Having just joined our Empty Nesters group for the Theater J play “Everything is Illuminated,” based on the 2002 bestseller of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s piece called “Late Bloomers.” I love and quote Gladwell almost as much as Rabbi Harold Kushner. Here is what he wrote in 2008 on this topic, very condensed.
We equate genius with precocity. “Doing something creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.” Examples: Orson Wells wrote and produced “Citizen Kane” at age 25, Herman Melville wrote “Moby Dick” at 32; Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major at 21; T.S. Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at 23. But wait.
An economist at the U of Chicago, David Galenson, decided to see if there is any truth to this equation. Looking on the literary side, at the most frequently mentioned poems in anthologies published over a few decades, the top eleven were composed at the ages of 23, 41, 48, 40, 29, 30, 30, 28, 38, 42, and 59. The same spread was true of film – think Orson Welles peaking at 25 and Alfred Hitchcock producing “Dial M for Murder” and 6 other greats (including “Psycho”) between his 54th and 61st birthdays. The two examples that Galenson couldn’t get out of his mind were Picasso and Cezanne. Picasso painted many of the greatest works of his career between 20 and 26. Cezanne’s masterpieces, though he started painting almost as early as Picasso, were mostly done in his mid sixties. He was a “late bloomer.”
Gladwell sees prodigies as “conceptual,” starting with a clear idea of where they want to go and then executing it. Late bloomers tend to work the other way around – their approach is “experimental.” Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental; it takes them a long time to produce well, and rarely do they feel they have succeeded. Lots of trial and error. So, Cezanne made his art dealer sit for a portrait for 3 1/2 hours without a break on 150 occasions and then abandoned the portrait. Mark Twain was the same way, trial and error – “Huckleberry Finn” took nearly a decade to complete. This kind of creativity takes a long time to come to fruition.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the prodigy. A local boy who came by writing accidentally. Lots of energy – Gladwell says when talking with him you feel that “if you touched him while in full conversational flight you would get an electric shock.” “Illuminated” is the story that came out of his journey to find his roots in a small town in the Ukraine called Trachimbrod. He had no idea that the journey would be a springboard for a novel or that it would start him on the road to being one of the distinctive literary voices of our generation. It just happened. Total time spent getting inspiration for his book: 3 days. Writing: 300 pages in 10 weeks. No trials or experiments. He was 19 years old.
I, your faithful servant, am not creative in anywhere near the ways that the quoted literary and artistic greats were/are. Nowhere near. But if there was a track to what I achieved, it was as a late bloomer, learning in tentative and incremental ways how to do things so that later in life I actually accomplished much more than earlier, and I seem not to be done. What about you?
Good food for thought. Read Gladwell (or Foer) for more. Best, Bill Rudolph