By Dorie Clark
It’s easy to watch a hotshot young executive – or poet, painter, or filmmaker – and wonder if creativity is the province of the young. (Silicon Valley certainly loves to bet on the 20-something Zuckerbergs of the world.) But Jonah Lehrer, author of the new Imagine: How Creativity Works, doesn’t buy it: “There’s nothing inevitable about a decline of creativity over time,” he said in a recent interview. Instead, any executive can take steps to ensure their ideas stay fresh, vital, and relevant.
Lehrer cites the work of Dean Simonton of the University of California-Davis, who studied peak creativity in a variety of fields and determined that in some professions (such as poetry or physics), the greatest innovation comes early – before age 30. But in other disciplines, such as history, the peak generally comes a full 10-15 years later. Says Lehrer, “It’s because you have to spend a different number of years assimilating information. As a physicist, there are parsimonious rules you can learn pretty quickly, and once you learn those rules, you’re at your peak. But for a historian, there are lots of disconnected facts you have to absorb before you can come up with something new.” Whether the magic age is 30 or 45, however, because most fields showed a decline in creativity over time, some initially concluded that the aging brain inevitably lost its abilities over time.
But, says Lehrer, that’s dead wrong: “What Simonton discovered in recent years is it’s a process of acculturation, and people becoming invested in the status quo. If you’re a painter you fall into a style, you develop your clichés – your shtick. If you’re a scientist, you know how to apply for certain grants from the NIH, and if you’re an entrepreneur, you know how certain ideas work and you stick with them.” So a loss of creativity is actually a symptom of buying into the system and refusing to try new things.
Instead, “If you have to pick one secret to staying creative throughout your entire life,” says Lehrer, “it’s to seek out new problems, and when you feel comfortable and like you know how to do something, do something else.” That approach certainly entails risk – if you’re a serial entrepreneur, it’s a lot easier to get VC funding for a new company in the same vein as your previous successes, and if you’re an artist, it’s a lot easier to convince collectors to buy a piece that features your “signature style.” But taking chances is an essential part of staying vital professionally.
So ask yourself:
- Am I taking on new challenges in my business?
- What habits or clichés do I need to guard against?
- What is one new approach I can try out immediately?
- What new skills should I start learning?
What are your strategies for staying innovative? How do you avoid making the safe choice?