We often associate creativity with children, the way they can embrace new ideas, the joy of playing and when they’re in a fostering environment, not be held back by failure. In talking to my workshop participants, they’ve often held onto the view that those creative days have passed them.
So it led me to ask ‘ does our creativity peak at a specific age?”
While researching The Creative Advantage, I came across the researcher, David Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago. He's undertaken research that led to a theory about two types of creativity that he framed as ‘conceptual’ or ‘experiential’ innovation.
I’ve played with this model and presented this idea in various workshops and it always gets people thinking, not only about their own leaning but also about one of its key characteristics. Does creativity blossom at different points in a person’s life?
Prof Galenson contended that conceptual innovators tend to do their best work in their mid-twenties, while experimental innovators peak in their fifties.
Conceptual and Experimental Artist Innovators
Conceptual innovators do their best work early in their life, they work quickly with specific ideas they want to communicate and they articulate those ideas clearly. They plan precisely and then execute. Someone like Picasso, who bursts on to the art scene, epitomizes the conceptual innovator. Galenson points out Picasso’s abrupt stylistic changes, planning his work in advance with great detail and hinting that his work carried a deliberate message.
In contrast experimental innovators don’t display a clearly articulated idea and they don’t work quickly. They don’t really know where they’re going when they start, and they work by trial and error producing drafts and taking time to figure out what they want to say. Galenson recognised this in the artist Cezanne, who comes back to the same subject with no clear linear plan, producing many versions until he stumbles onto the idea that seizes his imagination.
Both Prof Galenson and his co- author research colleague, Bruce Weinberg, professor of economics at Ohio State University, have undertaken further research to supplement their initial findings on the creative life of artists.
This time they've focused on the 31 most notable Nobel Prize laureates in economics, classifying them as either conceptual or experimental thinkers. The researchers arranged the laureates from the most experimental to most conceptual.
"This ranking was based on specific, objective characteristics of the laureates’ single most important work that are indicative of a conceptual or experimental approach.
For example, conceptual economists tend to use assumptions, proofs and equations and have a mathematical appendix or introduction to their papers. Experimental economists rely on direct inference from facts, so their papers tended to have more references to specific items, such as places, time periods and industries or commodities."
Most intriguing was there conclusions after classifying the laureates, when they determined the age at which each laureate made his most important contribution to economics, that is when these laureates reached their creative height.
They found that conceptual laureates peaked at about either 29 or 25 years of age. Experimental laureates peaked when they were approx twice as old, in their mid-50s.
“Applying the distinctions between conceptual and experimental innovations, the researchers found that the Nobel laureates who did their most ground-breaking work early in their careers were also conceptual innovators who challenge conventional wisdom and come up with new ideas suddenly, just like with the artists and writers, they peaked early.
However, experimental innovators have longer periods of experimentation and learn from errors, and these thinkers tend to do their best work later in life. Whether you hit your creative peak early or late in your career depends on whether you have a conceptual or experimental approach.”
It turns out that the economists had much in common with the creatives lives of artists, writers, and scientists.
Pablo Picasso, TS Eliot, Herman Melville, and Albert Einstein all did their greatest work in youth. Experimental innovators, on the other hand, are ambitious but vague, so they take much longer to develop. The paper cites Paul Cézanne, Robert Frost, Virginia Woolf, and Charles Darwin all as late bloomers.
So think about whether you fall into a conceptual or experimental approach to innovative thinking.
Whatever age you are at, you can build those creative muscles and habits. Appreciate that you may have a particular way of problem solving … a fast way is where you come up with ideas quickly, challenge conventional ideas or as a slow burn , where you take time and learn from each iteration. And regardless of your age, you may find you've alot more creativity left in you.