Extending the creative lifespan

In each creative field, whether art, science, or invention, the creator’s productivity goes through a characteristic trajectory: it builds up, reaches a peak age of creative productivity, and then tends to drop off over the rest of the lifespan.  The curve looks different in different fields; for example, in math and physics, productivity shoots up early in life, for a peak age of creativity around 30.  Physicists joke that “if you haven’t done your Nobel-prize work by the time you’re thirty, it’s not going to happen.”  But in other fields the peak age is substantially older; in the arts and the humanities, it’s usually in the fifties.  And good news for those of us who are past the peak age: the drop-off can be very slight (and tends to be slighter as the peak age gets higher).  Exceptional creators continue to generate surprising, important ideas far into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.

When it comes to business invention, companies want to increase the number of years of maximum creativity.  A recent study by Kellogg professor Benjamin Jones* found that the age of peak invention has increased over the last 100 years, as technology becomes more complex and it takes more years to master the larger body of knowledge.  Prior to 1935, the peak was age 36.5; after 1965, the peak age was 40.  The onset of the peak productive years moved up, as well; and so did the age where innovation dropped off.  Before 1935, the drop off was 51; after 1965, it was at 55.

If a company can increase the number of peak creative years, that translates directly into top-line growth.  There are two ways: reduce the length of time it takes to become maximally creative early in a career, or extend the number of years at the older end of the career.  A Wall Street Journal article** reports that Texas Instruments is trying the first: assigning a mentor to each new college grad for intensive training that can get them up to speed in three years instead of five.  Sun Microsystems does the same.  And the possibility is that the pairing could actually increase the productivity of the older workers, as well.

Most innovative companies haven’t thought very hard about how to extend the creative lifespan at the older end.  Continuing education (credits for school tuition) and professional development is necessary, but not sufficient.  Eventually, every Steve Jobs (Apple) and Sergey Brin (Google), and everyone that started their companies with them, will get older.  If we don’t want to be replaced by younger, more creative upstarts, all of us need to stay creative as long as possible.  Organizations need to come up with ways to help us further that goal.  And because many societies are aging (including the U.S. and just about every OECD country), it’s critical for the wealth of nations that we figure this out.  Any ideas?

*“Age and Great Invention” Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming

**WSJ, Monday August 18, 2008, p. B5

4 thoughts on “Extending the creative lifespan

  1. I’m an octogenarian who went to an Improvisation class at Esalen Institute conducted by Patrica Ryan Madson (she’s written a book on the subject), and it surely triggered some fresh synapses for me.

    I suggest that training in improvisation is a great way to keep the mind alert and ready for whatever comes next!

    Patricia can be reached at imrovwisdom@comcast.net

  2. Hello Dr. Sawyer,

    As an ardent promoter of creativity, I write to inform and inspire older adults through my blog “Creativity Matters” on http://www.eldr.com. I also design craft kits for people with fine motor skill difficulties and/or cognitive problems through my business Caring Crafts, Inc. (www.caringcrafts.com)

    My personal experience is that organizations are inherently (and unfortunately) political and, particularly during these difficult economic times, professionals are tenaciously holding on to their jobs, so creativity and innovation is not valued. Perhaps on the uppermost tiers and in the high product driven environments this is not true, but the average employee thrives on status quo. The “known” generates a strong zone of comfort and the “new” is often shunned. Creativity in politically motivated games (often ugly) are far more prevalent in a corporation/organization than the mindful purity of innovative thinking.

    It would take outside-the-box thinking and outside-the-box agents to evoke change. Small players need to impact by educating and informing using many vehicles and a persistent message with examples of positive results.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

  3. Ed, I’m delighted to hear that you found improvisation helpful. I could not agree more. I have spent many years studying Chicago improv theater; I was a pianist with several Chicago improv groups back in the early 1990s, and that gave me access with my videocamera. I’ve published two books reporting on that research (IMPROVISED DIALOGUES, 2005 and GROUP CREATIVITY, 2003). Participating in improv is one of the best ways to enhance your creative potential and to get into a peak state of experience!

    And thank you Judith; you are doing great work. I frequently speak to corporate audiences so I know that different organizations are at different points of awareness when it comes to innovation. Innovation researchers have known for years what it takes to build an innovative environment; but so many organizations still haven’t figured it out. I think you’ve identified many of the factors that block organizations.
    (See my post https://keithsawyer.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/how-long-will-it-take/ )

  4. How exciting…the fact that I may be entering my ‘prime’. I am 51, divorced and the mother of two teens. I played/sang professionally @ 10 years based out of NYC before marrying and having kids. While currently pursuing continuing edu., I have been nervous about future prospects upon graduating. Your article has boosted my confidence in relation to the value of professional development and education in general during my later years. For my senior study at Goddard College, I plan to study jazz theory and improvisation and tie it in with brain research and education. May the gods be with me!

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