Science Shows That You Get Dumber in Your 30s. That’s a Good Thing for High-Achieving Leaders
Do you think you’re smart?
When it comes to intelligence, our education system’s obsession with categorizing us into the ‘haves’ – the naturally bright, talented, gifted – and the ‘have nots’ has bred generations of adults who continue to align their self-views with these likely incorrect – and definitely outdated – categories.
What’s more, for those who psychologists label ‘entity theorists‘ (tending to believe that intelligence is a fixed entity – that, basically, what you already have is what you get) life is even harder.
Fearing they’re not – and won’t be – up to the task, they end up not chasing that promotion, or potential romantic partner, and even having dim views of their attractiveness and health.
If this is hitting close to home, you’re not alone.
Fortunately, the idea of a monolithic intelligence that is peddled in schools is an incomplete one. Wherever you feel you fit on the intelligence scale, you can still crack the code to a fulfilling, purposeful life. How?
By focusing on a time-sensitive nurturing of what psychologist Raymond Cattell calls our ‘fluid’ versus ‘crystallized’ intelligence.
Fluid intelligence is probably what you already think intelligence actually is. It’s your ability to problem-solve at the drop of a hat. It’s your mental speed and dexterity in new, unfamiliar situations. It’s about thinking abstractly and learning new skills. It’s youthful and quick.
And it peaks in your 30s.
With that drop comes the rise of crystallized intelligence. That’s your ability to connect the dots, notice patterns, and synthesize unrelated information and experiences into coherent knowledge. It might not sound as sexy as fluid intelligence, but it feeds off of it, and it turns out that’s what fulfills you in later years, as many of us begin to enter into more senior leadership roles.
So, how can you use this information to curate a meaningful life and develop as a leader?
Step 1: Collect
Do this at the beginning, while you still have your raw intelligence. Think of it this way: Fluid intelligence is about information collection.
Pick up an instrument, learn to code, read novels in a different language, and talk to strangers! The sky’s the limit. Your brain, and memory, are ready to internalize and store novel stimuli, and mental function is sharpened after engaging your cognitive and motor skills in a new action. And it’s because of this bodily readiness that you feel a sense of satisfaction when you venture into the unknown.
By the way, you don’t even have to be particularly good at any of it. You will continue reaping the benefits of the after-effects of each initiative for the rest of your life.
Step 2: Synthesize
Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge, experience, and good judgment. Sound familiar?
That is crystallized intelligence. Here’s where you put to work all the prior knowledge and experiences you’ve collected as part of your fluid intelligence. Because of this, your 40s and 50s are your prime years to advise, teach, consult, and be a mentor to junior colleagues.
By focusing on leveraging what you already know, you can create a life where you feel your contributions are important and meaningful. Because when we feel we matter, we become fulfilled – and we thrive in our work and in life.