The New York Times recently ran a piece about John Goodenough, who at age 94 has “set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity” because of his latest patent.
To the younger set (say, anyone under the age of 39), the idea of a 94-year-old “blazing” with creativity, must sound incredible — literally. How could anyone so old do anything that requires so much fresh thinking and creativity?
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But to those of us north of, say, 39, this story ceases to surprise — even if we are many decades younger than Mr. Goodenough. Because we know that with all the things that we do lose (creak-free knees spring to mind) as we inch ever forward through our decades, creativity is not one of them. No matter what Silicon Valley and Hollywood want us to think. Research shows that the average U.S. inventor applying for patents is 47. And, the “highest-value patents often come from the oldest inventors — those over the age of 55,” according to the New York Times.
But you don’t have to be applying for patents to know that aging can unleash our creativity, as several people over 40 can personally testify.
Jennifer Grant, author of When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?, credits our spark in creativity as we age to a few of the clear benefits of getting older. Not only are we not as busy and distracted with kids and the early days of ladder-climbing in our careers, Grant says, but “we’ve put in our time, refined our craft, and dug down into real experience that only age can bring.”
Marlena Graves, who serves on a church staff in Ohio, says “time, space, and wisdom are factors” in her later-in-life creativity, which, has her interested in mosaic depictions of scenes from Scripture.
“I don’t have to slavishly work in a low-wage job to put food on the table, though many people in the world do!” Graves says, noting that she realizes it’s a privilege to have space to “make tangible the creativity” so many have bottled up.
Creativity is intelligence having fun.
Graves looks to her older friends as models for pursuing creativity. “I have many friends, some of them writers, others painters, who are prolific and beautiful,” she says. “I think, They haven’t let age stop them. Maybe I can do that, too!”
Bill Van Loon, an IT program and project manager by trade, says though he was fortunate enough to have life-long creativity modeled for him by his illustrator-father and pianist-mother and though his inner creativity existed all along, Van Loon didn’t find his medium — pottery — until well into midlife.
“The jump start came when I found I had the time, willingness, and a little extra cash,” Bill says. “It’s hard to do pottery without some cash on hand and space — even if it is in a studio.”
Gina Dalfonzo, a staff writer for a non-profit in Washington, D.C., says the example her grandmother set for her by seeking out creative outlets after spending a lifetime running a grocery store has helped her branch out as she’s reached middle age.
“I’ve always been interested in doing creative things like dance and music,” Dalfonzo says. “But as I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself branching out into other things, like beading.” And writing fiction.
“I’ve been writing nonfiction for a very long time, and I like doing it, but now and then I get the urge to try writing something genuinely creative,” Dalfonzo says. “For instance, sometimes when I go to a movie, instead of wanting to write a review, I feel like writing a story of my own. It’s a scary thought but also an appealing one.”
Fear is a real challenge when it comes to pursuing new creative avenues as we age. Turns out, just because we’re decades out of high school, we do still care what others think!
“The main challenge is learning to get over myself,” Van Loon says. “I need to learn how to fail with grace and acceptance. I have learned art is part process and I will fail at times during that process. It’s like the batter going into a slump. You just need to plow through and maybe make changes to your swing, stance or some other mechanics or even mindset and quit caring so much about what others think or think they know.”
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Dalfonzo admits that as she ventures out into new territory, “I worry about what other people will think. Being judged for something you made up seems different somehow from being judged for something you wrote that’s grounded in facts. It’s a whole other level of scary!”
Graves sees the “naysayers” — including her own internal critic — who say she’s too old to learn something new as the biggest challenge. “Sometimes I discourage myself by comparing myself to others who started their journey years ago and are now deep into skill or expertise while I am a novice,” she says.
That can be hard to overcome. But, with time, Van Loon has learned to put that all side. “In my case, art is cathartic, therapeutic and formative,” he says. Thus, “I don’t give a rat’s tuchas about what others think and what it may look like to them.”
Advice for others
So what steps should those of us who want to unleash our later-in-life creativity take?
Van Loon says, “Remember that age is only a barrier to creativity if you want it to be. Keep going as much as you can. There is a woman I see in the studio from time to time doing sculpting and hand building and she’s 90 years old. I found I must be willing to take frustration and doubt in stride and apply it to learning. Both are part of learning.”
Dalfonzo suggests remembering what you bring to the table. “Every age has its advantages in the creativity department,” she says. “When you’re young, you might bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm and courage to creative endeavors. But when you’re older, you have more wisdom and experience and perspective to draw on.”
Graves says to “fight the powers and people and perhaps culture that tell you, ‘It’s too late for you. You’ve missed your boat. That ship has sailed.’ You have one life that God has given you, pursue the creative promptings with joy. Don’t listen to the naysayers, and move through rejection even though it hurts. Keep going. Listen to those nudges. Take the next step and then one step at a time. It will come. God himself is beautiful and creative.”