Intelligence and Achievement: What Age Has to Do With It

Intelligence and Achievement: What Age Has to Do With It

As the world is watching the U.N. COP21 climate change summit in Paris, Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh, a 15 year old climate activist, along with more than twenty other young activists, has joined scientist James Hansen in suing the Obama administration for failing to end the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels.

Never mind the issue of global climate at hand! The focus of the press coverage and social discourse is that even at his meager age of 15, Tonatiuh, a climate activist since the age of six, has made the fossil fuel industry and world leaders a little nervous. Even outside of the impending lawsuit, Tonatiuh’s activism has disrupted the status quo.

As it turns out, a teenager can sit at the adult table, understand the rules of the game, and force the fossil fuels conversation! 

But what makes this news? Why are we surprised? Why do we focus on age as a proxy for intelligence, achievement, perseverance, capability, and other virtues? It seems to me that correlating these virtues with age, especially in today’s age of information, is equivalent to correlating these virtues with height, shoe size, and other unrelated and arbitrary metrics.

I often joke that I chose a legal career over a career as a prima ballerina (the Russian equivalent of a top model) because it is a profession where one has more opportunities and becomes more valuable as she ages. Throughout my entire career, both as a business owner and a lawyer, I have been puzzled that the world still correlates intelligence, achievement, perseverance, capability, and other virtues with grey hairs.

It is true that one has an opportunity to get more experience over a longer period of time and over a variety of circumstances. The real question is whether one actually takes these opportunities to live different experiences, or if one relives the same year and experiences multiple times in a lifetime. For many people the latter is true – they relive the same life and maintain the status quo year after year.

This, of course, begs the question – why do we still correlate intelligence, achievement, perseverance, capability, and other virtues with grey hairs? More importantly, why do we expect so little from our young? It’s important to note that in many professions, such as law or finance, being in one’s forties is often considered “young.” In private and public board service, even for young consumer-facing companies, being in one’s fifties is often considered “young.” Youth is relative, which makes it even more clear that intelligence and similar virtues cannot be correlated with age.

While I consider this relative fountain of youth a perk of the legal profession, I also think we should empower and expect more from our young. Teenagers and even preteens, as Tonatiuh has shown, can impact change and display high levels of intelligence, achievement, perseverance, capability, and other virtues. We should give our young a chance to get to the heart of the issue when they make a point about important topics such as fossil fuels and the environment.

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