AG: Tortoise and Hare
A few years ago life seized me by the ankles a drew me across the threshold of the half century mark. I can still see the deep gouges left by my fingernails. Intellectually, I knew only one year had passed since my forty-ninth birthday, but emotionally—Well, no need to go there.
Passing such mile markers forces me to reevaluate my life and my accomplishments (something I do every couple of weeks but not with the same intensity). Looking back on the fogged trimmed decades that had been my earlier years makes me a tad sad. Being a chronic malcontent about achievement, I often think that I should have achieved much more.
Know the feeling?
Now along comes David Galenson, a Harvard trained economist, and I want to buy the man dinner. I learned of him through an excellent article written by Daniel H. Pink. The article appears in the July 2006 issue of Wired Magazine (the online version of the article appears on July 11th).
What thrills me about this article? It verifies an idea I’ve held for a long time: Genius is not the exclusive domain of the young. When I first toyed with the idea of being an writer I considered writing a short story about a man who goes to bed ordinary and wakes up a genius. The story never ripened, but the idea that someone might be an unknown genius in some field but never realizes it because life gets in the way still haunts me. In other words, how do we know that the woman who could find a cure for cancer hasn’t because she was born to a poor family and forced to menial work as a young teenager?
Galenson compared the successes of artists to their age and discovered that there are two types of geniuses; tortoise and hare achievers who do knock out work but at different times in their lives. Galenson calls the early achievers “Conceptualists” (hares) and the late bloomers “Experimentalists” (tortoises). The first hit their stride early on, but do little meaningful work later in life; the latter start off slow but hit homeruns in the second half of their earthly existence. The article gives examples:
Literature:F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) at age 29.
Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) at age 50.
Art:Pablo Picasso (Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon) at age 26.
Paul Cézanne (Château Noir) at age 64.
Filmmaking: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) at age 26.
Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo) at age 59.
Architecture:Maya Lin (Vietnam Memorial) at ages 23.
Frank Lloyd Wright (Falling Waters) at age 70.
Music:Wolfgang Mozart (The Marriage of Figaro) at age 30.
Ludwig van Beethoven (Symphony No. 9) at age 54.
Galenson puts numbers to this phenomenon and in doing so has done a great service for those of us laboring in artistic efforts (or business, or just about anything else). Of course, what he has done is identified trends and not laws. There are those people who achieve early on and continue producing great work all their lives. More power to them.
Pink describes Galenson’s work as “a unified field theory of creativity.” It seems to be just that.
So if you hold a membership card in the Slow Out the Gate Club, don’t lose heart. Your best work may be just around the corner. Genius is not the sole possession of the young, but of the dedicated.
Alton Gansky lives and writes and celebrates birthdays at his home in California. http://www.altongansky.com.