Innovate or die: We are never too old to be creative

We keep hearing about all the young techies creating the latest cool app for our smartphones, and we think creativity belongs to the young. History and human biology suggest just the opposite.

Some of the greatest breakthroughs of the ages came from adults in their 70s and 80s.

Let us not forget that Steve Jobs was beginning to hit his stride in this mid-50s, before his untimely death. He was terminated by Apple Computer when he was younger because of his failure to grow the business.

Thanks to new technology and science, we are now better able to understand how the brain functions and why older Americans have such a distinct advantage.

There are two types of creativity: creativity with a big ‘C,’ represented by Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein; and then there’s the ordinary daily activity with a small ‘c,’ in which we all identify problems and frustrations and come up with creative solutions to them within our personal life or business.

Historically we knew that brain cells gradually decline as we grow older. What we didn’t know until the creation of MRI machines that can do CAT scans is that between our 50s and late 70s, our brains increase the length and number of cell branches, called dendrites, in different parts of the brain.

Just as with our physical bodies we need strength exercises to grow muscles, our brains need mental exercises to grow these new neurons and dendrites, and that can include learning new things and not repeating what you already know. If you learn a new language, you’re guaranteed to grow a lot of brain neurons and dendrites.

That gives us a unique advantage in processing information so necessary to the creative process.

Over our lifetime, we collect experiences and learn from mistakes. Then we translate that information into wisdom, which allows us to increase our ability to define problems quicker and to tap our wealth of experience to identify numerous solutions to problems.

Walt Whitman captured it best in one of his poems written when he was in his 70s:

“Youth, large, lusty, loving – Youth, full of grace, force, fascination. Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace, force, and fascination?”

If you doubt me, check the ages of Nobel scientists. Or just look at history and the list of famous artists, scientists, musicians and philosophers who did their greatest work in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Some of the greatest minds of the ages prove this: Bertrand Russell, Picasso, Titian, Beethoven, George Burns, Dr. Fred Sanger, who won a noble prize in chemistry in 1958 and again in 1980, and Stanley Kunitz, who won a national award at age 94 for his book, “Passing Through.”

There’s another reason that aging drives creativity. Dr. Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. author of the Creative Age makes a very important point. Most adults inevitably face loss and adversity that comes with the very fact of our humanity.

Adversity comes in an infinite variety – illness, death of a loved one, job loss, or any undesirable change – any event or situation so negative that it causes extreme uncertainty.

Many of those life-changing events produce feelings of anxiety, despair and helplessness, as well as loss of control.

Creativity is a powerful antidote to adversity. Dr. Cohen makes the point that creativity is an emotional and intellectual process – a mechanism that can, moment by moment, displace negative feelings, such as anxiety and hopelessness, with positive feelings of engagement and expectation.

He gives the example of the great American artist Grandma Moses, who exemplifies the synergy of creativity, age and adversity.

She spent a lifetime helping her family make ends meet. At 67 her husband died, so she developed the talent of embroidery to support herself. By age 76, arthritis prevented her from doing any more needlework. So at age 78 she took up painting instead. Her famous painting career continued to the age of 101 when she painted her last great canvas, Rainbow.

Ironically, old age can produce creative breakthroughs even as it takes away other skills.

There’s no way to romanticize loss and hardship. Nevertheless, there is a relationship between loss and creativity that is worth putting on everyone’s radar.

Wisdom comes to us largely as a product of age smarts and emotional and practical life experiences that we have all gone through. The famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described this as “post-formal thought,” when we integrate our life experiences and transform them into wisdom.

Fortunately, we are in a unique time in history. Because of the growth of technology, individuals have never been better positioned to expand their opportunities and drive new creative ways to solve life’s problems.

Science now tells us we are never too old to be creative and to innovate.

Daniel Steininger, President of Biz Starts Milwaukee, Managing Partner Of the Wisconsin Early Stage Fund. You can e-mail this columnist at: Dan@BizStartsMilwaukee.com

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