At What Age Are People The Most Creative?

Are they young geniuses or old masters? Research says it depends on the kind of creativity.

When are people the most creative? Is there an age where you "peak"? Or does discipline at any age determine how much you'll create?

As with most things, there are a few sides to the argument:

When you're young

When Orson Welles was the ripe old age of 26, he made a movie about the news business called Citizen Kane.

Released in 1941, the film is still considered one of the best movies ever. How did he pull off such a masterpiece at such a young age?

"Ignorance, ignorance, sheer ignorance--you know there's no confidence to equal it," he said when he was 45. "It's only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you're timid or careful."

Welles's comment shows the stultifying effects of groupthink: the more you're exposed to other people's ideas, the more you're infected by them.

When you're in middle age

There's also a strong argument for mid-life peaks in creating your best work. While Einstein once quipped that if you haven't done any major work by 30, you wouldn't do any, that's no longer the case. A 2011 study found that physicists make their biggest discoveries when they're 48.

Modern painters also did their greatest work in their 40s, according to a new paper by Economist P.H. Franses that finds that artists make their greatest works, on average, when they are around 42 years old.

As Tom Jacobs reports at Pacific Standard:

Franses examined data on 221 famous painters of the 19th and 20th centuries, 189 of whom have died. He compared their total lifespans with the year they created what is today their most expensive work ... On average, the painters produced their most highly valued work when they were 41.92 years old; they had lived just under 62% of their total lives.

When you're old

The inimitable Malcolm Gladwell points out that a lot of our most treasured voices are most vocal later in their lives. Consider the poets: 42% of Robert Frost's poems were written after the age of 50. For Wallace Stevens, it was 49%. For William Carlos Williams, it was 44%.

This extends into other fields: Oliver Sacks, the beloved psychologist, has pledged to be super creative into his 80s. The sculptor Louis Bourgeious said that "I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do"--and she did her best work in her 80s, according to economist David Galenson.

So which is it?

While we're not going to complete this in a space of a blog post, Galenson's book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity does help us to see why some artists are so creative so young while others bloom later in life:

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are promi­nently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distin­guished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contri­butions… I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experi­mentation, and the other conceptual execution.

The experimenter has imprecise goals. Cézanne is an example of an experimenter, he revisited the same subjects again and again, waiting for perfection to emerge.

Meanwhile, the conceptual artist knows exactly what she wants to communicate. Picasso is an example, he knew just what wanted to express, thoroughly prepared for his paintings, and upon realizing his ambition, moved onto other styles.

Experimenters build their skills over the course of their careers, while conceptual artists express an idea, and once expressed, drop it altogether.

Experimenter or conceptualist: which are you?

Hat tip: Pacific Standard

[Image: Flickr user Environment]

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6 Comments

  • Lawrence Schau

    I find this most fascinating that we are trying to measure, quantify and scientifically explain creativity. The premise of this is a bit of an anomaly.

    That said however, If you consider the fact that as you go through the journey of life, experiencing its wonders, acquiring knowledge, engaging with people, while continuing to explore your most out of the box ideas, one can easily conclude that you would, and should be most creative in your last day on earth.

    The problem with creativity is the idea of what getting older means in our society. For as you get older, there is a common misperception that at some point you will reach an intellectual and creative plateau. This indicates that humans have a capacity in which their minds will simply stop working at a certain age, and after a certain number of years you can experience all the world has to offer.

    Quite limiting.

    It would be my contention that age has nothing to do with anything. It's the experiences in your life, what you take from those experiences, where you seek new experiences and how you remain open to, and grow from those experiences that ensures someone will be creative throughout their life.

    Its important to note, that no individual can ever "master" creativity or create a masterpiece in their lifetime. No matter what you create, no matter how amazing, there will always be something that can be done better.

    To try and set a distinction between creativity is limiting creativity itself. Ideas are subsequent concepts, and to make that concept come to life, one must use their motivation and passion to experiment and iterate that concept through the materials, mediums and medias available.

    Don't limit yourself in putting a time table on creativity either, people are inherently born creative. To try and understand creativity showcases in many ways that you've already lost an ability to create, and thus are searching for its meaning.

    Creativity is a never ending and illogical cycle. In the evolution of our world, everyone will remain a student to creative possibility throughout their life.
    The question becomes are you open enough to continue learning, observing whats around you, being pushed out of your comfort zone, only to take it all in and turning into something even more creative than you had ever imagined.

    This approach will allow you to build on what you've learned, and avoid the status quo of our society just because you've gotten a bit older.

  • Alavaquial

    .... as if creativity could be restrained to artists or its processes could be 100% conceptual or experimental and not always based on ones past experiences.

  • Shipped Carbon Neutral

    A most interesting post. At what age are people most creative with my first thought before reading was at about age 4 - I remember an open day at kinder - partitioned off where the shop stands and an array of delightful with a toy telephone my eye's did see - to perhaps regard to harness the creativity then becomes the wealth of experiences the selection individual dependent the timing and the environment as to lived, live and living with each discovery as to liken an oyster some with and some without pearls - still each an oyster thank you for sharing all the best kind regards

  • Rei Chi

    You just buried the lead. And it is also difficult to identify oneself using only those generalities.

  • Chuck Shotton

    You really cannot generalize this. The vast majority of people are never what we'd identify as "creative" in terms of the article, regardless of their age. And some are creative throughout their entire lives. It is purely a function of the individual and to try to generalize it this way gives short shrift to those residing at either end of the age spectrum when it comes to their creative output.