Prodigy or late-bloomer; which type of creative are you?

I’ve not yet finished reading Originals: How non-conformists move the world by Adam Grant, but I’m finding it very interesting, so far.

The thing that has intrigued me the most so far is the distinction he writes about, a distinction first described by economist David Galenson, between conceptual innovators and experimental innovators. Conceptual innovators formulate a big idea, and are often helped by their lack of knowledge in an area, because they think past and around the rules and assumptions that limit the thinking of the experts in an area. As a result, conceptual innovators do their best, most ground-breaking work early in their careers, and often achieve nothing particularly notable in the second half of their working life. Some notable examples of conceptual innovators are Albert Einstein, James Watson (one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA) and the filmmaker Orson Welles.

In contrast, experimental innovators solve problems through trial and error, and evolve their approach over time. This means that they need quite a bit of time and expertise to do their best work, and thus are late bloomers, doing their best, most ground-breaking work late in their careers. Experimental innovators include William Shakespeare, Roger Sperry (who identified the different specializations of the two brain hemispheres) and filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

I find this very interesting, because not only does it explain a recurring pattern seen among creatives, it can give creative people better perspective on their work. Experimental innovators need time to develop their expertise and develop new ways of doing things, this tends to be a long term and fairly sustainable source of creativity and innovation. Conceptual innovators tend to get less creative over time, as they become more entrenched in the conventional thinking of their area. Which means that conceptual innovators, if they want to keep being creative and innovative, should move to a different area or subject or medium on a regular basis.

So the question for every creative person is, which type are you? Are you a late blooming experimental innovator who needs time and space to develop expertise and new ways of doing things, or are you a conceptual innovator who needs to be a novice at something to re-think the area, and then needs to move on to something else?

This has significantly altered how I look at creativity and creative people. Which is what a good theory should do. But being an experimental innovator myself, I’ll have to think about this, and tinker with it to see how it fits in with all the other stuff I’ve learned about people, psychology and being creative.

I do recommend Grant’s book, for anyone who’s interested. Besides his discussion of experimental versus conceptual innovators, he also talks about why Nobel Prize winners are more likely to be artists of some sort, and why we’re terrible judges of our own work, among several other very interesting ideas.