“A person who has not yet made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so,” said Albert Einstein. He was just 26 when he published his theory of relativity. Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was 24 when he designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and it’s often said that Picasso produced his finest work in his twenties.
But are we—as still often seems to be received wisdom in the workplace — really over the hill creatively speaking by the time we hit 30?It’s a question that academics have been pondering for years. And, happily, their answer is a near-universal no.
Historiometric research, for instance, a body of work carried out mostly by European and American occupational psychologists, has attempted to measure how creative people are at different ages, by tracking the amount and quality of work they produce. And, based on its data, many experts believe that our peak of creativity is less to do with our age than with our profession. Musicians and artists, for example, seem to do their best work in their 30s and 40s, and lyrical poets between 26 and 31, while novelists tend to peak between 40 and 44, humanity scholars in their 60s, and scientists between the ages of 40 and 70.
Different careers require different amounts of experience and knowledge before potential can be put into practice, explains University of California psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton. “Somebody can learn most of what they need to know about mathematics at a very young age, and begin making significant contributions in the field,” he says. But a scientist might require years of research and collaboration before a basic theory can be realised. “It took Charles Darwin years to master and organise what he needed to know to write ‘The Origin of Species.’
Similarly, says Professor Simonton, a lyrical poet can jot down his thoughts instantly, but the more complex techniques and greater life experience needed to write a novel may take decades to acquire. Other experts offer different theories on why creativity needn’t stop in your younger years. Professor David Galenson, of the department of economics at the University of Chicago, believes geniuses— whether in art, architecture or even business — come in two different forms: conceptual and experimental innovators.
Conceptualists do their breakthrough work early, regardless of their field, because they somehow know in advance what they hope to achieve. Picasso, for instance, thought through his work carefully before putting brush to paper, so his early art is treasured for its invention, but his later — and less fresh — work isn’t quite so well-regarded.
Nineteenth-century French painter Paul Cézanne, however, was an experimentalist who worked by trial and error without a clear goal, gradually improved his technique, and produced his best work when he was in his 40s. Your circumstances may also play a big role in your creativity. Novelist Marina Lewycka was 59 when her best-selling debut novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was published. “In my 50s, I finally had time to myself,” she says. “I was working part-time, my family didn’t need much attention, and I could spend my spare hours doing something I really loved.”
Inventor Trevor Baylis thinks creativity is not about age, but about seizing the moment. He was in his mid-50s when he created the wind-up radio in 1991. “I could have been watching Come Dancing, but there was a report about the spread of Aids and how the radio was the best way of getting the public health message across,” says Baylis, now 75. “I had a flash of inspiration, and that can happen at any age.”
The research does suggest, however, that our creativity will often peter out as we age, if we start relying too much on existing knowledge and tried-and-tested strategies, rather than experimenting and innovating. Psychologist Dr Keith Sawyer, author of Explaining Creativity, says we need to counter this throughout our lives by “learning new stuff, observing unusual situations, and reading. You need to fill your mind with a variety of fresh information, concepts and knowledge. That’s the raw material of creativity.”
People who have rebooted their minds like this include Mark Gould, 52, a former city trader and journalist, who took up furniture making two years ago.“After 25 years in the media, I was becoming too two-dimensional and needed to have a change. Making things with your hands is really satisfying, and your mind clears of all the nonsense, politics and stress.”
Professor Simonton has had a similar experience. “When I entered my 50s, I started wondering whether my creativity was drying up. Some of my research ideas seemed to reach a natural end point. So I moved into a new area [film] and began working on cinematic creativity and aesthetics, culminating in two books—a new lease on my creative life.” He adds that, although age may in the end make your mind less productive and unable to generate as many ideas, the quality of those you do have can be as good or better than before. And experience and expertise will enable you to implement them quicker. At 64, he produces papers in far less time than his graduate students.
So age, it seems, need not be a major barrier to a productive, ideas-filled life. Michelangelo worked on St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, into his 80s, 75-year-old Sir Ridley Scott remains a prolific filmmaker, and Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb, was said to create one patentable idea every two weeks right up until his death at 84.
Keep exercising your brain and, if you’re doing great things now, there’s no reason why you won’t be doing so well into your dotage.
Stay Creative At Any Age
These expert tips will help keep your mind fresh at every stage of life.
20- to 40-year-olds
1. If you’re building a career or family, creativity often gets put on the back burner. Schedule a time in your diary—an hour before bed, say—for something like singing, drawing or writing. If you can, join a writing group, knitting circle or choir, contribute to online forums, or start your own blog. Bouncing ideas off others who give you supportive feedback fuels the creative process.
2. At this age, you may still believe that ideas only come in a flash of genius, rather than through years of hard work. This task gives you a sense of how developing winning concepts can involve risk and making several failed attempts. Divide a paper into four. Label one row “normal and ordinary ideas” and the other “original and breakthrough ideas”. Label one column “highly feasible and useful” and the other “difficult and of unclear use”. Put your ideas into these quadrants — this will help you work out which ones are best.
40- to 50-year-olds
1. Avoid your brain slipping into tried-and-tested ways of thinking by dabbling in something you know nothing about — be it car maintenance or Sufi mysticism. Read articles, go to conferences and do courses. Talk to people who are new or upcoming in your field, and work on projects that teach you something. Networking and keeping up to date is a way of staying motivated, and will help you find innovative ways of working.
2. Take a stack of magazines, cut out photographs (connected to a particular work problem, for example), make them into a collage and pin it on the wall next to your desk. Study it, then let your mind wander to get a new perspective. Switching focus like this can stimulate areas of your brain that weren’t previously working on the issue and trigger winning ideas.
50- to 70-year-olds
1. By this time of life you could be an expert in your field, but it may have made your thinking rigid. This exercise gets you into the habit of bending your mind’s most stable concepts.Select one of these objects and draw what it might look like: a piece of furniture that’s also a fruit; a vehicle that’s a fish; a computer that’s a teacup; a lampshade that’s a book.
2. Our brains shrink and become less efficient as we age. The hippocampus, associated with memory, loses 5% of its nerve cells each decade. Physical exercise is essential for maintaining blood flow to the brain, and may stimulate cell growth and slow cognitive decline. Exercise (a fast walk is fine) for a minimum of 30–60 minutes, at least three times a week.
3. The old “use it or lose it” adage becomes more important as we get older. Spend ten minutes doodling with your wrong hand. This forces your brain to work extra hard, and experts believe this sort of exercise causes new synapses—the connections between brain cells—to form. The more synapses we have, the faster we can think.
Full article appears in the February issue of Reader’s Digest, out now.