Creative late bloomers

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON LIVING WELL NAVIGATOR, 26 AUGUST 2014

Life is full of possibilities. Take Mary Wesley who became a best-selling novelist at the age of 70. Or the illustrious Alfred Hitchcock, a late bloomer who made his most famous films only after hitting 50.


 

In an article in The New Yorker, prominent author Malcolm Gladwell speaks of late bloomers as he unfolds the creative career of Ben Fountain, an award-winning author who didn’t find his calling to write until his later years and published his ground-breaking oeuvre at the age of 48. Gladwell questions the culturally widespread notion of ‘the child prodigy’, which limits creative genius to the spectrum of youth, with its fresh energy and vigour. What a narrow window of opportunity we’d have if this were the case – our creative potential gradually diminishing as we age, fading into the sunset with every passing second, never to return. Oh, the pressure!

Fortunately, that’s all a myth. Studies show that age has nothing to do with it; it is how you engage with creativity that influences when you do your best work. According to economist David W. Galenson, there are two different approaches to creative innovation that he coins as ‘the old master’ and ‘the young genius’. The former is based on experimental innovation; and the latter, conceptual innovation. Experimental innovators record their perceptions, build their skills gradually, proceed tentatively by trial and error, and make their big breakthroughs later on in life. Whereas conceptual innovators use their creativity to express ideas and emotions and are often already very precise in defining their goals, consequently executing these innovations in their early years.

Picasso, Orson Welles, and Mozart were all conceptual innovators, having produced their famous works in their early twenties, but there also exist the Cézannes and the Ben Fountains of this world, who flourish creatively later on in life.

Jennifer Egan

A handful of late bloomers don’t start their creative careers until they wind up their fulltime jobs to go on to more creative pursuits for their encore careers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad tells the intertwining tales of misspent youth, love and regret, punk rock groupies and American suburbia; all seemingly ‘youthful’ subject matters, however, writer Jennifer Egan penned the constellation of stories as she was nearing the age of 50. Egan spent the first half of her career as a typist to pay the bills before finally creating the book that would make her a household name. She considers herself a late bloomer, but the novel was proof that it pays to wait.

Oliver Sacks

Professor of Neurology at the NYU School of Medicine and best-selling author of the book Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks is 80 years old and feels very joyous about it. His book Awakenings was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. A model of graceful ageing, Sacks is referred to by The New York Times as “a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine” .

Gladys Burrill

Accomplishments in your third chapter aren’t limited only to the mental, 92-year-old Gladys Burrill proves that it can also be achieved by the physical. In 2011, the part-time Hawaiian resident broke world records when she completed the Honolulu Marathon. As the oldest person ever to have reached the finish line, Burrill achieved the feat in nine hours and 53 minutes and beat the previous record held by 90-year-old Jenny Wood-Allen.

Louise Bourgeois

French-American artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois (pictured above) is one of the most important characters in modern and contemporary art and made her greatest work after the age of 80. The Huffington Post quotes her as saying, “I am a long distance runner. It takes me years and years to produce what I do.” Bourgeois continued to create artwork until literally a week before her death at 98 years of age.

Experimental or conceptual innovator, which one are you?

HELPFUL LINKS

The Guardian: Mary Wesley
The New Yorker: Late Bloomers
David W. Galenson: Old Masters and Young Geniuses
Vegas Seven: Goon Squad Leader
The New York Times Sunday Review: The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)
The Huffington Post: Old Age and Creativity in Art and Science

Image: Louise Bourgeois via Getty