Psychologists who study creative accomplishments throughout the life cycle generally find that creativity peaks between the ages of mid- to late 30s or early 40s. They tend to view creativity from the perspective of creative and innovative disciplines, rather than individual accomplishment. And they find little variation across different professions and disciplines of creativity and innovation, such as the arts and sciences.
But according to two economics professors at Ohio State University, that’s only part of the story. Their research, which looked at 31 Nobel Prize Winners in the field of economics and when they made their most significant contributions to the field, uncovered evidence of two peak cycles of individual creativity in the sciences, one that surfaces very early in some peoples’ careers, and another that, for others, rises up later in their lives. The difference between those who experience a peak in creativity during their mid-twenties and those who are more likely to peak in their mid-50s, the researchers say, is in the type of creativity involved.
People who are conceptual innovators—those who think out of the box and challenge conventional wisdom—tend to come up with new ideas and innovations spontaneously and peak at an earlier age. Those creators who are more experimental—who build on their knowledge and accepted theories throughout their careers and ultimately find new and innovative ways to analyze that knowledge—tend to peak later in life.
Past research has shown that conceptual artists—poets, painters and novelists—who have clear and more immediate goals for their work, such as to communicate very specific and timely ideas or emotions, work in a different time frame than experimental artists, whose goals are less clear and less precise and who work through trial and error at a more gradual pace. Examples of conceptual innovators include Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Herman Melville, and Albert Einstein, all of whom contributed their most innovative work while they were young. Examples of experimental innovators include Paul Cezanne, Robert Frost, Virginia Woolf, and Charles Darwin.
The researchers believe that their findings on this view of creativity—that your most creative period is more a product of the type of creator you are and the nature of your work than of the particular field you are in—extend to other academic and scholarly disciplines as well. If you are a conceptual thinker, you are likely to be more creative when you are younger; if you are an experimental thinker, you are likely to do your most creative work when you are older, perhaps even past middle age. In theory, then, there are no limitations to creativity. You could end up doing your best work in your forties, fifties, sixties or even later.
Weinberg, BA and Galenson DW. Creative careers: The life cycles of Nobel laureates in economics. De Economist. September 2019; 167(3):221-239 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10645-019-09339-9