The Wisdom and Creativity of the Elders in Art and Science

The psychologists who specialize in the study of creativity are virtually unanimous: the old may be wise, but only the young are creative. These scholars are wrong. Wisdom not only can be the very source of creativity: it has been for many of our greatest innovators.
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The psychologists who specialize in the study of creativity are virtually unanimous: the old may be wise, but only the young are creative, and never the twain shall meet. In 1953, Harvey Lehman conceded that "the old usually possess great wisdom and erudition," but he observed that these were accompanied by a rigidity that left the old ineffective in situations that require "a new way of looking at things." In 1990, Dean Simonton agreed: "Creativity and wisdom are frequently viewed as exhibiting contrary relations to aging," and sure enough, "Empirical research ... appears to support this commonplace perception." In 2003, Robert Sternberg explained that wisdom and creativity require entirely different ways of thinking: "Creative thinking is often brash whereas wise thinking is balanced."

These scholars are wrong. Wisdom does tend to increase with age, but this does not necessarily reduce creativity. Wisdom not only can be the very source of creativity: it has been for many of our greatest innovators.

The psychologists' error is simple: they mistake a part of creativity for the whole. Conceptual creativity is brash, and best practiced early in life: Rimbaud, Einstein, Picasso, Welles, and Dylan are prime examples of the creative Young Genius. But experimental creativity is balanced, and is positively related to both age and wisdom: Darwin, Cezanne, Hitchcock, Gehry, and Coetzee are just a few archetypal modern creative Old Masters. The difference in the life cycles of creativity is not accidental, but systematic, for the Young Geniuses and Old Masters think and work differently, and produce very different products.

Robert Frost was a great late bloomer. He wrote his most frequently anthologized poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," at 48. The poem became deeply entrenched in the American consciousness; million of high schoolers have memorized it, and in 1960, John F. Kennedy routinely closed his campaign speeches by quoting the lines, "But I have promises to keep, /And miles to go before I sleep." Pondering the life cycles of poets, Frost reflected that "young people have insight. They have a flash here and a flash there. It is like the stars coming out in the sky in the early evening. They have flashes of light." But older poets made works with greater depth: "It is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations. And it is the constellations that are philosophy." In a famous essay, the 65-year old Frost stated his belief that poetry should provide a clarification of life, "a momentary stay of confusion;" the poem should ideally run a course — "It begins in delight and ends in wisdom."

Few writers have ever devoted more time and effort than Virginia Woolf to understanding their discipline and developing their skills. A biographer noted that she wrote every day for 35 years — nine novels, hundreds of reviews and essays, thousands of letters, and dozens of volumes of a diary. Woolf herself recognized that all this writing "has greatly helped my style; loosened the ligatures." When Woolf was 47, the writer Raymond Mortimer declared that she had a Midas touch: "every word she uses is alive and pulling like a trout on a line." He knew that this virtuosity was "the result of years of experience. We can see it developing as we follow the chronological order of her works...her line, like a great painter's, is now spontaneously artful." After Woolf's death one of her closest friends, the novelist E.M. Forster, wrote that she loved writing "with an intensity which few writers have attained or even desired," and that she had worked at her art with "a singleness of purpose which will not recur in this country for many years." He concluded that "She respected and acquired knowledge, she believed in wisdom."

Frost and Woolf achieved their greatest artistic contributions after decades in their crafts because they worked steadily to gain greater knowledge of their subject, and to improve their ability to use that knowledge creatively. The same is true of many great experimental scholars. Charles Darwin reached the peak of his achievement at the age of 50, when he published The Origin of Species. He had spent decades painstakingly amassing vast quantities of evidence to support generalizations that comprised the many elements of the book's complex argument. Shortly before he began to write the Origin, Darwin told a friend that "I am like Croesus overwhelmed with my riches in facts, and I mean to make my book as perfect as I can." The scholar Michael Ghiselin observed that "Perhaps we should attribute his accomplishment less to intelligence than to wisdom," noting that Darwin sought "to gain wisdom through reflecting upon his experience, and was very careful to learn from his own mistakes."

The psychologists who contend that wisdom prevents creativity do a great injustice to many of our very greatest innovators. The sudden leaps of young conceptual innovators can obviously yield important new results. But major innovations can equally be achieved by the gradual and incremental efforts of experimental innovators. That this slow and painstaking process is less dramatic than the sudden leaps of the conceptual innovators should not blind us to the importance of their work: what matters in art and scholarship is results, and these disciplines should not be treated like Olympic sports in which style determines who receives medals. Robert Frost's poetry, Virginia Woolf's fiction, and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution are only a few of the magisterial experimental innovations that stand among the most important creative developments in modern western art and scholarship. All of these depended on the wisdom and creativity of a great artist or scholar.

The great experimental sculptor Louise Bourgeois made her greatest works in her 80s and 90s. She reflected that "There is a long lapse between the first creative vision and the final result; often it is a matter of years." Her artistic method involved revision, repetition, and iteration; a major work at 89 was titled "I Do, I Undo, I Redo," and she explained that "The REDO means that a solution is found to the problem. It may not be the final answer, but there is an attempt to go forward." When Bourgeois was 84 years old, and an interviewer asked whether she always felt the impetus to do something different, Bourgeois objected, "No, not different! Better!" When he asked how this was possible, she responded, "You become better, which is ... the wisdom of the elders."

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