Creativity and Age

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

There is a widely held perception that creativity fades with age. We can find anecdotal examples of this. Many popular musicians find that fans prefer their older work rather than more recent work done at an older age. Businesses often look to younger employees for innovation and sometimes even discriminate against older workers in the hiring process. Orson Welles was twenty-five years old when he directed Citizen Kane.

On the other hand, we can find opposing examples. Mark Twain was nearly fifty years old when he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, considered by many to be her most experimental work, was published when Woolf was forty-nine years old. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford prison experiment, was born in 1933 and is still actively working and publishing.  In 2005 Home Depot received the Workplace Institute’s 2005 Best Employer Award for 50 Plus Canadians because the company began hiring older workers who had been laid off from the construction industry. These older Home Depot employees not only had more knowledge and experience working with tools and home repairs, but they were more enthusiastic than younger employees about sharing that experience with customers.

There tend to be two types of creative innovation, one based on sudden, radical new ideas and another based on a long period of experimentation. The first seems more common among the young, while the second is harder to obtain without years of experience.

A person’s chosen field can be another important distinction. Professions with concrete rules, like mathematics or chess, can be mastered at a younger age and invite early bursts of creativity. More “long form” professions like history, philosophy, or abstract poetry, take longer to master before creativity comes into play.

Of course, these are generalizations and many other factors determine our capacity for creative output. The most important factor seems to be an openness to new experiences. Keep learning, keep trying, keep experimenting.

IMGP1845perThis all makes me think of a woman I met during my first visit to New York City. While I paused near Central Park to look at my map (we had no Google or smartphones in the old days and had to use physical maps!), a 60-something woman named Inge approached and offered assistance. She said she walked Central Park most days and offered me a brief walking tour. She had no agenda other than showing off this extraordinary place she referred to as “the park sent from God.” While Inge was retired and discussed no active participation in creative endeavors, she demonstrated a creative mind by her openness to meeting new people and sharing an enthusiasm for exploring new places.  And when I asked to take her photograph she promptly struck a courageous pose. This was more than ten years ago, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Inge is still exploring Central Park and finding something new every day.  As Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature at the age of 82, once said, “The constant happiness is curiosity.”

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