Einstein’s major contributions to physics were published when he was aged 26. Mathematician Terence Tao won the Fields Medal (maths’ Nobel Prize) at age 31. “When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years”, quipped 37-year-old Tom Lehrer.
Yet at the other end of the lifecycle, examples abound. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum from ages 76 to 91. Clint Eastwood directed Unforgiven at age 62. Paul Cézanne’s most valuable work was painted in the year of his death, aged 67.
Understanding the lifecycle of innovators is a puzzle with major implications for how we fund researchers and artists. Should we devote more towards early-career innovators, and risk wasting it on fizzling fireworks? Or is it better to look for established track records, at the risk of funding extinct volcanoes?
One researcher who has been studying the lifecycle of innovation across a variety of fields is University of Chicago economist David Galenson. Over more than a decade, Galenson and his co-authors have studied the careers of economists, poets, novelists, directors, architects, and artists. To identify the stars of each field, he gathers empirical data: rankings of “all time greats”, auction prices, prizes, citations, and even the number of times works appear in textbooks and anthologies.
Across a diverse set of fields, Galenson claims to have consistently identified two types of innovators: “conceptual” innovators, whose work implements a single theory, and “experimental” innovators, whose work evolves from real-life experience and empirical observation. Like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehogs (who relate the world to a single vision) and foxes (who pursue many ends), Galenson’s dichotomy can be applied across many fields of creative endeavour. And the recurring pattern seems to be that conceptual innovators do their best work at an earlier age than experimental innovators.
What marks a conceptualist from an experimentalist? In art, Galenson distinguishes conceptual artists (Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch) whose work aims to communicate specific ideas and emotions; from experimental artists (Edgar Degas, Wasily Kandinsky) whose ideas are vaguer, and often regard the artistic process as a journey.
Among architects, conceptualists are motivated by geometry (Renzo Piano, Walter Gropius), and experimentalists are inspired by nature (Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry).
For novelists, conceptualists have specific goals, and are best known for their plots (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway). Experimentalists are more focused on character development (Charles Dickens. Virginia Woolf).
In poetry, conceptualists (E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot) are technically sophisticated and grounded in literary history, while experimentalists (Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost) draw more from ordinary speech and observation.
Among great directors, conceptualists (Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick) are those whose movies are carefully planned and animated by single ideas. Experimentalists (Robert Altman, Woody Allen) are generally less sure on their goals, and often make major changes to the movie during shooting.
And for Nobel-prize winning economists, conceptualists are theorists and methodological innovators (Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow), while experimentalists make contributions that are principally empirical (Simon Kuznets, Robert Fogel).
Across these fields, a similar pattern can be seen - conceptual innovators tended to do their best work at a younger age than experimental innovators. Conceptual poet T.S. Eliot penned The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock at age 23. Conceptual novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald never regained the success of The Great Gatsby, published when he was 29. Among experimentalists, Wassily Kandinsky painted his best work around age 50, while economist Robert Fogel published his most cited work, Without Consent or Contract, at age 63.