Your Best Work May Be Yet to Come

Economist says achievements come from older experimental innovators and younger conceptual thinkers.

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While you may not be up on the lives of the great poets, it turns out that many of them did not hit their stride until their 50s or 60s. True, many made their mark much earlier. But as University of Chicago economist David Galenson argues in a recent research paper, it has become common wisdom that great poetry is the province of the young. Ditto for accomplishments in many other endeavors in the creative arts. The only problem, he says, is that this wisdom is wrong.

[See U.S. News's list of the Best Mutual Funds for 2010, and use our Mutual Fund Score to find the best investments for you.] Years of observation and experimentation have produced creative breakthroughs by many older artists. Further, Galenson says, there is no reason to assume these "late bloomers" should be restricted to the arts. He is confident that age-specific studies of breakthroughs in science, and presumably other disciplines as well, would turn up significant contributions by older persons. But such studies have not been done, he says, and the prevailing thinking is that younger people rule the creativity roost.

"We have become conditioned, almost brainwashed, to believe that the innovative people who make important contributions to our arts and sciences are all whiz kids, prodigies fresh from the most prestigious art schools and institutes of technology," he writes. "In fact, however, these young geniuses may be matched in both number and importance by much less conspicuous late bloomers. . . . Failure to recognize the importance of these late bloomers may not only harm their careers, but may reduce the rate of innovation in our arts and sciences."

For all the young poets cited by people who view poetry as a young person's game, Galenson can identify large numbers of poets who emerged as stars only in their later years. In fact, those who shine the brightest in their youth often burn out, he says. It's not that they cease being talented. It's just that the kind of creativity exhibited by the young is a perishable byproduct of their youth. They are driven to challenge norms and not held back by years of adherence to those norms. The kind of creativity displayed by older artists, by contrast, emerges from a lifetime of experience and experimentation.

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"Conceptual innovators are theorists, whose talent is for abstraction," Galenson says. "They work deductively, and solve precise problems by creating new syntheses of old ideas. In contrast, experimental innovators are empiricists, whose talent is for the real and concrete. They work inductively, gradually accumulating the wisdom and judgment with which they approach their less clearly perceived goals."

So, you might just have a lot of creative juice left in the old tank. And the odds are you will have a goodly number of years to put your experiential and experimental skills to work. I have trouble seeing the return of an era when the thoughts of our elders are universally treasured and respected. But it wouldn't surprise me to see the emergence of an age-centric acceptance that older people are capable of any number of creative and physical achievements that were once seen as unlikely.

Rest assured, not everybody accepts Galenson's arguments, which have been developed in earlier articles and books, one of which is called "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity." I admit that there aren't many days when I can see myself gradually accumulating all that wisdom and judgment. But I do think I will be able to give a rousing acceptance speech when I finally am awarded one of the MacArthur "genius grants." I figure it's about my time.

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