​You May Not Have Hit Your Creative Peak Yet

Conceptual innovators and experimental innovators chip away at problems at a different speed. Syda Productions/Shutterstock

The fire of creativity doesn't necessarily burn out after your youth. A new study by economics professors at Ohio State University and the University of Chicago, reveals there are two types of creative peaks that occur at different ages, reports Ohio State News.

"Many people believe that creativity is exclusively associated with youth, but it really depends on what kind of creativity you're talking about," says lead study author, Bruce Weinberg of Ohio State University.

According to the study, which was published in De Economist, there are two types of innovators: conceptual and experimental. Weinberg and fellow researcher David Galenson of the University of Chicago assert that those who tend to do their best work in their mid-20s are conceptual innovators, whereas those who peak in their 50s are experimental innovators.

The difference here as it relates to age is that younger, conceptual innovators are seen as creative thinkers whose ideas challenge the status quo — ideas that reinvent the way a particular art or science is practiced and perceived, shifting the paradigm. The experimental innovator is typically seen as older, one who builds on the bedrock of past great thinkers, established norms and their own methods. These experimental innovators tweak ideas over time based on experience, reinventing themselves and their craft along the way.

One could say the different forms of creativity are connected to how an innovator finds inspiration. The ideas of conceptual innovators appear to be ignited by a sudden spark that breaks new ground, while the experimental innovator slowly cultivates his own creative landscape seed by seed, a landscape which then looks unique unto itself.

A study of economics gives us insight into other creative fields

Photograph of Virginia Woolf with hand on face wearing a fur stole
Virginia Woolf wrote some of her greatest works near the end of her life. [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

Weinberg and Galenson studied the works of 31 Nobel Prize laureates of economics, placing the economists on a spectrum of most conceptual to most experimental. The age at which an economist contributed the most well-regarded work to the field was taken into account, and the age at which the work entered the economic sphere helped to classify the laureate economist's creative peak. Economists with a conceptual approach peaked in their mid to late 20s, while those who took the experimental approach peaked in their late 50s.

The researchers correlated their findings in economic achievements with those of artistic and scientific achievements. For instance, the study contends that poets and painters such as T.S. Elliot and Picasso made their most important artistic contributions when they were younger, contributions that radically changed literature and painting. They also mention Albert Einstein as a conceptual innovator, whose early work turned the scientific world on its head.

The researchers suggest that scientist Charles Darwin developed his most groundbreaking theories later on in life, which would make him an experimental innovator. This makes sense given that the theory of evolution was developed over many years through a meticulous process of trial and error. They also cite early modernist author, Virginia Woolf, as an experimental innovator. Her novel "Mrs. Dalloway" was conceived of and written in the final years of her life after many years' of stylistic reinvention. The novel is now considered a seminal piece of feminist literature and stream-of-consciousness storytelling.

None of this is to say that either type of innovative approach is exclusive to different age groups. It isn't unheard of for an older person to be a conceptual innovator or for younger people to innovate more experimentally. The research simply shows trends.

So, is creativity strictly a young person's game? Thanks to Weinberg and Galenson's studies, it looks like there's always a little room for a creative breakthrough — no matter your age.