Creativity and the Experimental Genius


It’s understandable to feel as though you should have achieved career excellence by your mid-twenties, especially given the tech entrepreneur success stories churning out of Silicon Valley each week.

The pressure to do something well, and do it as early in your career as possible is not only stifling, but it’s also unrealistic. Isn’t there value in honing your skills, exploring multiple pursuits, and even failing before striking career gold? Yes, we think so.  All hail the experimental geniuses and late bloomers!

Experimental Genius vs Conceptual Genius

David Galenson, professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and author of the book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, has dedicated much of his career to researching and establishing that there are two fundamentally different approaches to creativity and innovation — and that each is associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over a lifetime.

By examining the careers of great painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, and movie directors he sought out to find out why some artists innovate late in their lives, and others early in theirs? He concludes that each has “very different practices” in creating their art, and each has have “very different goals”.

Trial and Error

Conceptual innovators use their art to express ideas or emotions. Galenson found that “Experimental innovators are motivated by aesthetic criteria: their art is based on visual perception. Their goals are imprecise, so they work tentatively, by trial and error, frequently revising their paintings.” One can assume with trial and error comes a healthy rate of failure. And in accepting failure, you can almost become fearless with your ambitions.

In fact, failure can be a stepping stone to success. For example, it apparently took 1,000 times for Thomas Edison to successfully develop the prototype of the lightbulb. He credited those 1,000 “failures” as steps to his invention.

Seeking vs Finding

Conceptual innovators’ goals are precise, so they can plan their works, and execute them systematically. Experimental innovators are often uncertain about their goals which means that they rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single vague objective. They build their skills gradually, with a commitment to improvement resulting in their innovations generally appear late in their lives.

The experimental genius is therefore a perfectionist. There is value to honing your skill until the right opportunity comes along. Just look at Judi Dench, despite her thirty-year tenure at the Royal Shakespeare Company, it wasn’t until her 60s that she made it onto the big screen in the United States in James Bond’s GoldenEye.

Peak Creativity according to Science

According to science, creativity peaks with life experience. Researcher, Philip Hans Franses of the Erasmus School of Economics has been working for some years to determine at what age people like writers, painters and musicians are at the peak of their careers. His research has found the numbers show a remarkable degree of uniformity across the three domains of art, music and literature.

On average, Nobel Prize-winning writers produce their best work at age 45, painters peak at age 42 and classical composers produce their most popular works at age 39.

Nothin’ but a number

A key takeaway in any discussion around career aspirations and age, is that achievements are just as valuable (and maybe even sweeter) with experience. If you’re an accountant with dreams of becoming a filmmaker, or a physician with a fantastic idea for a novel, there is no cap on creativity, and age isn’t a barrier for success in any field.

Just remember, Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. He eventually attended school at another location, only to drop out to become a director before finishing. Thirty-five years after starting his degree, Spielberg returned to school in 2002 to finally complete his work and earn his BA.

It’s never too late!

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