who do you want to be?

I was just reading a piece by Daniel Pink in Wired which came out a couple of months ago (clearly I am behind the times) about some research done by the economist David Galenson on creativity and when creative people are at their most creative (this phase being judged, aesthetically and somewhat objectively, via an epic amount of data crunching of the way that critics, peers and historians regard their work).

The key thought is as follows:

What he has found is that genius – whether in art or architecture or even business – is not the sole province of 17-year-old Picassos and 22-year-old Andreessens. Instead, it comes in two very different forms, embodied by two very different types of people. “Conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers. Galenson maintains that this duality – conceptualists are from Mars, experimentalists are from Venus – is the core of the creative process. And it applies to virtually every field of intellectual endeavor, from painters and poets to economists.

I find this really interesting, and a little bit exciting. And yes, it’s partly because ever since someone told me that Brian Wilson wrote Pet Sounds at 21 I’ve felt like a rank underachiever – so it’s a little bit validating to think that you might SuperSekritly be brilliant in a way that the world just hasn’t got to yet.

Pink, following Galenson’s research notes this:

Consider the word genius. “Since the Renaissance, genius has been associated with virtuosos who are young.

The idea is that you’re born that way – it’s innate and it manifests itself very young,” Galenson says. But that leaves the vocabulary of human possibility incomplete. “Who’s to say that Virginia Woolf or Cézanne didn’t have an innate quality that simply had to be nourished for 40 or 50 years before it bloomed?” The world exalts the young turks – the Larrys and the Sergeys, the Picassos and the Samuelsons. And it should. We need those brash, certain, paradigm-busting youthful conceptualists. We should give them free rein to do bold work and avoid saddling them with rules and bureaucracy.

But we should also leave room for those of us who have, er, avoided peaking too early, whose most innovative days may lie ahead. Nobody would have heard of Jackson Pollock had he died at 31. But the same would be true had Pollock given up at 31. He didn’t. He kept at it. We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age.

This is true, I think. We’re pretty bad at letting adults grow into who they’re going to be. To experiment and try and not quite get it, yet. We pay lip service to the idea, but culturally we’re obsessed with the wünderkind. The line about Brian Wilson is a joke, but only partially.

The ultimate question as I was growing up was, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” For a while, I knew. I was going to join the navy and be like Nancy Blackett. Then I realised they didn’t have sailing ships any more. Then I was going to do medicine, until I realised that I loathed chemistry and might be better off and happier doing A-Levels that involved things I enjoyed, like books, and stuck with History and English Lit. But I still don’t know, and technically I’m a grown up. I pay taxes, I vote, I have a regular job, heck, I’m on my second house-buying experience (I’m not sue I recommend growing up, on the basis of these activities, btw…). I don’t even really know what I want to do next, beyond that I want it to engage me in ways that go beyond the money it puts into my bank account. I don’t want to have peaked at 30, and I don’t think I’d want to have peaked at 30 even if I had written Pet Sounds. I want the things I did during my 20s (primarily, have lots of thoughts about the discursive formation of unwritten constitutions and write a doctoral thesis specifically on the inability of the Roman Republic to hang on to its own) to have a resonance, somewhere, in the stuff I end up doing in my 50s. I want to keep growing, not flame brightly and flame out.

And this is the other thing I find really interesting when reading this piece – which creatives appeal to you, what does that say about you and the way you’re likely to blossom? It seems to me to reflect something of oneself. I love the work of Fitzgerald, or T.S. Eliot, or Emily Bronte, or Mozart, I love Georges Seurat’s Sunday on La Grande Jatte, I’ve even grown into liking Picasso. But to me – and this is completely unscientific because I haven’t done a Galenson and crunched the data – but it seems to me that these are the geniuses for whom the unbearable pain of the failure that has to go with being successfully creative (see my last post) is too much to handle in balance with the rest of their lives.

Maybe breaking down established concepts is something that contributes to that – whereas maybe if you’re someone who works within the rules, tweaking and changing steadily you’re more likely to walk those difficult tightropes where you try and keep your work and your personal relationships, your rational sense that you’re doing good work and your emotional sense of ‘ohcrapohcrapitsawful’ carefully balanced on your fingertips as you inch your way through life with higher degree of success. I’m not saying there aren’t sacrifices or problems or difficulties – and beyond the fact you have to convince the world that you’re good at something even if you weren’t a youthful prodigy. The opposites of the aforementioned in the article are Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Beethoven, Pollock and Cezanne (and as I pulled in Bronte, I’d say I think her opposites might be Austen, or Gaskell), and they were not all beacons of sanity and untroubled life. I’m just saying, I think it’s the end of the continuum I’d rather be at. Looking at the model ‘conceptual innovators’ – I don’t want their lives. Being able to write The Great Gatsby? Is it worth living with the amount of pain and chaos that seems to have gone on in Fitzgerald’s life? I’m not sure that it is, for me, anyway. And I’d like to believe that, even though there may be some innate dispositions going on here, you also get some choice.

I’m not saying I’m going to grow up to be Robert Frost (for a start, I don’t write poetry) or Elizabeth Gaskell (though wouldn’t that be nice). I’d agree with Pink’s comment that Galenson’s results are, “No justification for laziness or procrastination or indifference.” If I want to create, in any field, then I have to work at it, and fret at it, and yes, live with the sucky woundy pain a few more times. But this, and work like it makes me hope it will, “Bolster the resolve of the relentlessly curious, the constantly tinkering, the dedicated tortoises undaunted by the blur of the hares.”

And I’d like to be one of those tortoises.


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