Contemporary culture is obsessed with youth. But only those who grow old can hope to know the mysteries of existence.
No matter how smart you are, when you’re young, you’re a little dumb. You haven’t lived and learned, and thus lack depth, compensating instead with confidence, energy, and determination. Or in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “At 20 years of age the will reigns; at 30, the wit; and at 40, the judgment.”
The American inventor was echoing a sentiment often expressed in mystical texts. Only with four decades behind us do we start having the perspective necessary to begin serious thinking, as well as the skills and experience to do truly great work.
That’s why 40 is the age designated to begin studying Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. The great 12th century physician and mystic Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed writes, “[I]t is not proper to dally in the Orchard [of mysticism] till one’s belly is filled with bread and meat.” In other words, we first need to learn the basics. In the religious context, this means knowing the Torah and Talmud first, being familiar with the ideas in the bible and the rules of Judaism. For the secular, Maimonides’ statement can be understood as an instruction to first manage work and relationships before moving on to more sophisticated questions, like delving into the meaning of existence. Otherwise, it’s like trying to live off sweets, which will only make us sick.
Forty is the preferred age to begin deep study because a person is more likely to be mature and emotionally stable enough to handle the extremely challenging texts and complex concepts of the Kabbalah and associated mystical works, explains religious studies professor Elliot Wolfson of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There is no uniform way of studying Kabbalah in the traditional sense,” he told Broadly in 2017, but there is an understanding that it requires preparation and age.
Likewise, the 18th-century Japanese spiritual guide for warriors, Hagakure (pdf) or The Book of the Samurai, advises, “Until the age of 40, it is best to gather strength.” That’s because “great genius matures late,” according to author Yamamoto Tsunetomo. It takes time to become exceptionally capable at anything, and he believed that “if something is not brought to fruition over a period of 20 to 30 years, it will not be of great merit.”
This sense seems to be borne out in the work of many great writers. Time to practice can make a natural talent into a master. A 2010 New York Times essay asking, “How old can a ‘young writer’ be?” lists “late-blooming giants of fiction” including Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo. Their best works emerged later in life, the writing improving with age.
Similarly, Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 book Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories published retrospectively, proves that practice makes a more perfect writer. In his introduction, Pynchon warns of his youthful work, “There are some mighty tiresome passages here […] Do not underestimate the shallowness of my understanding.”
In 2016, the Huffington Post, perhaps hoping to console aging literary aspirants, wrote about 10 women writers first published after age 40. Among them was Marian Palaia, author of The Given World. She completed her MFA at 50 and, before that, had taken gigs everywhere from Montana to Nepal, serving in the Peace Corps, bartending, and logging. When asked how these experiences helped her writing, Palaia told Bloom:
[A]ll of these jobs and places have definitely made it much easier for me to find things to write about. That holds true in a physical sense—writing scene, writing people in motion—as well as in a sense of connection, or empathy, or understanding […] not all of my characters are different versions of me.
Because we’re culturally enamored with youth, it can easily feel as if time has passed us by before we’re even 25. But the young geniuses of Silicon Valley—for example, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who founded their companies in their 20s—are currently struggling with serious grown-up problems. They are facing scathing accusations of betrayal by the very same people who proclaimed their genius before, not to mention congressional hearings and lawsuits. No one escapes youthful failure.
Meanwhile, a new study shows that most successful startups are actually founded by people over 40. The dazzling whiz kid is a myth. Researchers from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that founders with more experience in their company’s industry were 125% more likely to see either high growth or a successful sale of their own startup. Pierre Azoulay, one of the researchers on the study, advises:
If you knew nothing else, and you had two identical ideas, one proposed by a very young person, one proposed by a middle-aged person, and that’s the only thing you have to go on, you would be better off—if you wanted to predict success—betting on a middle-aged person.
There’s really no workaround for the wisdom that comes with existing a while. Like tea, your wins, losses, mistakes, and follies need time to steep.
At 40, we realize what’s important—and it might not be fame or fortune. Take the Japanese poet Basho, who made a great name for himself in youth and at 40 started journeying around Japan on foot, disinterested in acclaim or material goods. He spent the rest of his life walking, visiting Shinto and Zen Buddhist temples, and cultivating his relationship with nature.
As Turkish novelist Elif Shafak explains in The 40 Rules of Love, aging is something to embrace, offering the promise of awakening. Muhammad was 40 years old when he heard the call to become Islam’s prophet, for example. “Forty is a most beautiful age for both men and women.” Shafak writes. “You receive a new mission at 40, a new lease on life! You have reached a most auspicious number. Congratulations!”