How to Make the Most of Your Brain Based on Your Generation

By: Tim Elmore

I just made a discovery. For the first time in my life, I realized I know people who are from seven sociological generations. 

  • My aunt and uncle are from the Senior generation (1902-1928).
  • My mother and father-in-law are from the Builders generation (1929-1945).
  • My wife and I are both from the baby boomer generation (1946-1964).
  • My teammates Shawn and Nicole are both from Generation X (1965-1982).
  • My children are from the millennial generation (1983-2000).
  • My spring intern, Hannah, is from Generation Z (2001-2016).
  • My little buddies Wilson and Weston are from Generation Alpha  (2017-2030).

Each of these individuals possesses a slightly different perspective on the world. Why? They were shaped by different events in their early years. Our brains develop a little like wet cement. Our neural pathways are very pliable in our first twenty years and begin to solidify afterward. It isn’t that people can’t change as adults, it’s just that change is more difficult as we age. Dr. Britt Andreatta released a book years ago called Wired to Resist about how flexible we are in our early years and how resistant we are to change as older adults. 

I recently began to feel a little despondent about this. Reviewing the research and knowing that I’m clearly past midlife, I wondered if I was washed up. I’m not kidding. Our world needs innovation, and at my age, most of that will come from the emerging generation, not the retiring generation. This is one of the reasons I’m committed to developing a new generation of leaders. Our hope lies in developing them. It doesn’t lie in me.

Then, I discovered some good news for my old brain.

Two Kinds of Intelligence 

More than 50 years ago, a British psychologist named Raymond Cattell discovered some fascinating insights as he researched human intelligence. In 1971, he published a book called Abilities: Their Structure, Growth and Action. In this book, he posited that there are two kinds of intelligence all people possess, but they ebb and flow at different points in life. 

The first kind is fluid intelligence. We experience this most in our early years. Our brains are young and are best at thinking flexibly, reasoning and solving novel problems. These abilities are strongest in our early adult years and begin to diminish in our 30s and 40s. 

The second kind is crystallized intelligence. We experience this most in our second 30 years. This is defined as the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned from the past. It’s the capacity to collate information, summarize it, and express it to others. We do this best past midlife. 

Fluid Intelligence     Crystallized Intelligence 

  1. Strongest during our first 30 years 1. Strongest during our second 30 years
  2. Adaptation and innovation 2. Clarification and summarization 
  3. I can see what’s coming 3. I can share what I’ve learned
  4. I tend to learn things quickly 4. I tend to teach things quickly 
  5. I’m a creator—I invent 5. I’m a coach—I synthesize 

Arthur Brooks, a social scientist at Harvard Business School, says, “When you’re young, you have raw smarts. When you are old, you have wisdom. When you are young, you can generate lots of facts. When you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them.” 

Darwin and Bach

Two examples from history inform us. Charles Darwin is considered a brilliant scientist. Did you know he made his initial discoveries in his 20s? When he was 13 years old, he set up a science lab in his garden shed. When he was 16 years old, Darwin was sent to Edinburgh to train to become a doctor, like his father and grandfather. At 22, he transitioned to biology and took a voyage aboard the HMS Beagle to study species around the world. Some of his best work happened as a result. Sadly, he died years later a very disappointed man. He grew despondent about not staying on top of his field. The problem was he expected himself to continue in fluid intelligence instead of learning to capitalize upon his crystallized intelligence.

Johann Sabastian Bach may have managed his career better. He wrote groundbreaking music in his 20s and 30s. He grew famous for composing every major Baroque genre, including concertos, sonatas, cantatas, and numerous organ pieces. Along the way, he fathered 20 children. One of his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, actually introduced the world to classical music. Bach’s son was considered the most talented in the family. Instead of brooding over this, he celebrated his son’s success and became his best teacher. Bach could have become embittered like Darwin, but instead, he took pride in his son passing him up. He shifted into crystalized intelligence. In his later years, he taught and shared his talent with others. He actually died while teaching. 

Repurposing Your Life

Many of you reading this care deeply about the emerging generation. If you’re like me, you want to make a difference, but you may feel a distance between your mindset and a young person’s mindset. You may even feel a little like a dinosaur. As I said earlier, I felt washed up for a while. But I am repurposing myself again. My career has a new spark to it. Why?

  1. I am allowing the young to play to their strengths and welcome their new ideas.
  2. I will even expect their innovation and ask them to help me adapt to it.
  3. I am pushing myself to play to my strengths of mentor and teacher. 
  4. I intend to put wind in this new generation’s sails as they innovate and come up with new ideas. 
  5. I’ll celebrate their successes, helping them stand on my shoulders and pass me up.
  6. I won’t try to be cool or hip. No one looks to me for those cues. I am who I am. 

I came to realize that Johann S. Bach’s career had two parts. At first, he was a music innovator. Later, as his musical creativity declined, he was a music instructor. He wrote a textbook that a century later was considered a guide for students and a piece of literature. His best trait was his resiliency, transitioning from creator to coach. Far from frustration or depression, he finished his career as a happy father and a marvelous teacher. Like him, we must change where we draw our fulfillment. Let’s pass wisdom on to the young so they can pass us up. 

Interested in a video course on managing different generations in your organization or campus? I call it A New Kind of Diversity. Email [email protected] for information.

How to Make the Most of Your Brain Based on Your Generation