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The age of invention

Think you’re not the creative type? Just wait, columnist says


One spring day in 1995, I was driving through an industrial section of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, USA, when I spotted a parked van covered with fanciful paintings of polka-dotted giraffes, an African-American Statue of Liberty, and children riding giant cows. I pulled over to investigate and quickly discovered that the van was the least of it. In fact, everything on the property – from the mailbox to the porch furniture – had been covered in such whimsical scenes, all of them rendered in shiny acrylic paint.

Illustration by Julien Pacaud

I knocked on the door, and a raspy voice called out, “Come on in.” Inside, I found the man responsible for all this color, Sam McMillan. Sam was short and spry, with a dapper white beard. He was painting a chariot onto the seat of a rocking chair.

Over the next two years, I spent hours with Sam, hauling up furniture from his basement, watching him work, and listening to him tell stories of his days picking cotton and tobacco. I eventually filled my tiny apartment with McMillan originals. And I was pleased when Sam called to tell me that his art was being shown in major museums and had been featured in the Smithsonian magazine.

I assumed Sam had been painting all his life. So I was dumbfounded when he informed me one day that he had never so much as a picked up a paintbrush until he was 60 years old.

This made such a deep impression on me because when I met Sam I was 30, a graduate student in creative writing who already feared that I had come to fiction too late to become much of a writer.

I realize how absurd this sounds. But it speaks to a stubborn misconception that has long bedeviled our culture when it comes to creativity: namely, that our powers of invention peak in youth and diminish as we age.

Among literary denizens, this myth has been fed by Romantic poets such as John Keats and Arthur Rimbaud, who produced groundbreaking work in their late teens and early 20s.

But every field of creative endeavor peddles the same myth. We love to hear stories of prodigies and whiz kids such as painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who conquer their fields before they can legally drink to their own success. 

It was Zuckerberg who made the rather bald claim that “young people are just smarter,” at an event at Stanford University in 2007. He later explained to journalists that as people grow older, their ideas grow staler.

What’s lost in this parade of youth worship is a growing body of research suggesting the opposite: that certain creative capacities actually expand as we grow older. 

As a culture, we’ve embraced this notion that innate creativity exists in a purer and more potent state during childhood, and diminishes as we grow older and our imaginations erode. What’s lost in this parade of youth worship is a growing body of research suggesting the opposite: that certain creative capacities actually expand as we grow older.

It turns out that Sam McMillan’s sudden renaissance wasn’t an anomaly, but proof that our later years can and should usher us into an age of invention.

The scientific basis to all this has to do with the fact that there are really two types of human intelligence. The first is called fluid intelligence. It’s the part of our brain that solves problems using the contents of our working memories. As we age, our fluid intelligence does degrade. We hold less information in our minds, we don’t process that information as quickly, and we lose our ability to focus. This is the reason we associate aging with a loss of creativity.

But there’s a second form of intelligence called crystallized intelligence. It’s more like your overall bank of knowledge and experience. This only gets larger as you get older.

“What people don’t realize is that human beings possess different types of creativity,” says Shelley Carson, a Harvard University researcher and author of the book "Your Creative Brain." “If you’re a theoretical physicist, you’re probably going to do your most creative work in your 20s, because you rely on fluid intelligence. But for a novelist or a composer or even a medical researcher, you can expect that your creative work may continue to improve as you age because your attention broadens. You’re seeing more of the big picture, making the connections between different aspects of your life, ones that younger people who are laser focused on one area may not see.”

Illustration by Julien Pacaud

What’s more, Carson says, the fact that people become more distractible as they age turns out to be an advantage in many creative endeavors. Her research group at Harvard found that a certain degree of distraction feeds highly creative people. “Their filters are looser. This allows more stuff into the cognitive workspace – more memories, more associations, more insights – which you can combine and recombine in original ways.”

As the brain grows older, it comes to resemble the creative brain in one other crucial manner: We stop being so self-conscious. We no longer feel the same urgent need to impress others or please them, to abide the social expectations that might plague younger people. This disinhibition, Carson says, enables people to take chances without fear of failure or humiliation – a risk-taking mentality that is a central prerequisite to creative work.

Carson says the most common misconception she deals with is that people’s creative motivations wane as they get older. “What I see, especially with females, is just the opposite,” she notes. “They’ve been waiting all their lives to engage in creative work and as soon as they reach 50 or 60, they can’t wait to get out there and get started.”

As a case in point, consider Carson’s own biography. In her younger years, she worked as a flight attendant and raised two children. She later enrolled at Harvard and received her Ph.D. in experimental psychopathology at age 51. She didn’t publish her first book until she was 60, and delivered her first TED Talk last year, at age 66.

British author Lorna Page published her debut novel, a thriller titled "A Dangerous Weakness," at 93. She used the proceeds to buy a large house, where she invited friends from her nursing home to come live with her.

By some measures, that makes her a spring chicken.

Consider the case of Lorna Page. The British author published her debut novel, a thriller titled A Dangerous Weakness, at 93. She used the proceeds to buy a large house, where she invited friends from her nursing home to come live with her.

Or how about Barbara Beskind? She wanted to be an inventor from her earliest days. When she was growing up during the Great Depression, her family couldn’t afford to buy toys, so she designed and built her own hobbyhorse using old tires.

Beskind wanted to study engineering, a field of study that was not open to women at the time. So she majored in home economics instead.

Nearly half a century later, she fulfilled her dream of becoming an inventor, and four years ago – as she approached her 90th birthday – she joined the Silicon Valley design firm Ideo.

Beskind isn’t the only nonagenarian shaking up the tech world. Earlier this year, physicist John Goodenough, working with a team at the University of Texas at Austin, filed a patent for a new kind of fast-charging compact battery that could revolutionize electric cars and make petroleum-fueled vehicles a thing of the past. Goodenough was 57 years old when he co-invented the first lithium-ion battery in 1980. He is now 94.

Take that, Mark Zuckerberg.

Illustration by Julien Pacaud

Dean Keith Simonton is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis. For four decades, he has been one of the world’s leaders in investigating the relationship between creativity and aging.

Simonton himself was drawn to creativity and aging because he could see that American researchers had lost interest in the field at precisely the wrong time. “I couldn’t understand why,” the 69-year-old observes. “Particularly given all of the baby boomers who would be aging over the next few decades – including me!”

Like Carson, Simonton has battled the stubborn misconception that creativity inevitably wanes as we age. “Some think that we are most creative when we’re schoolkids finger-painting,” he says. “But in most domains, creative productivity doesn’t peak until the late 30s or early 40s.”

Simonton stresses that the way most people think about creativity and aging is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because we focus far too much on chronological age when we try to assess someone’s creative potential. Instead, we should be considering what Simonton calls “career age” – that is, how long someone has been engaged in a particular creative endeavor.

Early bloomers often have creative primes shifted forward, whereas late bloomers will have their peak years delayed. This helps explain why folks such as Barbara Beskind, or my painter friend Sam McMillan, have enjoyed so much success. They may be advanced in years, but they’re young as creators.

Simonton has also observed a wide variation in creative longevity. Some people do major creative work for a short time. You could think of them as “one-hit wonders.” A scientific example is Gregor Mendel, who produced only a few scientific papers and yet secured an enduring reputation as the father of genetics. His fellow naturalist John Edward Gray published nearly 900 papers, but is virtually unknown today.

The reason these folks produced masterworks into old age, the data suggest, has more to do with individual character than with aging.

The artists, inventors, and scientists we tend to hail as creative geniuses, Simonton notes, are usually those who produce influential work over a long period.

Take Benjamin Franklin. After a long career as an inventor, writer, political philosopher, and statesman, he invented the bifocal lens at 78. Or Frank Lloyd Wright, who was still working on the Guggenheim Museum in New York when he died at 91 (it opened six months later). Simonton loves the example of Giuseppe Verdi, who was 80 when his most acclaimed opera, Falstaff, premiered, as well as modern composer Elliott Carter, who was penning avant-garde works up to his death at 103.

The reason these folks produced masterworks into old age, the data suggest, has more to do with individual character than with aging.

As I thought more deeply about creativity and aging, I realized that one of the best examples of the phenomenon was my own late mother, Barbara Almond.

Growing up in the Bronx, she was always intensely creative. She studied piano, read passionately, and attended the renowned High School of Music and Art. But her professional ambitions led her to medical school and a career in psychiatry. She also devoted a lot of her 30s and 40s to raising three rambunctious boys.

All during my childhood, she read novels and played piano. These were her creative outlets. In her 50s, with her children finally out of the house, she decided to pursue a more creative form of therapeutic training: psychoanalysis.

Yet it wasn’t until she was nearly 70 that she began working on the great creative project of her life. The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood is a book about maternal ambivalence: women’s fears of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.

My mom had struggled with these feelings herself and had treated dozens of women who expressed the same anxieties over the years. And so, with no experience as a professional writer, she set about writing a book about this dynamic.

My mom had possessed the intellectual gifts to write such a book her entire life. But a host of other factors had to fall into place for her to make it happen – and all of them depended on her growing older.

First, she needed to amass a lifetime of experience – what Carson calls crystallized intelligence. Second, she needed the ability to make the connections between her personal and professional experience, as well as the literary and cinematic examples of maternal ambivalence she had been absorbing for decades. Third, she needed to find creative motivation. Fourth, she needed the time and space to do serious creative work. And fifth, she needed to reach a point in her life where she became less inhibited, more willing to launch an ambitious project.

It took several years, but when she was finally done, the book was published to wide acclaim and reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I had the honor of introducing the author when she read in Boston, where I live. She was 72.

Most of the examples I’ve discussed thus far involve what Dean Simonton refers to as “Big-C creativity,” the type of creativity that “exerts an impact that extends well beyond a single person’s life or family or workgroup, like coming up with a cure for cancer, or a better mousetrap.”

Rather than talking about “retirement” at 65, we should think about promoting a “transition” to creative fields in which people “can preserve their wisdom” in works of visual art, music, or writing.

But most of the creativity in our world is actually of a different order. It involves smaller and more personal matters: coming up with a new way to organize your closet, or creating a new recipe, solving a crossword puzzle, or taking up a hobby that allows you to express your artistic and emotional life.

It is in this more humble realm that the relationship between aging and creativity may be most crucial, particularly as our population grows older.

Carson believes that our society, as a whole, should be looking to redefine the later years of our life as a time to foster greater creativity. Rather than talking about “retirement” at 65, we should think about promoting a “transition” to creative fields in which people “can preserve their wisdom” in works of visual art, music, or writing.

That may sound sort of radical, but it’s actually an ancient concept, one that dates back to cultures in which it was the prescribed role of wise elders to tell stories and sing songs and construct pictographs that might help guide younger, less experienced members of the community.

But more important than social utility is the sense of meaning that creativity instills within the creator.

I see this every time I teach a class at GrubStreet, Boston’s creative writing center. There are plenty of young students eager to begin their literary apprenticeship. But there are always one or two people in their 60s or 70s.

They are often the most talented writers in any given group, because they have so much experience to draw from and because they are less concerned about pleasing others. They are simply hungry to tell the stories that have been living inside them for so long. They have come to class, in other words, not in pursuit of fame but for the intrinsic pleasure of creation.

I saw the same thing up close in my mom’s life. Working on her book buoyed her spirits after she was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago.

In fact, her creative endeavors – writing, playing piano, seeing her patients – served as emotional ballast as she endured three bouts of cancer, along with numerous surgeries and chemotherapies.

She was vigorously involved with all of these activities, right up to the end of her life. Even as her body grew exhausted, and her mind was afflicted with memory loss, she remained devoted to music and writing.

I flew out to California with my two older kids to visit her shortly before her death. In the two weeks we spent together, she was often too tired to get out of bed. But she read to my kids and played piano with them when she could summon the strength.

The last conversation we had was, fittingly, about her latest creative project, a memoir of her years growing up in the Bronx. She had amassed 40 single-spaced pages of a manuscript.

Talking with her about these pages, I could see that the creative life she had forged over the last decade had not only prolonged her life. It had, amid terrible hardship, instilled her with a sense of purpose and joy.

We should all be creating to the end.

• Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including "Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto."

• Read more stories from The Rotarian