Academic journal article NBER Reporter

The Two Life Cycles of Human Creativity

Academic journal article NBER Reporter

The Two Life Cycles of Human Creativity

Article excerpt

At what stage of their lives are great innovators most creative?

There are two very different answers to this question. Some great innovators make their most important discoveries suddenly, very early in their careers. In contrast, others arrive at their major contributions gradually, late in their lives, after decades of work. Which of these two life cycles a particular innovator follows is related systematically to his conception of his discipline, how he works, and to the nature of his contribution.

My research on this issue began when I first set out to develop quantitative measures of the quality of the work of important individual modern painters over the course of their lives. (1) Since then, these measurements have led not only to a new and more systematic understanding of the sources of innovation in modern art, but also to a more general and comprehensive framework for analyzing the creativity of individuals in a wide range of intellectual activities. After explaining the application of this analysis to the careers of modern painters, this report will demonstrate how its implications have illuminated the history of modern art, and then will show briefly how the analysis can be extended to innovators in other disciplines.

Seekers and Finders

Like important scholars, important artists are innovators. (2) Great modern artists can be divided into two groups, defined according to differences in their goals, methods, and contributions.

Painters who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that they rarely feel they have succeeded, so their careers are often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists paint the same subject many times, gradually changing its treatment by trial and error. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it. They build their skills slowly over the course of their careers, and their innovations emerge piecemeal in a body of work.

In contrast, painters who have made conceptual innovations have intended to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can be stated precisely in advance. They often make detailed preparatory plans for their paintings, and execute their final works systematically. Conceptual innovations appear suddenly, as a new idea produces a result quite different not only from other artists' work, but also from the artist's own previous work. Conceptual innovations are consequently often embodied in individual breakthrough paintings. The conceptual artist's certainty about his goals, and confidence that he has achieved them, often leaves him free to pursue new and different goals. Unlike the continuity of the work of the experimental artist, conceptual artists' careers are therefore often characterized by discontinuity.

The long periods of trial and error usually required for important experimental innovations mean that they tend to occur late in an artist's career. Conceptual innovations are made more quickly, and can occur at any age. Yet radical conceptual innovations depend on the ability to perceive and appreciate extreme deviations from existing practices, and this ability tends to decline with experience, as habits of thought become more firmly established. The most important conceptual innovations therefore generally occur early in an artist's career.


Two of the greatest modern artists epitomize the two types of innovator.

Paul Cezanne was an experimental innovator. A month before his death in 1906, the 67-year-old Cezanne wrote to a friend:

"Now it seems to me that I see better and that I think more correctly about the direction of my studies. …

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