As students at the University of Michigan, we are all at some form of a crossroads in our lives. College is a time when adolescents transform into productive, adult members of society, often residing away from family for the first time and becoming financially independent. We explore new ideas and develop stances that shape our viewpoints for the rest of our lives.

Among these experiences, there is another junction that often gets lost in the mix — a biological one. After spending our formative years growing physically and psychologically, we are now in our late teens and early twenties and at the beginning of the physical and cognitive primes of our lives. It is within the next decade that most of us will be in the window of time in which our minds and bodies have capacities to do more extraordinary things than they ever have and ever will again. Following this, many aspects of this potential will creep into a decline that continues for the remainder of our lifetimes. The question is: Should we make it a priority to seize this moment and capitalize on our maximum biological potential while the window is still open?

For a long time, my answer to this question was “yes.” I have always been a proponent for seeing one’s potential to actuality. As such, it made sense to me that squandering time during one’s twenties that could be used for self-betterment was a waste — how else is one to see what they are truly capable of physically and mentally?

The physical aspect of this notion was significantly influenced by elite athletes’ career trajectories. A classic example is Michael Phelps. Phelps, considered by many as the greatest male swimmer and Olympian ever, broke the world record for gold medals won by an individual at a single Olympic games when he won eight gold medals in Beijing at just 23. He would never do it again, and at the 2019 FINA Championships, 19-year-old Kristof Milak broke Phelps’ final 200m record. The fact that Phelps won the gold medal in the 200 meter butterfly earned five gold medals at the 2016 Olympics, at 31, makes him an anomaly, as male Olympic gold medalists in swimming events are, on average, about 21 years old.

Cognitive performance with respect to age has been the subject of ongoing discourse in psychology. Processing speed of information peaks at around 20 years of age, while short-term memory capacity is greatest at around 30. Certain aspects of learning peak significantly earlier, when our brains are more plastic. This is evident in the relative ease with which youngimmigrant children acquire the language of their new home when compared to adults.

A decline in creativity, while less rigorously studied, is still evident. U2, one of the most financially successful bands of all time, has been actively releasing new music for 40 years. For their first 20 years, U2 underwent dramatic shifts in musical style several times without any drop-off in their massive popularity, a testament to their ability to remain flexible. However, the band’s last five albums, starting with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, have been less well-received, indicating perhaps that the band’s members have lost their zeal for reinventing themselves at this stage of their lives.

Since I have started college, I have thought about examples such as these, and many others, frequently, telling myself that it is important to seize the opportunities in early adulthood to see what my full potential is as a person before my biological clock sends me over my peak and the windows of my physical and cognitive maximums close. However, trying to maximize every aspect of oneself as a person is a daunting and impossible prospect, and at the end of my sophomore year, I felt that I had achieved little toward pursuing this ideal.

Over this past summer, I realized that statements such as those above are implicative of an erroneous assumption that our life “peaks” must be realized during our biological peaks. We are still humans capable of doing incredible things into mid and late adulthood.

The majority of people reach their professional peaks well after their biological peaks. The average age at inauguration for presidents of the United States is 55 years; Donald Trump was inaugurated at age 70, and top Democratic presidential candidates Joseph Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are 76, 77 and 70 years old respectively. Part of this is likely due to the value of experience. While fluid intelligence may reach its apex in early adulthood, crystallized intelligence peaks at the middle of a lifespan. 

From this perspective, we can actually turn back to sports and learn from athletes in skill-centered disciplines. LeBron James, who has arguably been the world’s best basketball player for the past decade, was the most dominant player in the 2018 NBA playoffs at age 33, despite having had lost a step physically, largely because the diverse skill set he honed during his career enabled him to pick apart defenses in endless ways. Both Serena and Venus Williams continue to be world-class tennis threats. Tom Brady won his sixth Super Bowl at age 41. Tiger Woods won the Masters at 43. Their body of experience allows them to keep their ceiling of performance extremely high.

Though I am still a proponent of people trying to leverage their potential while they are young, my idea of “maximum potential” has changed. At the end of the day, many of us have a vague idea of what our personal or professional life goals are — some of us may have a bucket list of things we’d like to do over the course of our lives. My current viewpoint is that achieving these goals throughout one’s life, rather than solely while young, and living a fulfilling life are the ultimate signs of fully-realized human potential. Perhaps this isn’t breaking news to most, but it has changed the way in which I view my personal trajectory.

Dipra Debnath can be reached at dipra@umich.edu.

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