Reinvigorating your creativity

Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent a number of years studying genius, creativity and leadership. Some of his research has backed up the theory that creativity tends to peak at a certain, relatively young, age. Simonton has shown, for example, that physicists tend to do their most important work before they are 30 and poets, even earlier. One of the theories about why this is so is that the so called “ignorance of youth” is actually a help rather than a hindrance when it comes to creativity. The ignorance (or innocence) of youth means this age group are more willing to embrace new ideas and less worried about making mistakes. They are also more likely to rebel against the status quo. As Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine – How Creativity Works “the young know less. which is why they often invent more”.

So is all lost if you are over 30? Are we on a downward spiral of uncreative toil into senility? More importantly, as far as this blog is concerned, what can you do to ensure your creative, and versatilist, spirit stays alive, whatever your age?

It turns out it’s not all bad and there are ways of affecting your creativity, at any age. We are not biologically programmed to get less creative and can continue to be innovative provided we are prepared to occasionally become outsiders again. According to Jonah Lehrer outsiders are those who have not “become encultured, or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom”.  Conversely insiders are people who begin to repeat themselves and no longer see the need to seek out new challenges. If you can keep finding new challenges then “you can think like a young person even when you’re old and grey”.

New challenges can come in many forms: travel outside your normal living and working space, especially to different cultures, changing jobs or seeking out new people and influences that take a different world view to you. If you can seek out new challenges all the time then you are less likely to follow the path of the red curve in the graph below but will be more able to follow that of the green one.

The definition we have given to versatilists as those “individuals who expand the edges of maps and find new territories” clearly fits in with this approach. Stepping out of your comfort zone occasionally will help in the path to versatilism and hopefully keep you creative well into your old age.

An interesting corollary to this can be found in this post from the Washington Post blog on how baby boomers  are becoming the new innovators. There are probably many reasons for this, not least of which is the relatively higher, disposable income of people in the 55+ age bracket. This extra income not only enables the baby boomers to enjoy more life changing events that keep their creative juices flowing it also gives them more of a cushion if they fail in one of their new ventures.

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