Age and creativity
> Age and creativity
The youthful decline |
The traps of adulthood | Staying creative
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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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
Myths about creativity,
Ways to kill ideas