When does peak creativity occur?

By: Philip Hans Franses

One of the great benefits of being an academic is that thinking is free, and that one can wonder freely about everything we see around us. And so it occurred to me that I got interested in when people seem to perform best in their lives. It started with a discussion with colleagues with the main message that if you have not yet written your best and most cited paper, then chances are very low that you will ever receive a Nobel prize. Indeed, most Nobel laureates in Economics seem to have put forward their most important piece shortly after their PhD graduation, or at least in their early thirties. Similar insights seem common wisdom across other academic disciplines.

Defining a masterpiece

Now, and this is what I wondered, would this also hold for artists? Being an amateur painter myself, without having much success in selling any of my work (well, 0, actually), and thus hoping that the better part is still to come, I was curious to learn when famous painters would have created their masterpiece. 

Defining a masterpiece as that particular work that was the most expensive ever at auctions, I could collect the dates of their creation for 189 painters. Comparing their age at the time of the master piece with their birth year, I found that the average age of creation was 41.9 years. But, I recognised, this average age is not that much of interest, as perhaps many painters would already have died by then. So, I decided to look at the masterpiece creation year relative to a full life span (which seemed no one had ever done before!). That is, if someone became 36 years old, and their best work was created at age 27, then the fraction would be 0.75. Now, and here is the interesting result, the average fraction for these 189 painters turns out to be 0.620, a number which is very close to the golden ratio (0.618). 

A pleasant surprise

What happened next was also surprising to me. First, a leading journal in the area, Creativity Research Journal wanted to publish my results. Next, when it got published, it received an overwhelming amount of media attention, including for example the Scientific American. Some journalists, by the way, misunderstood the results by stating that if they still were to create their best work when they would become 60, that they then would live until the age of 60/0.618 = 97 years. But of course, that is a reversal of the outcomes. Finally, people asked me whether this would also hold for other creative activities.

So, I collected the relevant observations for 89 Nobel laureates in Literature, where the reports of the Noble committee could be used to discern the most Nobel worthy book or poetry. And quite similarly, the average age of creation is 44.8 years, and the fraction is 0.570. I also collected the same type of data for 100 classical composers, where the work that is most often performed is used as an indicator of the peak masterpiece. For the composers, peak creativity occurs around 38.9 years and the fraction is 0.613 (remarkable!). Both studies appeared in the same academic journal, by the way. 

Now, one may wonder, why is it that we find that creative people peak around 40 and at a fraction of 0.6 of their lives? The first number may perhaps be associated with the fact that people’s cognitive skills peak around 40, and start to slow down thereafter. For the fraction 0.6, however, I really have no idea. So, this makes me wonder again…