Albert Einstein published five papers that revolutionized physics when he was all of 26. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane aged 25. Bill Gates was 31 when he made his first billion. Mark Zuckerberg beat him to three commas by eight years.
When we think of genius, we tend to think of these types of stories. Immensely gifted individuals who shoot to meteoric success before they even become full adults. And there is truth to this pattern. Lots of creative breakthroughs do cluster among those in their 20s.
But science shows this is only half the story. There’s a whole other kind of creativity, and on average it doesn’t reveal its genius until someone is well into middle age.
Conceptualists vs. Experimentalists
The Pablo Picassos of the world, who explode into greatness in their 20s, make for the most romantic stories, but there are plenty of quieter examples of world-changing geniuses who didn’t make their most significant contributions until they were in their 40s or 50s. Think of Charles Darwin, who was 50 when On the Origin of Species was published, or Mark Twain, who was 49 the year Huckleberry Finn came out.
These counter examples don’t just represent a random distribution of breakthrough ideas throughout people’s lives. Lightning can strike at any age, but according to exhaustive and fascinating research by University of Chicago economist David Galenson, genius tends to manifest either very young, or much later when someone is approaching or even well into their 50s.
This is because there are two very different approaches to creativity. Those who burn brightly young and flame out early, Galenson terms conceptualists. Their best work tends to be the result of one, brilliant, radical, overarching idea. Einstein walking home from his job at the patent office in Bern one night has the mother of all Eureka moments about the nature of the universe and writes it up. Picasso thinks up cubism and executes on it.
But there is another more halting path to genius. It’s the road Darwin took when he spent decades minutely observing the natural world and piecing together his theory. Or when Twain rewrote and revised Huck Finn for a decade. These are experimentalists.
These geniuses figure it out as they go along, piecing together their ideas through trial, and error. That process of observation and refinement takes awhile. Hence their best work usually doesn’t get done until their 50s. Here’s a tweet summing up the distinction nicely:
— Amrita (@AmritaMathur) September 10, 2020
It’s true of entrepreneurs too.
That’s good news if you’re a frustrated 30-something painter or poet, but Galenson’s work is relevant to business owners too.
Entrepreneurship is a field that particularly worships wunderkinds. But studies show the average age of founders of successful startups – and by successful I don’t mean nice mom-and-pop shops but startups with big, impressive exits – is actually 44 years old. From RyanAir’s Tony Ryan to Garmin’s Gary Burrell, these aren’t kids who execute on a great idea they had one day in their dorm room. They are industry veterans, who over time figure out better ways to do things and then start companies to actualize those insights.
In short, they’re experimentalists, and though they get less media coverage, they’re geniuses too. Which should cheer up those of you muddling your way along trying to figure out your own big contribution to the world. Just because brilliance didn’t explode unbidden in your brain by the age of 29 doesn’t mean it’s not on its way.
You might just be taking the route of the experimentalist to find your own big idea.