Feb 22nd 2020

The Nature of Creativity in Old Age

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).


Does creativity diminish or disappear as we age? Some psychologists have believed that it does. In 1953, Harvey Lehman concluded that “Superior creativity rises relatively rapidly to a maximum which occurs usually in the thirties and then falls off.” He described what he called a gerontic paradox, that “the old possess greater wisdom and erudition…But when a situation requires a new way of looking at things, the acquisition of new techniques or even new vocabularies, the old seem stereotyped and rigid.” Colin Martindale later agreed that “In general, a person’s most creative work is done at a fairly early age,” and Dean Simonton concurred that “creativity seems to peak in early to middle adulthood.”

These conclusions might seem odd when we think of some creative landmarks of the modern era. Darwin published The Origin of Species at the age of 50. Tolstoy published Anna Karenina at 49, Dostoevsky The Brothers Karamazov at 59, Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 50, Proust the final volume of In Search of Times Lost at 56, and Woolf To the Lighthouse at 45. Rodin completed the Monument to Balzac at 49. Robert Frost published “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” at 48, and Elizabeth Bishop “One Art” at 65. Frank Lloyd Wright completed the New York Guggenheim at 76, Le Corbusier Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp at 63, and Frank Gehry the Guggenheim Bilbao at 64. Alfred Hitchcock directed Vertigo at 59, and Psycho at 61; Clint Eastwood directed Unforgiven at 62, and Million Dollar Baby at 74. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” at 51, and “White Christmas” at 54.

Perhaps these are mere anomalies, isolated examples of creativity at older ages? Quantitative evidence says otherwise. A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.

The psychologists quoted above were wrong. Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle. What the psychologists failed to recognize is that there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso, Eliot, Hemingway, Warhol, Godard, Plath, and Dylan. But there is another, very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators. Darwin, Tolstoy, and the other late bloomers listed in the second paragraph of this article were all important innovators of this kind.

The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67.  Two years earlier, Cézanne wrote to the painter Emile Bernard that “I progress very slowly, for nature reveals itself to me in very complex ways; and the progress needed is endless.” The next year, Cézanne again told Bernard that he believed he had made some progress, “rather slow,” in his latest works, then added, “It is, however, very painful to have to state that the improvement produced in the comprehension of nature from the point of view of the picture and the development of the means of expression is accompanied by old age and a weakening of the body.” These letters expressed Cézanne’s conviction that above all two elements – the acuity of his perception of the subject, and the development of a technique that would allow him to express that perception – were critical to the improvement of his art, and his belief that both of these elements could only be the products of long and painstaking study.

Charles Darwin’s career was based on the conviction that theories should be the product of deep and detailed knowledge.  At 62, Darwin gave a concise statement of his formula for creativity, in a letter congratulating his youngest son on passing a college exam. The boy was not a distinguished student, and Darwin’s own mediocre record as a student clearly allowed him to identify with Horace. His encouragement to his son stressed that creativity did not depend solely on intelligence:

I have been speculating last night what makes a man a discoverer of undiscovered things, and a most perplexing problem it is. Many men who are very clever – much cleverer than discoverers – never originate anything. As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for causes or meaning of everything that occurs. This implies sharp observation and requires as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated.

The psychologists quoted at the outset of this article assumed that the accumulation of knowledge and experience serves only to reduce the flexibility, and consequently the creativity, of the old. Greater knowledge, and associated entrenched habits of thought, do appear to constrain conceptual innovation, for they create barriers to the extreme simplifications that often characterize conceptual creativity, and they tend to erode the brash self-confidence of the cocksure young prodigy who can make bold leaps into the unknown because he is not yet aware of, and intimidated by, the complexity of his discipline.

But the recipe for experimental innovation is very different. Great experimental innovators develop not only vast stores of knowledge – “as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated,” in Darwin’s words – but also the technical means by which to turn it into a novel contribution – Cézanne’s “knowledge of the means of expressing.” Both the accumulation of great knowledge and the construction of new technical means are “only to be acquired through very long experience,” in Cézanne’s words, and this implies that their greatest results will almost always appear late in a career. In the presence of appropriate technical expertise, greater knowledge affords the experimental innovator a larger and more trustworthy foundation for generalizations, to support ever broader and more far-reaching conclusions.

In dismissing increasing age as a source of creativity, Lehman and the scholars who followed him in this error were guilty of mistaking a part of creativity for the whole. Their error poses a barrier to understanding creativity, and makes a damaging contribution to ageism.

Old age and great experience may be lethal to the creativity of conceptual young geniuses, but they are the lifeblood of the innovations of experimental old masters.  Among the latter was Louise Bourgeois, a great experimental sculptor, who once declared, “I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do.” Bourgeois made her greatest work after the age of 80. When she was 84, and an interviewer asked whether she could have made one of her recent works earlier in her career, she replied, “Absolutely not.”  When he asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”


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