I’ve just read the transcript of a very interesting talk by Malcolm on the work of David Galenson. Galenson is an economist who did a very interesting thing. He studied the value of art works sold at auction and determined that there seemed to be two distinct groups: those whose value peaked in their twenties and thirties and those whose value peaked in their fourties and fifties. He does some other, similar, analyses and comes up with an argument about creativity.
Quoting from the talk:
“Late-bloomers (Cezanne is his archetype who did his most valuable work in his fifties and sixties) are what he calls experimental artists. These are people who are motivated by aesthetic considerations. Their goals are kind of very, very imprecise. They don’t plan anything in advance, they work sort of by trial and error. They do endless iterations of the same idea. They’re constantly redoing and redoing and redoing in this kind of poking around and trying to find something, work toward some kind of distant, imprecise, and badly understood goal. They’re searching, in other words, for what it is they want to create, and that searching can very often take an entire lifetime.”
“Prodigies (Picasso is the archetype here who was, basically, done by his mid-thirties), on the other hand, tend to be much more motivated by the desire, according to Galenson, to communicate ideas. They’re conceptual in the way that they think. They can state their goals very precisely before they start a work of art. The act of painting for them is all about the act of transferring something, some well-realized idea, from one surface to another. The work of experimentalists like Cezanne often kind of complicates and deepens our understanding of something, but conceptualists, people like Picasso, tend to simplify the field that they’re a part of. They work very quickly and systematically.”
This is an interesting way of splitting up creatives. It may very well hold over into science. Darwin would be an example of the Late-bloomers. He did not start out with the grand goal of describing natural selection. It is something he happened to observe. Then he spent the rest of his life incrementally building up this theory until it was a pretty mighty edifice by the time he actually published.
Russell Wallace may be closer to the second kind. He began his trek as a naturalist already believing that a species could become another species over time. He explicitly looked for evidence of evolution during his travels. His work is what drove Darwin to finally publish his. Russell was 36. Darwin was 50.
Galenson’s arguments are controversial and not widely accepted but, and this may be because I want to believe it, I find something compelling about the argument and it’s basis:
Prodigies have an idea clearly in mind and seek to express it (Picasso: “I don’t seek, I find.”)
Late-Bloomers spend their time seeking their idea through expression (Cezanne: “I seek in painting.”)
Gladwell goes on to make an argument that our (western) society has, in terms of how it views creativity, become obsessed with Picasso’s over Cezanne’s. That we are only interested in ‘big ideas’ and the people who come up with them. We don’t value those who iterate towards great ideas. If your first idea sucked that’s pretty much it, you’re done. Cezanne’s early paintings were a bust. In today’s art world he’d be done but you can see this kind of thinking pervading all parts of our society.
Well, the Eureka type of creativity makes a much better narrative but the slow progress makes better science. Savant-like insight may come like a thunderbolt while the other is just hard work (now any of us involved in the field know this is not true but it is how the narrative in our society forms this.)
Wallace may have been right but he would likely not have convinced many of that fact for a long time because he had not built up the body of work that Darwin had on the subject and did not have Darwin’s supportive social network.
Why does this argument appeal to me to so much?
I guess a big part of it is that, despite having a very high opinion of myself, I’m 36 and feel that I have achieved nothing of any substance in my life. In a world where you’re supposed to have your big idea & payday early I feel like I’m forever grasping at ideas that seem to be just out of reach. As I’ve gone from 30 to 36 I’ve become weighed down by a feeling that that’s it, “I’m done.”
Yet I’m still hacking away, learning new things, playing with silly ideas, reading and pondering what’s next. What Galenson offers me is evidence of hope, hope that I might yet turn out to be a late bloomer.
Hope that it’s worth continuing to seek because one day I may find.
I’m sure I will be feeling the same way, probably until the day I die ;-)
I actually think this model breaks down, at least in science, because I certainly feel that many people have maintained tremendous creativity throughout their life, usually by combining the two approaches. That is, they continually move to different areas of creativity, finding new ways to be innovative. Francis Crick is an example. My favorite example is Sydney Brenner, who was also at Cambridge in the 50s and was involved in some of the same work as Crick, helping elucidate the DNA molecule.
He helped discover messenger RNA and was pivotal in demonstrating what the genetic code would look like. He then decided to examine development. He introduced the model organism, Caenorhabditis elegans, which was responsible for many of the breakthroughs seen over the next 30 years in the understanding of how an organism develops from fertilized egg to mature organism. He then moved on to Fugu, which has one of the most interesting genomes in any vertebrate.
All in all, Brenner has 50 years of incredibly creative science in a wide variety of areas, moving from isolated proteins to DNA to invertebrate development to vertebrate genomes. Just incredible.