Here’s When We Hit Our Physical and Mental Peaks
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Here’s When We Hit Our Physical and Mental Peaks

Even when we’ve peaked in one endeavour, we’re likely getting better in another

By CLARE ANSBERRY
Thu, Jul 6, 2023 8:00amGrey Clock 4 min

When are we our fastest, strongest and most creative?

Elite swimmers peak in their early 20s, powerlifters peak at 35 and equestrians later still, on average. Creativity peaks either very early in our careers or later, depending on how we think. Our ability to quickly absorb facts reaches its zenith in our late teens, while our vocabulary skills crest in our sixth decade.

Economists, sports scientists and psychologists have analysed Olympic performances and chess matches, as well as thousands of online quizzes to determine the average age when people peak mentally and physically. They are trying to understand how our brain and bodies work and if there are lessons on strengthening each.

The good news is that while we may have peaked in one endeavour, we are likely getting better in another.

“At every age, you are getting better at some things and worse at others,” says Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, who researches how various cognitive functions change with age.

People reach their various physical peaks at different times for different reasons, according to the studies. Fast-twitch muscle fibres help with speed and power—think sprinting—and are more prevalent in our muscles when we are young. Slow-twitch muscle fibres, which are those related to endurance, are more prevalent in muscles when we are older.

Physical attributes can play a role, too. Women have less muscle to lose, and peak at younger ages than men in muscle-intense sports like swimming.

The science on physical peaks

Rafal Chomik, an Australian economist at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research, led a study of peak physical performances among Olympic and professional athletes looking at how well different age groups perform in different sports.

For sports like sprinting, which requires speed, power and maximum oxygen consumption, athletes tend to peak in their mid-20s. In endurance sports, such as marathons, the peak is typically reached by 40. In tactical low-impact sports, like sailing and equestrian competition, athletes compete at elite levels in their 50s.

This is consistent with findings on cognitive capacity, says Chomik, noting that young people are better at tasks requiring raw processing power while older people excel at strategy.

Another finding from the athlete study: Peak performance ages for elite athletes are increasing. For example, the average age of the top 100 men and women in tennis is four to six years older, respectively, than it was in the 1980s. Athletes are competing longer, due in part to advances in training, equipment and sports science.

Steffen Peters, an equestrian who lives in San Diego, has competed in five Olympic Games and won bronze medals in 1996 and in 2016. But he says he had his best year in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. At the age of 56, he was part of the silver-medal-winning U.S. Dressage Team.

“In my younger age, I had more energy,” says Peters. “But I think at an older age I have extra wisdom that goes pretty far.” Peters plans to compete in 2024 and 2028.

Reaching mental peaks

Mental peaks come at different ages, too. Most people associate creativity with youth, but it depends on the type of creativity, says Bruce Weinberg, a professor of economics at Ohio State University.

“Innovation tends to follow two distinct patterns,” says Weinberg, who co-wrote a study looking at the age when 31 Nobel Prize winners in economics published their most significant research, defined as the one with the most citations. One pattern of thinking is conceptual and the other is experimental.

Economists who challenge conventional wisdom and think more abstractly published their single most significant work at the age of 25. They would be considered conceptual thinkers. Economists who tend to refine their work based on accumulated knowledge and experience wrote their most significant paper in their mid-50s. They would be considered experimental thinkers.

Those same two innovation patterns emerged in studies of writers and artists, says Weinberg. Pablo Picasso, considered a conceptual artist, painted some of his most important works in his mid 20s. Robert Frost, a more experimental innovator, wrote for years before his first book of poetry was published around the age of 40.

Another study of peak mental performance involved the game of chess. Chess is considered a good proxy for “performance in a cognitively demanding task,” says Uwe Sunde, an economics professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

He and fellow researchers analysed 24,000 professional chess matches to track the performance of top players. The researchers compared an individual’s recorded moves with the best moves suggested by a modern chess computer, to see how a player’s performance changed over the years and when they peaked.

Individual performance rose sharply until the early 20s and peaked around the age of 35, says Sunde.

Not all thinking skills peak at the same time or the same age, says Hartshorne, of Boston College. Processing speed—the ability to think quickly and recall information like names—peaks around 18, based on data from standardised IQ and internet-based tests. Crystallised intelligence—the accumulation of facts and knowledge—peaks later. Vocabulary skills peak about 65.

In another study he led, using results of online grammar quizzes, he found that grammar and language-learning skills continue to build for about 30 years. For a native language, the 30-year learning period starts roughly around birth. For a second language, it starts whenever someone starts learning that language.

“Move to Paris and start speaking French at the age of 30 and you can expect continued improvement until you reach around 60,” he says. “Learning goes on longer than we might expect.”



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Is ‘Rizz’ the Secret to Getting Ahead at Work?

Whether you call it charisma, charm or magnetism, some people seem like naturals. Good news: It can be learned.

By Rachel Feintzeig
Mon, Jul 22, 2024 4 min

Great leaders have it. Gen Z has a new word for it. Can the rest of us learn it?

Charisma—or rizz , as current teenage slang has anointed it—can feel like an ephemeral gift some are just born with. The chosen among us network and chitchat, exuding warmth as they effortlessly hold court. Then there’s everyone else, agonising over exclamation points in email drafts and internally replaying that joke they made in the meeting, wondering if it hit.

“Well, this is awkward,” Mike Rizzo, the head of a community for marketing operations professionals, says of rizz being crowned 2023 word of the year by the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s so close to his last name, but so far from how he sees himself. He sometimes gets sweaty palms before hosting webinars.

Who could blame us for obsessing over charisma, or lack thereof? It can lubricate social interactions, win us friends, and score promotions . It’s also possible to cultivate, assures Charles Duhigg, the author of a book about people he dubs super communicators.

At its heart, charisma isn’t about some grand performance. It’s a state we elicit in other people, Duhigg says. It’s about fostering connection and making our conversation partners feel they’re the charming—or interesting or funny—ones.

The key is to ask deeper, though not prying, questions that invite meaningful and revealing responses, Duhigg says. And match the other person’s vibes. Maybe they want to talk about emotions, the joy they felt watching their kid graduate from high school last weekend. Or maybe they’re just after straight-up logistics and want you to quickly tell them exactly how the team is going to turn around that presentation by tomorrow.

You might be hired into a company for your skill set, Duhigg says, but your ability to communicate and earn people’s trust propels you up the ladder: “That is leadership.”

Approachable and relatable

In reporting this column, I was surprised to hear many executives and professionals I find breezily confident and pleasantly chatty confess it wasn’t something that came naturally. They had to work on it.

Dave MacLennan , who served as chief executive of agricultural giant Cargill for nearly a decade, started by leaning into a nickname: DMac, first bestowed upon him in a C-suite meeting where half the executives were named Dave.

He liked the informality of it. The further he ascended up the corporate hierarchy, the more he strove to be approachable and relatable.

Employees “need a reason to follow you,” he says. “One of the reasons they’re going to follow you is that they feel they know you.”

He makes a point to remember the details and dates of people’s lives, such as colleagues’ birthdays. After making his acquaintance, in a meeting years ago at The Wall Street Journal’s offices, I was shocked to receive an email from his address months later. Subject line: You , a heading so compelling I still recall it. He went on to say he remembered I was due with my first child any day now and just wanted to say good luck.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a good memory for that,’” he says. Prioritise remembering, making notes on your phone if you need, he says.

Now a board member and an executive coach, MacLennan sent hundreds of handwritten notes during his tenure. He’d reach out to midlevel managers who’d just gotten a promotion, or engineers who showed him around meat-processing plants. He’d pen words of thanks or congratulations. And he’d address the envelopes himself.

“Your handwriting is a very personal thing about you,” he says. “Think about it. Twenty seconds. It makes such an impact.”

Everyone’s important

Doling out your charm selectively will backfire, says Carla Harris , a Morgan Stanley executive. She chats up the woman cleaning the office, the receptionist at her doctor’s, the guy waiting alongside her for the elevator.

“Don’t be confused,” she tells young bankers. Executive assistants are often the most powerful people in the building, and you never know how someone can help—or hurt—you down the line.

Harris once spent a year mentoring a junior worker in another department, not expecting anything in return. One day, Harris randomly mentioned she faced an uphill battle in meeting with a new client. Oh!, the 24-year-old said. Turns out, the client was her friend. She made the call right there, setting up Harris for a work win.

In the office, stop staring at your phone, Harris advises, and notice the people around you. Ask for their names. Push yourself to start a conversation with three random people every day.

Charisma for introverts

You can’t will yourself to be a bubbly extrovert, but you can find your own brand of charisma, says Vanessa Van Edwards, a communications trainer and author of a book about charismatic communication.

For introverted clients, she recommends using nonverbal cues. A slow triple nod shows people you’re listening. Placing your hands in the steeple position, together and facing up, denotes that you’re calm and present.

Try coming up with one question you’re known for. Not a canned, hokey ice-breaker, but something casual and simple that reflects your actual interests. One of her clients, a bookish executive struggling with uncomfortable, halting starts to his meetings, began kicking things off by asking “Reading anything good?”

Embracing your stumbles

Charisma starts with confidence. It’s not that captivating people don’t occasionally mispronounce a word or spill their coffee, says Henna Pryor, who wrote a book about embracing awkwardness at work. They just have a faster comeback rate than the rest of us. They call out the stumble instead of trying to hide it, make a small joke, and move on.

Being perfectly polished all the time is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. We know this, which is why appearing flawless can come off as fake. We like people who seem human, Pryor says.

Our most admired colleagues are often the ones who are good at their jobs and can laugh at themselves too, who occasionally trip or flub just like us.

“It creates this little moment of warmth,” she says, “that we actually find almost like a relief.”

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