A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Age

I just read this NYT article about a brilliant physicist who happens to be 94-years-old.

The article basically said that it could be that people get more creative when they get older, which, as they explain, is in contrast to youth-worship that pervades Silicon Valley.

I have some ideas about this.

First, I think most of cognitive decline from age comes from traditional lifestyles. The classic life that most people lead, in my opinion, literally produces oldness of the mind. It works like this:

  1. In your 20’s, work on really interesting ideas and focus on your work.
  2. In your 30’s, get married and have kids.
  3. Change everything in your life around your family, i.e., make your work secondary, or tertiary, to your own projects and interests. Work becomes a means to take care of your family, not a passion.

Now turn 40, and then 50, while living this life. You’re watching tiny little kids run circles around you, you’re being asked remedial questions all day every day, and you’re living in fear of not providing well enough for your precious children and family.

That’s how you get old.

I’ve no doubt the mind changes as you age, but I’m not at all convinced that it deteriorates faster than it gets better—especially if you’re constantly acquiring and refactoring new knowledge.

Anecdotally, my own intelligence and ability to do things is accelerating in my 40s, not slowing down. That’s not evidence, of course, but I do have the opposite situation to the one above.

  • I am free to focus on my work and passions.
  • I have a job that encourages me to excel and improve.
  • I live surrounded by fascination, wonder, and possibility—not fear.

I think this combination of lifestyle factors makes it so that I can get smarter rather than dumber over time.

Old people stop creating because they stop thinking. They resign. They check a box that says they’re fathers, mothers, grandparents, whatever. And once they do that, they decide internally not to be creators anymore.

And for many people that starts around a year after they have kids. They decide that their identity is parent now, and it’s on someone else to make cool things.

Kids are wonderful. If you are born to be a parent, then go do it. We need more of you who are into it as a full commitment.

But people shouldn’t associate age with a lack of creativity. It’s not the age, it’s the lifestyle that comes with it if you sign up for the default option of parenting, grand-parenting, and being a provider instead of a creator.

Keep yourself in creator configuration and you’ll likely continue to improve well into your 70s, 80s, or 90’s. And if you’re only in your 30s to 50’s as you read this, that cap could be removed indefinitely due to advances in science.

Decide what you want your life to look like. Don’t let it happen to you.

Notes

  1. I definitely don’t want to convey that it’s impossible to be creative as a parent. There are many parents who go on being create creators and influencers after they have kids, but what they do is manufacture a life where that is possible. They have help with kids in some way. They make it clear that there is their time vs. family time, etc. They make it happen, where most parents don’t.

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