I've always had a problem, though, with the implied correlation between this attitude and age. I imagine we all have lots of counter-examples: younger workers who don't believe something's worth trying and older workers who are relentless in trying new things.
OP mentions lots of 20 and 30 year olds with can-do attitudes on very ambitious projects. From this he infers that older workers don't think the same way.
Let me suggest an alternative conclusion: anyone in the 40's or 50's with such a can-do attitude is probably extremely successful and therefore, less available. Most of the workers I regularly encounter in their 40's and 50's have jaded attitudes. The go getters are still out there, just harder to find. So when you do find them, you've struck gold. Heavy experience and great attitude make a formidable combination.
And of course it should be pointed out that the way it becomes accepted wisdom that "it" is impossible is usually young idealistic people who don't know it is impossible trying it and failing repeatedly. The narrative that you can overcome that sort of problem by sheer persistence is very tempting but also very dangerous; you can lose years, decades, or even entire careers trying to follow it.
As a concrete example, one that comes up a lot and I try to offer a, err, "calming" voice on is the persistent idea that there should be some sort of purely-visual programming language. The advice I offer is not "don't do it"; the advice I offer is go out and look at the immense amounts of work already done, learn why they failed, then explain why you will not suffer from the exact same problems and fail in the exact same way. If you come up with such an explanation, go for it! No sarcasm, no joke, go for it with my blessing. But this particular area has been richly covered and extensively explored already, and especially if you think you want to make money with this idea it behooves you to take advantage of the nearly-free research you can do simply by looking at others.
After all, you might succeed. Tablets were an "impossible" project pretty recently, until Apple succeeded. Times do change, processor power has continued to get cheaper and cheaper (one of the reasons tablets have succeeded now, IMHO, you can still have a decent experience on them), server infrastructure is cheaper than ever, programming languages have continued their slow-but-steady march towards having more power than ever, etc.
My point is, we are all infinitely ignorant and therefore we fall into the category of "didn't know that I couldn't do it". I think what matters is ambition. Motivation counts more than knowledge or lack of knowledge. One figures out what one needs to along the way.
"Knowing that “it can’t be done” because you can recount each of the failed attempts in the last 20 years to solve the problem can be a boat anchor on insight and imagination."
This wouldn't really apply to people like me who switch careers when they hit 30. The tech industry was all bright and shiny and new to me when I first took an interest in it at age 31. Steve Blank is conflating age and time spent in an industry.
Anyone who thinks like that should read some Karl Popper on the weaknesses inherent in inductive reasoning.
Very few things motivate me more than someone asserting "that can't be done".
I like your way of proving that something can be done by demonstrating it with a 'basic implementation'. I prototype a lot too, and I call it 'proofs of concept'. I always do proof-of-concepts when I have to use a new technology to prove to myself and to my customer that it can be done.
Prometheus won't succeed unless he chooses to unbind himself.
And in a corporation this is still a minor cause of pain. The politics, stupid rules and pointy haired bosses are a much bigger cause of "jadedness".
I think anyone who starts their own company doesnt have the time to get jaded.
In many, many successful startups, the people who make the money and the people who did the work are only loosely correlated. In particular early employees who were duds get paid well, and later employees who were key to the success get only modest payouts.
Just beware the investors! The less you own, the less control you have.
I'm also pretty sure lack of experience also stops you from thinking you could do anything, at least up to a certain level. I think it's combinatorics, really. If you've done N wildly different projects, you have O(N²) possibilities of combining the experiences of 2 of those to produce something novel and good. I have a hard time working with people who are too focused in their domain (e.g. nothing but web apps) because they can't think outside their box.
That said, I've also encountered peers who were too set in their ways to change, and continued to fail in almost exactly the same way over and over again, refusing to learn from their own experience.
It goes both ways, but age has had very little to do with it in either case. It's usually been arrogance instead.
I come across the issue occasionally as a contractor - where my work needs to be integrated with the help of employees who are totally out of their depth with it. In addition to making it all happen you get a second objective: not embarrassing them or otherwise pissing them off.
One such is in nature photography, a passion of mine. Back when I was a total newbie, another photographer shared an image during a class on photography. His photograph had, in addition to an excellent composition, a stunning sky, and perfect light.
One person's response to the image was something like, "Wow, you were very lucky to get a sky like that for that shot!"
The photographer explained that it hadn't been luck. He had found the spot already, and knew what he wanted to get, knew what time of day would give him the highest likelihood of getting the right light to match his vision, and kept going back to that spot at the right time until everything came together.
Luck is what happens when experience meets opportunity.
He put himself in the right spot, and had the vision and skills to take advantage of an opportunity that he would not have gotten without being in the right place at the right time.
This concept isn't unique to photography obviously -- it's just more visible. :)
Saying "it's impossible" to any decent engineer should be like swinging a steak in front of a hungry german shepherd. I don't care how old they are.
If they shrug and accept the "impossibility" of a technical hurdle without due diligence, those same people will be susceptible to "do it this way, trust me, (I have EXPERIENCE|I'm the ARCHITECT)." Those people should always be able to at least give a modicum of explanation or proof as to what reasoning is in play to make something a good or bad idea.
Only if you accept it.
It also doesn't help that society almost colludes in this. People are more forgiving of youngsters making mistakes; they are far more likely to dismiss the same when the person is older, as they infer that since that person hasn't learned by now, they're clearly not very bright / good at what they do / whatever.
Usually, when you think something is impossible that turns out not to be, it's because one of your assumptions was incorrect. But looking for the bad assumption is usually like looking for the bad stone in a pyramid - each assumption is in turn held up by other assumptions, and so on. And it's made more complicated by cross-relationships which can add an exponential aspect to the problem.
Usually, the bad assumption looks obvious in retrospect, but it's seldom that way before the insight.
Steve Wozniak was a genius at electronics. He had more "experience" in electronics than anyone else 20 years older than him. He succeeded because he had the motivation to build something and the knowledge to execute it.
The same is true for every example that he cited. The inventors, in each case, had much more "experience", within those fields, than anyone else. They used this to create something new.
The younger you are (ie no family), the more time you have to tinker with things. And I think this plays a big role.
You can rattle of hundreds of counter examples: Oprah, JK Rowling, Mark Pincus ...
A implied moral being to tackle problems you really shouldn't have any reason to, I suppose. It might be life changing.
"Fools go where angels fear to tread" -- "Maybe god is just waiting for a fool." -- (something I read somewhere, I think)
"Impossible means it just hasn't been done before." -- (something my youngest son says -- he may have read it somewhere)
"There is always a first" -- (from the Kung Fu TV series, the old master indicating they will accept him into the priesthood even though he is not full-blooded Chinese)
"Ignorance is bliss" -- (something I often say about overcoming the long list of problems my oldest son had/has, in part because no one gave me the long list of frightening and prejudicial labels he qualifies for until well after I had done all kinds of things other people say cannot be done)
"While they were saying among themselves it cannot be done, it was done." -- Helen Keller
"What? Like it's hard?" -- Elle Woods/"Legally Blonde", in reply to her ex-boyfriend expressing surprise that she got into Harvard law school (the even bigger punchline is she finds out later he was wait-listed and his daddy had to make a call whereas she got in on her own merits)
I think more common than this is that young people don't understand that just because you have a good product doesn't mean you have a good business. So they'll build a bunch of crazy stuff with no business model, or start a business with 10% margins, and 99% of them will fail but occasionally one of them will work out.
That sounds a lot like age discrimination to me. He should be careful saying things like that, because it's illegal to hire based on age in the US.
And other times it can be an aid. Many good ideas need time to circle around in one's head until they meet the right inspiration. See the popular talk, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU
I'd say that not knowing something cannot be done isn't always the best approach. Those instances where it worked out seem serendipitous at best. One cannot rely on ignorance to get them through the day, surely.
"For the next three years, GCHQ's brightest minds struggled to find a one-way function that satisfied Ellis's requirements, but nothing emerged. Then, in September 1973, a new mathematician joined the team. Clifford Cocks had recently graduated from Cambridge University, where he had specialised in number theory, one of the purest forms of mathematics. When he joined GCHQ he knew very little about encryption and the shadowy world of military and diplomatic communication, so he was assigned a mentor, Nick Patterson, who guided him through his first few weeks at GCHQ.
After about six weeks, Patterson told Cocks about 'a really whacky idea'. He outlined Ellis's theory for public-key cryptography, and explained that nobody had yet been able to find a mathematical function that fitted the bill. Patterson was telling Cocks because this was the most titillating cryptographic idea around, not because he expected him to try to solve it. However, as Cocks explains, later that day he set to work: 'There was nothing particular happening, and so I thought I would think about the idea. Because I had been working in number theory, it was natural to think about one-way functions, something you could do but not undo. Prime numbers and factoring was a natural candidate, and that became my starting point.' Cocks was beginning to formulate what would be known as the RSA asymmetric cipher. Rivest, Shamir and Adleman discovered their formula for public-key cryptography in 1977, but four years earlier the young Cambridge graduate was going through exactly the same thought processes. Cocks recalls: 'From start to finish, it took me no more than half an hour. I was quite pleased with myself. I thought, "Ooh, that's nice. I've been given a problem, and I've solved it." '
Cocks did not fully appreciate the significance of his discovery. He was unaware of the fact that GCHQ's brightest minds had been struggling with the problem for three years, and had no idea that he had made one of the most important cryptographic breakthroughs of the century. Cocks's naivety may have been part of the reason for his success, allowing him to attack the problem with confidence, rather than timidly prodding at it. Cocks told his mentor about his discovery, and it was Patterson who then reported it to the management. Cocks was quite diffident and very much still a rookie, whereas Patterson fully appreciated the context of the problem and was more capable of addressing the technical questions that would inevitably arise. Soon complete strangers started approaching Cocks the wonderkid, and began to congratulate him. One of the strangers was James Ellis, keen to meet the man who had turned his dream into a reality. Because Cocks still did not understand the enormity of his achievement the details of this meeting did not make a great impact on him, and so now, over two decades later, he has no memory of Ellis's reaction."
Note that it wasn't just his naivete that helped, it was also his deep knowledge of a field incidental to where the solution was thought to lie. You gotta know some shit, too.
I can higlight it with a game industry example: for every John Carmack there are thousands of young programmers who start their game engines but fail. And even if John Carmack was quite young when he became successful, he was not inexperienced.
Those thousands who cannot make the extremely big hit become more experienced and try to optimize for bigger expected values. And I think they are right. We have only one life. Taking risks is essential to success, but you can very easily live your life without success if you take only huge risks all your life.
tl;dr: 'Is it possible to do that?' is a bad question. What is the probability to successfully do that? Is better. And experienced folks have much better answers for the latter question than inexperienced folks.
This doesn't mean that being naive is perfect. The majority of the people who try the difficult task will probably still just crash and burn, but the naiveté compels more than normal numbers of people to risk it in the first place.
I think this old joke sums it up.
A woman prays every day, "Oh lord, please let me win the lottery." Months go by, years go by and still nothing. No matter how often, how loud or how hard she prays, she still doesn't win the lottery. Finally one day in tears she cries out, "Why won't you let me win the lottery? I've been good, I've been faithful..."
A voice booms out of the clouds... "First You Have To Buy A Ticket!"
TL;DR If you don't put yourself into the game you cannot lose, but you cannot win either.
On the other hand, realizing that a problem is trickier than it seems on the surface, and leaning from others’ attempts to solve it (including what worked as well as what didn’t) is hugely valuable.
It’s a choice everybody makes for themselves, independent of age.
Also, keep in mind that the boy genius entrepreneur is a stereotype that really doesn't apply outside of the software industry, if it even applies there. The average entrepreneur is over 40, and the average age of successful entrepreneurs is even older.
The founders referenced in the study are not the typical venture/angel funded technology startups. According to Krisztina Holly, one of the reports authors, “only 11% and 9% for VC and angel financing.” It’s those 20% that I would classify as “Scalable Startups” and where I am really interested in understanding the founders ages.
The rest of the enterprenuers fall into a category I would call “small business.” Nothing wrong with that, but it makes the age comparison an Apples and Oranges discussion.
In summary, the Kauffman report, which lots of people now use to point to the fact that entreprenuers average age is 39, may say that. But it may not. There is not enough information in the current report to understand the founders age in technology startups who get risk capital.