Thursday, April 28

The best age for creativity

A good blog post on Write it Sideways about 'late blooming novelists' made me wonder if there is a peak age for creativity.  The young writers I teach have a lot of interesting ideas and creative energy, but good writing seems to be associated with a bit of wisdom and a lot of graft.  So what is the best age?

Galenson (2006) suggests that the stereotype of an artistic genius - a young, energetic and audacious visionary - only covers half of the story.  While some great creative types may fit into that mould - Mozart, Picasso and T.S. Elliot, for example - others follow a very different pattern.  Some creatives - Paul Cézanne for example - only achieve their greatest work after many years of struggling.

Boy with Skull by Cezanne,
photo by freeparking.
Gladwell (2009) describes the cases of two contemporary American writers - one who succeeds early and another who needs many years of graft.  Not only do they differ in how long they took to achieve success or fame, but they also work in different ways.  Gladwell suggests that the brilliant young things tend to do less research and start with a clearer idea of what they achieve.  The older creative type tend to repeatedly doubt and reject their own work, and see each thing they do as being more about progress than product.  They also tend to do much more research into their subject matter.  Do either of these types sound familiar?

A related issue comes up in the study of scientific breakthroughs.  Csikszentmihalyi (1996) states the scientists, rather than having a flash of inspiration as is popularly perceived, typically have an insight of true greatness after many decades of work.  Great scientists and inventors tend to have amassed a lot fo skills and knowledge before the have their bigger insights.  In the arts, children can be intensively schooled (Picasso was the son of an art teacher), but in science, it may be almost impossible to acquire the tools without many years of work.  It would explain the shortage of child prodigies in particle physics!

It is an interesting question whether the likes of Mozart and Picasso are geniuses in their fields, and if so, does the term 'genius' apply to someone who has had to work harder/take longer in order to achieve?

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996).  Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.  New York: HarperCollins.
Galenson, D.W. (2006).  Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Geniuses.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gladwell, M. (2009).  What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.  London: Penguin.