A new study by Philip Hans Franses of the Erasmus School of Economics in the Netherlands may suggest the point in time when we reach our creative peak.
Franses examined the lifespans of 221 famous painters between 1800 and 2004, and estimated the year they created their most creative work based on the artist’s most expensive painting ever sold. “For each of these artists, the most expensive painting was identified and taken as an indicator of peak creativity,” Franses said in the study.
He found that the painters produced their most highly-valued work of art when they were an average of 41.92 years old. He also noted that the paintings were created when the artists had lived about 62% of their total lives. That percentage is remarkably close to the famous “Golden Ratio” of 61.8% found in art, nature, and even financial forecasting.
If the ratio is true for painters, could it transfer to other domains? Are we destined to hit our highest point of creativity at the two-thirds point of our lives? For example, if you live to 85, that means your creative peak will occur around 53 years of age.
It’s an intriguing notion. By age fifty-something, we have accumulated essentially all the training and formal education we will ever have. By that point, we have over 30 years of experience. But perhaps more importantly, we have reached an age in our lives when our destiny is more clear. As we approach retirement, we take things less seriously, we become more bold in our thinking, and, at last, we give ourselves permission to say what’s really on our minds. We are primed for a creative explosion.
The two thirds point is your life may be when you have the most energy, the most wisdom, and the most motivation to make your ultimate contribution to humanity. It’s time to let it all hang out, damn the torpedoes, and create that ultimate statement that says to the world, “You can go to hell. I was right all along!” A creativity orgasm of sorts.
No doubt there are domains where the Golden Ratio doesn’t hold. A rule of thumb for mathematicians, for example, suggests they must publish their most significant work before age thirty or they’ll never ascend to major status. For some professions, it might be the other way around. Priests, for example, may be at their best well after age 60.
The more vexing question is: what do I do once I’ve passed the two thirds point in my life? Is it “all downhill from here?” Can you cope with the idea that you will never be as creative as you were before?
I offer this advice. First, creativity is not the only activity that adds value and fulfillment to one’s life. Consider teaching, mentoring, or any activity that transfers your life’s accumulated wisdom to the next generation.
Second, never give up. Systematic methods of creativity can turn you into a “creativity machine” regardless of your age. Learn them, perfect them, and practice them avidly. In doing so, you will make the world a better place…and you may find a new creative peak.
(First appeared on Psychology Today, February 3, 2014)