I read this week’s Wall Street Journal article “Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity” (WSJ, Feb 20, 1010, p. W3) with fascination…
The article, by Jonah Lehrer, suggests the following:
- Scientific & technical revolutions are often led by younger minds (think Newton, Watson, Einstein, Madame Curie, Jobs, Andreessen)
- Certain fields lend themselves to innovation by younger minds, including Physics, Math & Poetry, Chess
- There seems to be an inverted U-curve that describes human capacity for creative thought, with the top of the u-curve coming somewhere between the ages of 25 and 50.
- The disciplines of Biology, History, Novel-writing, and Philosophy might not peak until their late 40′s
- Many individuals have increased their creativity later in life by switching fields of study (thus potentially applying learnings from one field to another in a “intersectional” manner (see my prior blog post on this called “Intersectional Creativity& Mash-ups”)
One key part of this argument I do buy is this: when we are young, we are likely to take more risks and we are likely to be less encumbered by rules bestowed upon us by marriage, work, community, church, etc. In other words the YOUNGER MIND, in general, does have the advantage of being FREE to make key connections that the older mind has to work harder to achieve amidst a cadre of society-driven rules which have been enforced for a longer period of time.
While I don’t disagree with the premise that certain professions require young/fresh minds to attack them, the author neglected to mention the wide variety of creative careers that have taken off for LATE BLOOMERS in many fields.
The NY Times article highlights “Five sicentists who made their marks while they were young”, including: Archimedes (in his 20s when sitting in the bathtub), Marie Curie (just turned 30 when investigating radioactivity), Galileo Galilei (speed of objects falling in late 20′s), William Lawrence Bragg (x-rays and crystal structure; Nobel laureate at age 25), and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Manhattan Project lead, first discoveries at 23 years old).
Indeed, these great discoveries (involving major sciences) were made by youngsters who could view the world in an alternative way and remove themselves from the scientific “rule-sets” of their days. (Archimedes was quite fortunate to thrive in an ancient society of Greece that rewarded created thinking)
But there is a variety of evidence that older humans have the capacity for creativity & innovation – well into their “retirement” years.
Here are a few I immediately dug up:
1) Ben Franklin - perhaps one of the greatest of all American Inventors – invented the Lightening Rod at age 44 and discovered electricity at 46, drafted the Declaration of Independence at age 70, invented bifocals in late 70′s.
2) Henry Ford - founded Ford Motors in late 30s and geared up production lines in his late 40′s.
3) Sam Walton – launched the first Walmart, in , at age 44.
4) Ray Kroc – was 52 when he incorporated the innovative new approach later called “McDonalds”.
5) Ray Kurzweil - author of more than 10 books on topic of scientific thought and futuristic thinking, has come up with some of his most impressive new ideas long after the age of 50 (he was born in 1948 and is 62 this year). His book The Singularity Is Near was published when he was 55)
6) Alfred Hitchcock - his best and most creative films were done after the age of 50.
Can you think of other examples?
Conceptual vs Experimental Innovators
A great article from Wired Magazine, written in July 2006, reminds us that Genius can come at many ages. Researcher David Galenson (Harvard) underscores the difference between creative activity can be found in two forms: “Conceptual” innovators and “Experimental Innovators”. The Conceptual Innovators tend to come up with their ideas at an early age, in big dramatic leaps into new vectors – the Experimental Innovators seem to have a slower path to the great “aha” moment, trying many variations over time (think: Thomas Edison).
I like to think about Bill Gates – he appears to be a Conceptual Innovator in his youth in the area of software, but in later life (post 50 now), he is starting to innovate in new areas Oddly enough, a number of employees attracted to Microsoft, including Jeff Raikes, Nathan Myrvold, Paul Allen – all seem to be blooming in new creative ways – I suppose they are “experimental” innovators now.
In my role at UC Berkeley, I try to surround myself with the ideas, theory, practice and real world examples of great minds, creativity and innovation…and it seems to come in many forms and many ages. It all gives me comfort in knowing that at age 49, I still have plenty of time to make my major creative contribution to society.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Respond below or Tweet me at http://twitter.com/randyhaykin