In my recent WSJ article on age and creativity, I didn’t have space to discuss the fascinating research of David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago who brings together a vast array of evidence to better understand the nature of creative production over time. Galenson divides creators into two distinct categories: conceptual innovators and experimental innovators. In general, conceptual innovators make sudden and radical breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, often at an early age. In contrast, experimental innovators work by trial and error, and typically require decades of tinkering before they produce a major work. For an excellent summary of Galenson’s work, check out this Gladwell article.
Pablo Picasso is the cliched conceptual innovator. He painted his first masterpiece, Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas, at the tender age of twenty. By the time he was twenty-six, an age when most painters are just completing their MFA programs, Picasso was putting the finishing touches on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is one of most influential works of art ever created. It’s as if Picasso was born an old master.
In a rare interview, done in 1923, Picasso explained his artistic method:
“I have never made trials or experiments. Whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I needed to be said…I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research in connection with modern painting. In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.”
This is how geniuses are supposed to work: They are epiphany machines, pulling breakthroughs from thin air. Once the epiphany arrives, the artist immediately recognizes its importance, and rushes the idea into paint or verse or melody. That’s why Herman Melville wrote a novel every year throughout his late twenties, before completing Moby Dick at thirty-two. When critics savaged the epic fishing story – an influential critic for the London Atheneum called it “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact” – Melville wasn’t discouraged. “Not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows,” Melville wrote in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, shortly after Moby Dick was published. “But I have written a wicked book…I would sit down and dine with all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon.”
But here’s the thing about conceptual innovators: they tend to get less productive with age, as they exhaust their store of revolutionary ideas. (Galenson focuses on artists, but I wonder if a similar framework might also apply to scientists. Just look at Einstein…) One of my favorite Galenson papers is his analysis of 20th century songwriters, in which he compares Irving Berlin and Cole Porter (experimental innovators) with Bob Dylan and John Lennon, who greatly expanded the conceptual possibilities of their field. (In his autobiography, Dylan confesses to a very grand ambition: “Picasso had fractured the art world and cracked it wide open. He was revolutionary. I wanted to be like that.”) Here’s Galenson on Dylan and the Beatles:
This shift, which transformed popular music from an experimental into a conceptual art, produced a distinct change in the creative life cycles of songwriters. Golden Era songwriters were generally at their best during their 30s and 40s, whereas since the mid-’60s popular songwriters have consistently done their best work during their 20s.
In other words, different circumstances call for different kinds of creativity. The patient craftsmanship of Berlin and Porter wouldn’t have appealed to the youth of 1963, just as the ingenious insolence of Dylan and Lennon wouldn’t have worked on Broadway in the late 1930s. Sometimes we need a revolution, and sometimes we need a marginal improvement.
Galenson goes on to note that we shouldn’t be surprised that rock stars don’t age well, since rock n’ roll is a brash and youthful art form, which encourages conceptual innovation:
It is interesting that the sharp drop in the creativity of aging rock songwriters has often been noted in particular cases, including notably those of Dylan, Lennon, and McCartney. Many explanations have been offered for these dramatic declines. Yet these explanations have invariably been specific to the individual artists in question. In contrast, this study has offered a general explanation. The loss of creativity with age suffered by Dylan, Lennon, McCartney, and so many of their successors as they have aged is not a phenomenon caused by factors unique to these individuals, or even to rock music. Instead, these artists appear to be prime examples of the loss of conceptual creativity with age, one of the most powerful and pervasive patterns in human creativity.
I’d argue that pop music no longer rewards such radical breakthroughs. Instead, the rock marketplace now values experimental innovators, or people who carefully build on what came before. So maybe Wilco and Arcade Fire and Eminem will keep on creating great albums until they’re old and gray.
I wonder if a similar dynamic is at work in science. As I noted in the WSJ article, different scientific fields seem to exhibit different creative curves, with young scientists excelling in physics and older scientists excelling in biology. It’s easy to conclude that such variation reflects intrinsic intellectual differences between the fields. But what if physics is just like rock music, and will one day transition to a time in which experimental innovators get all the credit? And maybe biology will one day learn to embrace its Dylans and Picassos? The point is that creativity only exists in plural – there are many different ways to invent something new – and must always be understood in its cultural context.