therefore, that there is no easy answer as to when one should stop exploring. However, there is a clear message that success can happen at any time in a person’s career, and the only true way to prevent a hot streak is to stop working altogether.11

What can we do for greater success, today?

If you’re not (yet) a famous painter, director, or scientist, fear not. This compelling research shows us that dedicated exploration, collaboration with differently skilled people, and consistent productivity are the ingredients for success. This research also does not discount the role of luck, however, in our careers and personal success (note 4). 

Perhaps you will not find this research to be particularly groundbreaking—of course, it has a lot to do with random chance. However, for artists, it highlights a thought that often occurs in retrospect. One article commenter I found explained this dilemma perfectly: “Many artists including myself struggle with never-ending exploration and producing a large body of work ending ‘in the drawer.’ While the exploitation step is obvious when to initiate and how long to sustain it is less so.”8

This message might therefore come at the right moment for you, fellow reader: anytime is a good time for a breakthrough. 

Notes: 

  1. Lui et al. (2021) also call out the career of Nobel Laureate and chemist John Fenn. Fenn won the Nobel Prize in chemistry at age 85, for work he started only after he was semi-retired, in his late 60s.
  2. In a similar vein, Mozart died at 35, having produced his most famous works in the couple of years leading up to his death. Jackson Pollock was 35 at the time of his drip period, and continued until he was 39. Peter Jackson was 40 when he directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 
  3. The impact of leveraging a team and our connections, both strong and weak ties, is measurable. During a hot streak, scientists were found to work with large teams, while in the lead up to their stardom they had experimented with new concepts with smaller teams.2 Furthermore, network scientist Barabási1 wrote: “How to reach the top of the corporate ladder? … replace the idea of a corporate ladder with a social bridge—we never work in isolation. We need to find the hubs that can accelerate our trajectories and reach out to them… no matter what our discipline is.”
  4. This article does not take the role of luck into account. However, researchers have commented on its importance, and it was written about in Daniel Kahnemann’s 2011 best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow: “Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.”

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