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Age and creativity


Creativity articles > Age and creativity

The youthful decline | The traps of adulthood | Staying creative | See also


A popular perception is that creativity and old age do not mix. Creativity is the domain of the young -- and to certain extent this is true, yet not in the way that many of us would expect.

The youthful decline

Our decline in creativity does not start when we are 40 or 50. It starts around about the the age when we enter school.

The alarming decline

At around about the age of five, we are using about 80% of our creative potential. We invent daily - no matter than our inventions have been invented before, the fact is that we are innovating at a remarkable rate.

The scary coda to this story is that by the age of twelve, our creative output has declined to about 2% of our potential, and it generally stays there for the rest of our lives.

The price of acceptance

And then we start to learn the price of living in the modern world - which is conformity. To live with other people, you must follow their rules and values, which seem to be more about what you cannot do than what you can do. We are straight-jacketed and smart-stepped into doing what others do and not reinventing our worlds every day. When someone is being creative, they are also rather unpredictable, which can make living with them an uncertain and perhaps threatening experience. So we are taught to be polite and be nice to people, including not scaring them with our creative thoughts.

Scholastic thinking

Schools, also and especially, drill conformity into us. We learn that there is one true way of thinking. We learn that there is one right answer for every problem, and that this is the one in the teacher's head. Success is based on knowing what is wanted, not what is interesting. We are told to 'Read The Question' in essays and examinations. Marks are awarded for nice writing and regurgitation, not for creative and lateral thinking.

Universities are often worse than high-schools which are worse than junior schools. At University, we learn to reference every assertion and never, never to question the wisdom and ultimate knowledge of our professors.

By the time we leave full-time education, we are functional members of society, but our creative potential has been very largely stifled. The good and great have commented on this in the quotations on education. There is even a whole school of philosophy (Conventionalism) that describes how new knowledge is constrained.

A caveat: Academic knowledge is not bad. In fact much of it is very interesting and can be used in many ways. It is just that when all you learn is to know and to repeat knowledge, then there is little creativity going on.

The traps of adulthood

As adults, we do become less creative, but not in the traditional way. Our continued creative decline is more due to falling into a number of cognitive traps than the fading of old age.

Habitual ossification

Where creativity does fade away is when we do not use it. 'Use it or lose it', as they say. One of the biggest culprits here is the simple pattern of human habit. Once we start doing something one way, we get comfortable with it and then do not change or vary it. We find the best route home and then we always drive that way, even if it is choked with traffic.

We also get stuck in clichés and familiar conversations. Few of us read much ('Too busy!'), fewer of us continue to study and fewer still innovate for the fun of it.

The expert trap

Those of us who do study and become experts can easily fall into the expert trap, where experts can spend more time defending their hill than building it further. Here are some quotes by experts who should have known better, but were too busy being expert. And here are more quotes about what experts should really do.

We repeat this in our roles in organizations. When you are a manager, you find you have the rapt attention of everyone below you, and it is very easy to assume that they are in thrall of your intelligence and wisdom. The trap here is to assume that you are all-knowing and to pronounce with great certainty on all and sundry. It is also a trap to feel obliged to the expectations of knowledge that others put upon you and feel unable to say 'I don't know, let's give it a try'. Managers must manage, as they say.

And the cycle repeats at home, where parents take a similar role, being the fount of all knowledge for their children, who learn that being an adult means being certain and certainly not being creative.

Unintelligent closure

Intelligence is, to some extent related to creativity, and brighter people generally are able to be more creative. Although a funny thing happens at around an IQ figure of 120, as described in Edward de Bono's book, Serious Creativity. Above this level, creativity seems to drop off. This is quite probably due to these people falling into the expert trap.

Another reason is the premature closure of quick thinking, where bright people 'get it' in seconds flat and hence stop any further divergent thinking. Guy Claxton, in his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, tells of the benefits of slower and more exploratory thinking.

Staying creative

The secret of life is staying creative. Keep your creative juices flowing and you will stay ahead of the pack.

Do different things

The best way of staving off creative ossification is to keep doing different things. Read different books and papers. Go to different places for your holidays. Talk to different people. Listen to them and seek to synergize and synthesize. Take every opportunity to regenerate your generative powers.

The not-so geriatric effect

But what about the effects of aging. We are born with a fixed number of brain cells and they increasingly die off* after the age of 50, and even faster beyond 70.

This may be true, but, barring mental illness, the effect is miniscule in comparison with the habitual ossification effect. People who have stayed creative through their lives are way above others, not only people on the final lap but also those much younger than them. With practice, you can get better at creativity, which puts a creatively active 60 year old streets ahead of a stultified 30 year old.

Creativity even affects longevity. It has been proven that people who stay mentally active live longer even than those who stay physically active. If you go to the mental gym every day, then your alertness will keep you going longer.

*A coda

Nelles Hamilton has kindly informed me that: "The latest from molecular biologists is that brain cells and neural pathways are created daily at a pace that results in what essentially is an entirely new brain structure every few months. For that matter, our bodies—even our bones—are similarly rebuilt, molecule by molecule, every couple of years, and, in the case of our stomach linings, every couple of days."

A scary effect! Regeneration raises questions about how memories and capabilities are sustained, although I suspect that the 'use it or lose it' principle is still true.

(A later note: I attended lecture on neurogenesis and the lecturer informed me that sadly this effect, of neuronal birth, declines with age).

See also

Myths about creativity, Ways to kill ideas


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