Myth of Declining Creativity

A man and woman laying in bed smiling for the camera.

I Never Feel Age…If You Have Creative Work, You Don’t Have Age or Time.
~Louis Nevelson


Aging in Place

It’s been conventional thinking that creativity declines with age. There are multiple theories that are thought to support this notion. For example, from a NYT article with the title What Happens to Creativity as we Age? by Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths, the authors shed light on an interesting concept. They report a possible explanation coming from two types of thinking: Exploration and exploitation. The tension between the them lies in how they are employed when we encounter a new problem. Adults usually exploit knowledge gained through experience–we try to find solutions related to solutions close to those we’ve gained in the past. With exploration thinking we try something new which leads to more unusual ideas, novelty, and results often in gains of new knowledge.

Then there is the theory that creativity is related to productivity. The thinking here is that creative output initially increases in our mid-20s, reaches its peak in the late 30s or early 40s, and then descends sharply with age. According to author and Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, a person’s single best work tends to show up at roughly the same age as their output peaks.

Dr. Simonton further suggests that creativity also depends on the domain:

First, the precise relation between age and creativity depends on the domain. Some creative types–such as lyrical poets and mathematicians–tend to have early peaks and relatively rapid declines, whereas others–among them, historians and philosophers–are prone to later peaks and gradual, even negligible declines.

…it seems unlikely that creative declines are caused simply by aging brains. If that were the case, it would be hard to explain why the creative path differs by domain, lifetime output, or the time someone embarks on his or her career. After all, late bloomers reach creative peaks at ages when early bloomers are past their prime. So, the good news is that it is possible to stay creative throughout one’s life span.

Problem of Measurement

To summarize, in the past creativity was often measured by productivity–that is, you were thought to be most creative (generally speaking) in youth when your creative output was highest. But the problem with equating productivity with creativity, it says nothing about how creative one is, only how productive one is. This kind of error in measurement from past research on aging leads to false conclusions, bad policy, and persistent ageism.

The Peak-and-decline model is thankfully being challenged on multiple fronts and we are all better for it. So, challenge the notion that we get less creative as we age and remind them of Anna Mary Robertson Moses who said: I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done, and I am satisfied with it.

Make your life a work of art…


1) Creating: A Guide the Creative Process by Robert Fritz
2) The Courage to Create by Rollo May

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