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Creativity and Getting Old

Recently, a friend sent me a technical paper entitled, "Optimum Strategies for Creativity and Longevity" by Sing Lin, Ph. D.  Now, I'm always looking for a little light reading, so I dove right into it.  The paper cites Dr. Leo Esaki, a Nobel Laureate, who claimed that:

"...Most of the great discoveries and innovations by the Nobel Laureates occurred at the average age of 32 even though the Nobel prizes were awarded 10 or 20 years afterwards. Furthermore, Dr. Esaki indicated that the peak creativity of most scientists occurred around the age range of 20 to 30 years. As one gets older, the experience increases but the creativity decreases steadily with the age. "

The paper concludes, "The most precious, creative and innovative period in your life is the 10-year period around the age of 32. "  It goes so far as to imply that one should plan for one's creativity to wane and to be prepared for other roles as you mature in your career.

Of course, this study looked specifically at creativity as it related to engineering and the sciences.  Does this also apply to artists as well?

Maybe to some degree. Certainly for dancers and performing artists whose bodies are their art, the unyielding passage of time robs some of us of aspects of our artistic ability. Also, the somewhat capricious bias toward youth in music eventually limits a great many songwriters and musicians as they age.  Old eyes, old ears, and old legs can hamper many an artist.

But in my experience—and in those of many of my friends—creativity isn't concomitant to chronological age.  A mixed media artist friend is just now entering into a wonderfully prolific period in her life.  A musician friend is experiencing rebirth and artistic renewal as a book author.  A pysanky artist friend is just now beginning to be discovered for the work she's been doing over the past decade and a half.  Another friend I know has just begun taking piano lessons.  All of these people are way beyond their twenties.  

For years, I've wanted to try writing a screenplay.  And just recently, I decided that now was the time.  So I read a few books, researched the topic on the internet, and even studied scripts of movies I've seen.  A few days ago, I began my first draft. Now, I don't have any aspirations to be one of those successful Hollywood film writers. I only have aspirations to learn something new and interesting, and hopefully write something worth writing.  I realized that it would be hard work.  What I didn't realize is how much fun I would be having.  Honestly, it's a blast.

So here's my (non-scientific) theory.  Maybe creativity is no more nor less than the simple willingness to be open to the possibility. And that possibility, whatever it is, can be found at the end of a paintbrush, the other end of a camera lens, at the tip of a ballerina's shoe, or at the bell end of a saxophone.  There's a word for this: Wonder.

If this is true—and I have a sneaking suspicion it is—then maybe, just maybe, if we keep our hearts young and learn to embrace the wonder of it all, creativity can happen at any age.


I'm not sure that I would agree with equating creativity with wonder. I would say that wonder is a response to creative work, independent of the ability (or desire) to create. I would suggest that creativity has more to do with making connections in new and powerful ways. Just making connections at random doesn't mean you'll create anything good; the connections have to be ones that create something more than the sum of their parts.

Creativity, I would argue, is "seeing things in a new way" and then being able to do something with that vision.

I would add, then, that real creativity requires discipline. First, you have to know your medium very well in order to genuinely see where new connections can be made, or where a new insight solves a problem. Second, you need the discipline to persist in bringing your new idea to fruition. Many and many a manuscript lies half-finished in the would-be writer's desk drawers...

I definitely agree that creativity in the arts is not limited to the young. In fact, I would say that older artists are potentially able to be more creative, because they bring more richness of experience to the table. I bet that's where wonder really does play an important role - to help artists continue to see things with fresh eyes even as they draw on the depth of their knowledge and experiences in their art.

Over the years I've found the biggest obstacle to creativity is busyness. Like a plant choked by surrounding weeds and starved of light, water and nutrients, my creativity has waned due to the demands of family, work, and, yes, even church. Of course the blame (if one wishes to ascribe blame and one chooses to face reality) lies ultimately with me and my lifestyle choices. I cannot and will not blame this world for presenting me unlimited opportunities and/or temptations for which to spend my time, efforts and attention.

I hope (and am purposefully planning) that when I retire, my creativity will flourish because I will feed and nurture it with the necessary time, space and solitude it needs to grow.

I'm reading a fascinating book (The Age of Wonder--Richard Holmes) which is a chunky biography/history of the interconnection between the arts and sciences during the Romantic Age. It seems that so many of the greatest minds and their discoveries happened as a byproduct of dysfunction and obsession. A study of literary "greats", for example, has me reconsidering whether I want to create my magnum opus after all. I can't name one extraordinary work of art that was NOT created in a laboratory of grief, obsession, self-absorption, or depression. Genius and insanity are often twins, no?

Of course, creativity can exist without genius. Maybe we'd all prefer one without the other? I'd also like to think that God uses both pain and joy to shape our art. Hmm . . . you're given me lots to think about!

Creativity arises to every individual at any time. Its a key to a person's success. - Charles Brennan

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A rock musician turned rocket engineer turned Christian artist, MANUEL LUZ is a creative arts pastor, working musician, and author. His new book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist, is released by Moody Publishers.