In your 50’s? You might be at the peak of your creativity

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There are two different life cycles of creativity, one that hits some people early in their career and another that more often strikes later in life, a study of winners of the Nobel Prize in economics finds.

“We believe what we found in this study isn’t limited to economics, but could apply to creativity more generally,” said Bruce Weinberg, lead author of the study and professor of economics at the Ohio State University.

A later peak hits those in their mid-50’s

In this study, the early peak was found for laureates in their 20’s and the later peak for those in their 50’s.

The research supports previous work by the authors that found similar patterns in the arts and other sciences.

“Many people believe that creativity is exclusively associated with youth, but it really depends on what kind of creativity you’re talking about.”

Young conceptual creators

In the study, the Nobel Prize winners who did their most ground-breaking work early in their career tended to be “conceptual” innovators.

These type of innovators “think outside the box,” challenging conventional wisdom and tend to come up with new ideas suddenly. Conceptual innovators tend to peak early in their careers before they become immersed in the already accepted theories of the field, Weinberg said.

Mature experimental innovators

But there is another kind of creativity, he said, which is found among “experimental” innovators. These innovators accumulate knowledge through their careers and find ground-breaking ways to analyse, interpret and synthesize that information into new ways of understanding.

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The long periods of trial and error required for important experimental innovations make them tend to occur late in a Nobel laureate’s career.

The study found that conceptual laureates peaked at about either 29 or 25 years of age. Experimental laureates peaked when they were roughly twice as old – at about 57 in one method or the mid-50s in the other.

When you peak depends on how you approach your work

Most other research in this area has studied differences in peak ages of creativity between disciplines, such as physics versus medical sciences. These studies generally find small variations across disciplines, with creativity peaking in the mid-30s to early 40s in most scientific fields.

“These studies attribute differences in creative peaks to the nature of the scientific fields themselves, not to the scientists doing the work,” Weinberg said.

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“Our research suggests than when you’re most creative is less a product of the scientific field that you’re in and is more about how you approach the work you do.”

Weinberg did the study with David Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

This article is based on materials provided by the Ohio State university. Original text written by Jeff Grabmeier. Content may have been edited for style and length.

Original journal article: Weinberg, B. A., & Galenson, D. W. (2019). Creative Careers: The Life Cycles of Nobel Laureates in Economics. De Economist167(3), 221–239.