The pressure to succeed early in your career can impact how you feel about the high volume of work you’re doing to set you on that path, and the habits you’ve adopted to get it all done. Couple that stress with the lingering societal view that individuals tend to decrease in value as they age, and the race to produce your best results at a young age can become a classic recipe for burnout.

We’ve been conditioned to think our success is all about how we perform early on in our careers, but according to Albert-László Barabási, a physicist and network theorist, we’ve been entirely wrong about our formula for success. “Think of succeeding like entering a lottery,” Barabási explains in a recent TED Talk. “We buy most of our ‘tickets’ in the first 10 years of our careers, and after that, productivity decreases. This makes it look like we’re less creative afterward, but that’s not the case.”

Barabási’s team has spent years studying our inner networks, and their research has found that when you redefine success, you can reach your career peak at any age. In fact, you will likely achieve your greatest accomplishments later in life. “Creativity has no age,” he says. “Success can come at any time.”

Here’s how to tap into your most creative self, no matter where you are in your career:

Separate productivity and creativity

Many of us see productivity and creativity as one in the same, and Barabási says this paradigm can hold us back from reaching our creative peak later on. “We are under the impression that creativity equals youth,” he notes. “But every project we do has the same chance of being our personal best.” Barabási’s research shows we can actually become less productive over time because of preexisting beliefs we have around age. And according to his findings, it’s this mindset that ultimately holds us back –– not the quality of our ideas. “Creativity has no age,” he explains. “It’s productivity that does.”

Focus on your own performance

It’s easy to get fixated on reaching the finish line and overlook the work you’re doing to get there –– and that’s why Barabási says it’s important to work first, and try not to think about how others perceive your efforts. “Performance is what you do,” he explains. “Success is about how the community around you perceives your performance –– how they acknowledge it, and reward you for it.” He says that by focusing primarily on the work you’re doing –– your performance –– you’ll be setting yourself up for greater success down the line. And taking your mind off of the outside validation of success can help you focus on the work you’re producing in the moment. Success is external, he adds. “Your performance is about you.” 

Consider your “academic age” 

When a certain project doesn’t turn out the way you’d hoped, it’s easy to give up and assume you must be past your peak. In fact, research shows it’s natural for our brains to call it quits in response to failure. What most of us miss, Barabási explains, is the key difference between our physical age and our “academic age.” He says that we’re used to thinking of age linearly, but when it comes to career, our paths are not always linear. Academic age, he explains, depends on your mindset and your efforts, so it’s important not to give up if one pursuit doesn’t work out. “If you keep trying, you could still succeed over and over,” he urges. “It could be your very first or very last paper of your career.” 

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  • Rebecca Muller Feintuch

    Senior Editor and Community Manager


    Rebecca Muller Feintuch is the Senior Editor and Community Manager at Thrive. Her previous work experience includes roles in editorial and digital journalism. Rebecca is passionate about storytelling, creating meaningful connections, and prioritizing mental health and self-care. She is a graduate of New York University, where she studied Media, Culture and Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. For her undergraduate thesis, she researched the relationship between women and fitness media consumerism.