In the fall of 1972, when David Galenson was a senior economics major at Harvard, he took what he describes as a “gut” course in 17th-century Dutch art. On the first day of class, the professor displayed a stunning image of a Renaissance Madonna and child. “Pablo Picasso did this copy of a Raphael drawing when he was 17 years old,” the professor told the students. “What have you people done lately?”
What he has found is that genius – whether in art or architecture or even business – is not the sole province of 17-year-old Picassos and 22-year-old Andreessens. Instead, it comes in two very different forms, embodied by two very different types of people. “Conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers.
What kind of genius am I?
Well, since I’m 44, if I’m a genius, I must be one of the experimental innovators. (I’d like to be a genius. And experimental innovator gives me a goal to strive for. I like goals.)
To keep all us oldies from being too cocky, and to keep us from being knocked down too much, this comes at the end of the article:
This is a universal theory of creativity, not a Viagra for sagging baby boomer self-esteem. It’s no justification for laziness or procrastination or indifference. But it might bolster the resolve of the relentlessly curious, the constantly tinkering, the dedicated tortoises undaunted by the blur of the hares.