What’s age got to do with creativity?
May 3, 2021
I’ve got another birthday coming soon and that fact has left me feeling 💀 (which I recently learned actually means 😂 in Gen-Z emoji speak). But this isn’t all that funny to me. While I’m not exactly experiencing age rage, I am thinking about it a lot more than I used to. Having recently removed the year I graduated from college on my LinkedIn profile and then being fed a #SayYourAge post from advertising maven Cindy Gallop, I realized I needed to come to terms with this whole age and creativity thing. As I find myself on the cusp of a milestone birthday, in what I consider to be the prime of my creative life, I am compelled to answer the questions: how much longer do my creativity and I have left in this business? And if I want to keep going, what do I need to do to retain, sustain and gain more creativity?
I started by looking to what researchers say on the matter by way of a few fruitful Google searches. And I was reminded that researchers make a distinction between two types of creativity: conceptual innovators and experimental innovators. In general, conceptual innovators make sudden and radical breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, often at an early age. Albert Einstein is the poster boy for youthful conceptual creativity publishing his theory of relativity at age 26. But in contrast, experimental innovators work by trial and error, and typically require decades of tinkering before they produce a major work. Alfred Hitchcock was 64 by the time he filmed The Birds. I found this promising given by trade, I fall into the latter category. Age seems to be working in favor of the creators who are more experimental—who build on their knowledge throughout their careers, and ultimately find new and innovative ways to analyze that knowledge—as they tend to peak later in life. All promising so far, but how long do experimental thinkers like me have?
Philip Hans Franses from the Erasmus School of Economics studies the careers of the world’s most creative and brilliant individuals. Specifically, he studied Nobel literature laureates, popular classical composers, and over 220 artists who painted the most-valued works in the world. After analyzing each their life’s accomplishments, then pooling together the data, Franses has found the average age for peak creativity across each of these creative artists: 42 years old. Sounds good to me, but as someone who is trying to buy herself some extra time, if you normalize that against a lifespan, it seems to be those at the two-thirds point of their lives hit their creative peak. Again, this seems promising but not entirely helpful to me given I don’t know where I am on the road to this magically creative two-thirds point. I dig in again.
David W. Galenson, the researcher who developed the ideas of conceptual innovators and experimental innovators, finds the most successful artists aren’t captives to their chronological age. Instead, they succeed by speaking to the age in which they live. And I am liking the sound of this. Different circumstances and different times, not unlike a B2B and a B2C campaign, call for different kinds of creativity. For example, the craftsmanship of Broadway composers Berlin and Porter wouldn’t have appealed to the riled up youth of 1963, just as the ingenious insolence of Bob Dylan and John Lennon wouldn’t have worked for the tamer Broadway audiences in the late 1930s. Sometimes we need a revolution, and sometimes we need an evolution, whatever is relevant for the moment. Light bulb! This is boiling down to how relevant one is for the age in which they live, not the age that they are.
So now I’m wondering, how do my co-workers view my age? While many creative pursuits are solitary in nature, my job in advertising is multidisciplinary and collaborative, so there’s a wide spectrum of relevance to consider in relation to age. A very informal blind poll yielded some perspectives on this when I asked colleagues to first guess my age, then rate that guess on my physical appearance, our personal interactions and my creative work product.
Respondents in the youngest cohort, 25-34, were equally likely to assess age based on all three aspects: physical appearance, interactions, and creative work product.
My hopeful takeaway: Perhaps there’s no need to fear that interview with a younger hiring manager. And maybe I can add 1996 back to the college section on my LinkedIn profile.
Respondents in my own cohort, 35-50, were 50% more likely to assess age based on physical appearance than on either interactions or creative work product.
My hopeful takeaway: Maybe more of us are thinking about age and creativity and this can lead to increased dialogue.
And the older cohort, those 51-65, were only slightly more likely to assess age based on physical appearance than interactions or creative work product but are 30% more likely to assess someone based on interactions than the other two groups.
Hopeful takeaway: The elder statesmen and women are looking for substance regardless of age.
And for the record, the average age my colleagues put on me was 39.5 (even after I removed that one kind respondent who put me at “forever 29”).
So, it would seem that the answer to the question of how long I have left is really up to me. Do I know how to stay relevant as an almost-47-year-old woman? Can I stay engaged in the zeitgeist in ways that are meaningful to me and my craft? Sure, my realms of experience have shifted and will continue to shift. Staying out until dawn doesn’t happen for me that much anymore but creating with the age group who still parties all night is insightful, if not hilarious.
I can now see myself as a bridge between age cohorts. By continuing to engage both up and down the age ladder in the agency space, I open myself to continued flow of new ideas or old ideas to make new again. So, it stands to reason that the more I create, the more creative I can actually become. Maya Angelou seems to agree saying, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have”.
And with that, it seems I’m just getting started.
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