Have you ever noticed that creative people create their best works while they are young? Whether it’s musicians, authors or artists, it’s an inconvenient truth for those of use on the right side of 50 that creativity declines with age.
I know I may get arguments on this point.
People will inevitably point out the exceptions to the rule as disproving it. But if you look at the great creative works in history, you will find that the overwhelming majority of them were created by people under the age of 50. Some of that is due to the fact that many great artists die young — Mozart was 35; VanGogh was 37; Fitzgerald was 45. But among those who do not, most find their later years much less fruitful from a creative standpoint.
There are lots of examples, but I will pick just three from the 20th century. Example one is Orson Welles. Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 26. He never attained that level of creativity again, and made his last film when he was 50. Example two is Truman Capote. Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s when he was 34. He wrote his last great work, In Cold Blood, when he was 42. After that it was all downhill. Example three is Albert Einstein. Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity when he was 26. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics when he was 42. Although he lived to be 76, his later life produced no other creative breakthroughs on a par with his earlier work.
So why is it that most creativity comes in the earlier years of life? Frankly, I don’t know. Is there something in the brains of younger people that dissipates over time and blocks creativity? Anyone who has ever had a stroke of creativity will tell you that when they were creating, it was like someone else was inhabiting their body directing the genius. Composers talk about sitting down at the piano and composing a hit song in as long as it takes to play it. Creativity, when it comes, always flows out so fast, it’s an effort to write it all down quickly enough. The very word “inspiration” comes from the Latin “in spirito” meaning literally “possessed by a spirit.” This is exactly the way artists talk about the process of creating their most brilliant works.
Perhaps the human mind as it ages becomes less welcoming to this process of being possessed by creativity. Perhaps there is an unwillingness to just follow the dictates of the spirit as we grow older. Isn’t this the idea of “old people” that we had when we were young? Yet there were always exceptions to the rule. Most of us have memories of an older relative who didn’t act his or her age, and we loved them for that. So certainly we can be inspired and possessed by creativity in old age. It’s just less common.
Famously, Grandma Moses did not begin painting until she was in her 70s. Fortunately, she lived to be 101. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote great works like the Mass in B minor into his 60s. Woody Allen’s output has not lessened with age. He was 76 when he wrote and directed Midnight in Paris, which won him an Academy Award.
Clearly, inspiration can still occur in later life. I think the trick is not to settle for a comfortable existence where life has an unchanging routine. If the spirit moves you to pull an all-nighter to create, open your mind and let it flow. Creativity may prefer youth, but we over 50s can still claim our share. Go Woody!