Creativity is available to us all, regardless of our age.
In 1498, when the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti was 23 years old, he received a commission from a Roman Catholic cardinal to carve a marble sculpture for the cleric’s future tomb. The assignment was to show a grieving Virgin Mary holding the crucified body of her son, Jesus.
Michelangelo was familiar with that subject matter, known as a pietà, as it was a theme that was depicted in the works of other sculptors and painters before him. But he decided that his presentation was going to be radically different; he would infuse into the lofty, spiritual work a realistic portrayal of lifeless human flesh and of the quiet, mournful acceptance of death. The resulting virtuoso work completed a year later and displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome has been admired for more than half a millennium.
When many of us think about the human impulse to create, our minds tend to focus on people who possess that talent in its greatest amount: famous artists, musicians, writers, inventors, and scientists (Michelangelo, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Edison, Einstein, etc.) whose achievements have greatly impacted human history.
Given this tendency of ours, it’s not surprising that we may discount or even deny our own abilities to be similarly creative. It’s not that we think that we can’t draw, paint, sculpt, compose, write, or even invent or discover things; rather, it’s that we believe that the results we get are somehow very different from –– and thus inferior to –– those extremely creative efforts that make a difference. Compared to what some psychologists call “Big C” people, the rest of us are “little c” wannabes.
It’s also because we don’t understand what creativity is all about.
A widely accepted definition of creativity is "a process that leads to a novel and useful outcome." What is produced can be a process, a perception, or a product –– in other words, a new way of doing something, a new way of thinking about something, or a new something. This definition makes complete sense when understanding the works of Big C thinkers, but it also applies to those moments when we little c people discover shortcuts to performing mundane tasks, add new ingredients to tried-and-true recipes, or identify more efficient routes to get to where we need to go.
Since being creative is a mental process, we assume that the brains of Big C people simply work differently than ours. But that’s not true. Actually, they work in exactly the same way. The only difference is in the level of development of that skill. According to cognitive psychologist Mark A. Runco,
…the processes involved in personal, everyday creativity are the same as those involved in high-level achievements….[B]oth start with the individual and his or her original and effective idea or insight. After the creative idea is produced, expertise may add to it, impression management may couch it so it is accepted, and so on, but the creative part of the process…is the same as the creativity of little c creativity.
Understanding this idea should give us greater encouragement and incentive to become more creative people. In an article for The Atlantic magazine titled “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” neuropsychiatrist Nancy C. Andreasen has defined creators’ personality traits:
They are autodidacts who like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings.
They are polymaths who are interested in and knowledgeable about many different kinds of subject areas.
They are persistent; even when they are confronted with skepticism or rejection, they keep going.
They are adventuresome and exploratory, comfortable taking risks, breaking rules, and living with ambiguity.
How many of these characteristics do you possess? And what can you do to increase your capabilities in each?
For some people, believing whether or not they can develop or improve upon these traits may be affected by their simultaneous beliefs about getting older. After all, they might think, aren’t these characteristics in greater evidence when people are young and before becoming set in their ways?
What’s implied here is that a person is less likely to be creative, let alone be even more creative, the older he or she gets. This ageist attitude is reinforced constantly via widespread cultural messages telling us that old people have imaginations that are limited, narrow, or even stagnant. Moreover, we’re supposed to be quite surprised and consider it a great exception to encounter the example of an innovative person who is well past the age of 50.
The fallacy here is assuming that there is only one form of creativity. However, researchers such as University of Chicago economics professor David W. Galenson have posited that creative approaches change over time:
Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle. What the psychologists failed to recognize is that there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity.…But there is another, very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.
According to Galenson, "conceptual creators," who are newer to their field and thus less influenced by established conventions, work more quickly and focus on expressing novel ideas or emotions. "Experimental creators," on the other hand, are well-versed in a wide compendium of knowledge and work more slowly and deliberatively, focusing on integrating and further developing already existing perceptions.
Furthermore, educational researcher Sandra Kerka, citing the work of clinical psychologist Carolyn E. Adams-Price, has asserted that “the association of creativity with novelty and innovation is appropriate for the characteristics of youthful thinking, but late-life creativity reflects aspects of late-life thinking: synthesis, reflection, and wisdom.”
What's the significance of this distinction between two types of creativity? For one thing, it supports the immense amount of scientific evidence regarding how the human brain changes over time. The brain’s bi-hemispheric processing ability to reach its greatest maturity in people in their 50s promotes such synthesis, reflection, and wisdom.
The reality of two types of creative thinking also supports the logical conclusion that acquiring many more years of experience enables older adults to become even better autodidacts and polymaths, as well as more persistent, adventuresome, and exploratory people.
But in a society that already denies or limits opportunities for older adults to express themselves in meaningful creative ways, being an experimental innovator requires something more, as described by geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Gene Cohen in his influential book, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life: “An important dynamic of creativity that comes with age is courage –– courage that gives permission to make a decision that may be risky, controversial, and necessary.”
As we continue to live longer lives, we shouldn’t be surprised but rather consider ourselves fortunate that there are many more “exceptions” of older adult creators than we know who had the courage to be productive in their later years.
In case you need some evidence, consider these examples:
● Ethel Percy Andrus founded the AARP at age 74.
● Jacques Cousteau was an undersea explorer until well into his 70s.
● Imogen Cunningham continue to photograph and teach photography in her 90s.
● Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor at age 87.
● Benjamin Franklin helped write the Constitution of the United States when he was 81.
● Mohandas Gandhi successfully negotiated Indian independence when he was 77.
● Martha Graham danced until she reached 75 and choreographed her last piece at age 96.
● Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel from ages 71 to 76.
● Mother Teresa of Calcutta continued to minister to the poor of India until her death at age 87.
● Georgia O’Keeffe, who went blind from macular degeneration, completed her last unassisted painting at age 85.
● Jeanette Rankin, the first woman in the U.S. Congress, served two terms: from ages 37–39 and ages 61-63.
● Arthur Rubenstein gave his last piano recital at age 89.
● Antonio Stradivari made violins until his death at age 93.
● Giuseppe Verdi wrote the opera Otello when he was 74.
● Betty White was a comedic actor until her death at age 99.
● Frank Lloyd Wright designed Pennsylvania’s “Fallingwater” house when he was 69 and New York City’s Guggenheim Museum when he was 91.
A pretty impressive Big C list, wouldn’t you say? But it pales in length to the list we could make of the millions of little c creators who were their contemporaries.
Which brings us back to that Big C, Michelangelo. In the year 1547, when the artist was 72 and after decades of artistic accomplishments (sculpting the statue of David, painting the Sistine Chapel, supervising the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, to name just a few), he began carving another pietà, but this one wasn’t a commissioned work. Anticipating his own death, the sculptor created what is now known as “The Deposition” or “The Florentine Pietà.” It was purely his idea, for it was to be for his tomb.
The resulting piece, which was never completed because the artist didn't like the quality of the stone, comprises four figures: the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen, and an old figure (possibly Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea) at the top center of the composition, supporting the lifeless body of Jesus.
The work barely resembles the meticulous, confident, highly stylized piece by that 23-year-old a half-century before. It is rough and organic, as if Michelangelo was experimenting with aesthetic ideas, working out his thoughts over eight years as he chiseled away at the marble. Five decades of life experience produced a different sculptor: more circumspect and identifying with his creation, so much so that many art historians believe that the old man’s face is Michelangelo’s self-portrait. The piece that survives today in the Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence displays more subtlety and depth than its more famous counterpart in the Vatican.
This kind of personal evolution is possible for all of us as we age and our bodies and minds change. For us to grow into our greatest potential and maintain a quality creative life, our culture likewise needs to evolve into one that is less ageist, less prejudiced against older adults and that supports them in whatever endeavors they choose to experience in their lives.
Creativity is available to us all, regardless of our age. Enlisting the imaginations of young and old people working together to add beauty, establish justice, and improve the quality of our environment is the surest way to transform the world.
"Vatican Pietà," Photo Credit: Stanislav Traycov, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/
"The Deposition," Photo Credit: pxlmxr, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en