When Does Creativity Peak: Youth, Middle Age, or Old Age?

The best arguments for each

This article is from the archive of our partner .

When in life are we most creative? Do we peak when we are young and energetic, or old and experienced? It's a question with which scientists and writers have long struggled. For some reason, novelists are often the principal subject of these studies of age and creativity. Here are three very different takes, all insightful and convincing in their own way.

  • We Peak Young  The New York Times' Sam Tanenhaus, age 54, acknowledges "an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. 'There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them budding or promising, when in fact they’re peaking,' Kazuo Ishiguro told an interviewer last year. Ishiguro (54 when he said this) added that since the age of 30 he had been haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40."
It is a mistake to assume that because they are young — at least according to our culture’s ever expanding notion of youth, when 40, or even 50, is "the new 30" — they must be poised midway up Parnassus, with higher achievements to come. The trouble, perhaps, is that this definition of “young writer,” which owes less to literary considerations than to the intersecting categories of sociology and marketing, muddies our understanding of how truly original, enduring fiction comes to be written. Worse, it threatens to infantilize our writers, reducing them to the condition of permanent apprentices who grind steadily toward “maturity” as they prepare to write their “breakthrough” books.
  • We Peak in Middle Age  Science journalist Jonah Lehrer, age 28, writes, "it's hard to settle this argument using anecdotes. Fortunately, a psychologist at UC-Davis, Dean Simonton, has assembled the historiometric data. He finds that the vast majority of disciplines obey an inverted U curve of creativity. The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts a slow, gradual decline."
For instance, Simonton has found that poets and physicists tend to produce their finest work in their late 20s, while geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age. Simonton argues that those disciplines with an "intricate, highly articulated body of domain knowledge," such as physics, chess and poetry, tend to encourage youthful productivity. In contrast, fields that are more loosely defined, in which the basic concepts are ambiguous and unclear - examples include history, literary criticism and biology - lead to later peak productive ages. It takes time to master the complexity; we need to make lots of mistakes before we get it right. According to Simonton, novelists fall into this second category. Unlike poets, who peak early and fade quick, fiction writers tend to ripen and mature with age. Henry James is not the exception - he is the rule.
  • We Peak Old (Sometimes)  The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, age 45, writes, "Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth." But that's all wrong, he argues. "Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent." Gladwell says creativity can be divided into two types, "conceptual and experimental." Conceptual thinkers peak young, but experimental thinkers peak old. The "late bloomers" have a unique process of "tentative and incremental" exploration that takes decades, such that the great works come late in life.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.