This recent article from IEEE Spectrum discusses our impression that as we age, we lose the ability to learn quickly — fluid intelligence, as it’s called. An accompanying chart shows this in some degree through the skill of chess players across a range of ages.
There’s something suspicious about this chart, though, and it’s pairing of age with chess playing ability. There’s something else that happens in the mid to late twenties that could have an effect, something called life. By the time you hit 30, you’re not just thinking about a career, or learning a skill that will carry you through the rest of your life. You’re also thinking about office politics, your children’s school, your children’s social lives, your hobbies, and lots of other things. In other words, I wonder how much of this chart is mistaking correlation with causation?
This is a huge issue in our world, because the network engineering world seems, on the whole, to be getting older. The IETF seems to be getting older. Even my friends seem to be getting older. Heck, I seem to be getting older, too!
The IEEE article this chart comes from emphasizes that a recent “natural experiment” in coding skill actually shows that older coders are better than younger ones — that as “fluid intelligence,” converts to “crystallized intelligence,” coding skills actually increase. I think there’s a point to be made that if you’re learning as you grow older, what you’re actually doing is assimilating new things into frameworks you already know. In fact, I would go so far as to say one of the most efficient ways to learn is by putting new knowledge into old frameworks (How does LISP relate to LANE?? Anyone??).
It seems, to me, that it’s a choice to learn or not to learn as we get older. The key question to ask is — what choice am I making, right now? And the next time you see that older grey haired guy sitting over in the corner of a meeting, don’t discount him.
It might be me. 🙂