The 2-Minute Thought: On Getting Better With Age

In 2014, Lewis H. Lapham wrote a wonderful essay for The New York Times Magazine called “Old Masters” with the subtitle “After 80, some people don’t retire.  They reign.”  It profiled people in their 80s -- and beyond -- getting better and better at what they do.

The profiled individuals spanned a wide range of fields.  There was filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, then 84, whose documentary had just premiered at Cannes.  There was biologist Edward O. Wilson, then 85, who had just published The Meaning of Human Existence, the second book in a trilogy.  There was jazz drummer Roy Haynes, then 89, who had released his latest album in 2011.  There was painter Carmen Herrera, then 99, who didn’t sell her first painting until age 89 but now has work in the permanent collections of MOMA and the Tate.  There was T. Boone Pickens, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and long-distance runner Ginette Bedard, who didn’t run her first marathon until she was 69.

In his essay, Lapham wrote that Warren Buffett, then 84, never stopped learning, never stopped asking questions.  He wrote that when John D. Rockefeller was in his 80s, he was “possessed by the stubborn and ferocious will to know why the world wags and what wags it, less interested in money than in the solving of a problem in geography or corporate combination.” 

And he quoted 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai, who had been drawing from the age of six, but felt that “all that I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth being counted.  It is at the age of 73 that I have somewhat begun to understand the structure of true nature, of animals and grasses, and trees and birds, and fishes and insects; consequently at 80 years of age I shall have made still more progress . . .”

The point was not just that one can produce great work in late life – but that sometimes, one produces one’s best work in late life. 

We know it’s not true for everyone, of course.  Today, there are a slew of young entrepreneurs and artists and scientists who have done great things in their 20s and 30s that might be hard to top.  And in his 2008 article in The New Yorker called “Late Bloomers,” Malcolm Gladwell listed plenty of examples of youthful energy and creativity: Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at age 25.  Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick at age 32.  T.S. Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” unbelievably, at age 23. 

But the point of Gladwell’s article was that it’s short-sighted to confine the greatest phases of genius, innovation, or creativity to youth alone.  For every example of precocious brilliance, there is a counter-example.  Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at age 58.   Alfred Hitchcock’s best films were made between age 54 and 61.  Of Robert Frost’s anthologized poems, 42% of were written after age 50.  And for every Picasso, whose talent was so glaringly obvious in his 20s, there is a Cezanne, who struggled mightily all his life only to see the awkward, ponderous paintings of his youth give way to his superb late work that laid the foundation for 20th century modern painting.  

Gladwell said in his article that whether you peak early or late depends on your kind of creativity.  One kind, which he calls conceptual, is exemplified by Picasso’s lightning-like brilliance and most often accomplished by the young.  The other, which he calls experimental, is iterative and takes years to achieve mastery.  That would be exemplified by Cezanne struggling day by day to come to grips with the painted surface. 

I’m not sure if the conceptual/experimental division is a useful framework or not.  But whether it is or not is not so important.  What is important is that Gladwell is right.  There are late bloomers – and great work can be done by the very young, the very old, and all those in between.