At What Age Are People The Most Creative?

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

At What Age Are People The Most Creative?
[Image: Flickr user Environment]

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?


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.