Late Bloomer, Late Genius

The Tortoise and The Hare I marvel at all the smart people around me. The people who’ve hit success at a ripe young age. The Jerry Yangs, the Larry Pages, heck, even the Shawn Fannings. And I wonder: is it too late to make a big splash?

Then I read Daniel Pink’s article in Wired: “What Kind of Genius Are You?” He begins with an anecdote about a 17th-century Dutch art class at Harvard.

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?”

Hmmm. I ate a banana for breakfast, read a bunch of emails, thought hard about improving some processes on my team… but no Renaissance Madonnas. Damn. What’s that say about me? Am I doomed to mediocrity?

Fortunately, no! There’s still hope!

The article explains how David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, made an interesting realization. Using the careful analysis of a trained economist, he scoured volumes of data and “sliced and diced the numbers with his econometric ginsu knife.” The end result showed two types of geniuses:

Conceptual Innovators
These are people who “do their breakthrough work when they are young”, “then decline steadily.” Examples are Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles.
Experimental Innovators
These are people who go through “a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers.” Examples are Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock.

An entry by Stephen Dubner on the Freakonomics Blog corroborates these results. It cites an article by David Wessel in the Wall Street Journal: “Why Middle Age May Be Healthy For Your Wallet“.

Baseball players are said to peak in their late 20’s. Chess players in their mid-30’s. Theoretical economists in their mid-40’s. But in ordinary life, there’s an obvious tension between sheer smarts, often seen in the supple minds of the young, and experience, which comes only with age.

Ah ha! So maybe I’m an Experimental Innovator. Maybe I’m the kind of person who is able to arrive at genius through trial and error and experience. I know I’m definitely no baseball player.

So if you were to ask me, “What have you done lately?” I’d say, “I’ve done lots of things! Like eating a banana for breakfast, reading a bunch of emails, and thinking hard about improving some processes on my team… All things that will give me valuable experience for my budding late genius!”

(And heck, I don’t need to be the next Mark Twain. Wessel explains that most people make their smartest personal finance decisions in their 50’s. I’ll gladly settle for that.)

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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