Success sells. Everybody loves a winner. These clichés are reaffirmed every day in our business and media culture, especially if the winners are young or “emerging.” Fast Company recently released their list of the year’s 100 Most Creative People in Business. Every city has its roundup of the local heavy hitters (hello “30 under 30” and “40 under 40”). And don’t forget the World Economic Forum’s posse of Young Global Leaders. What, you didn’t make the cut? (Actually, me neither.) In this kind of environment, it’s all too easy to feel like a failure — but just because the world doesn’t yet recognize your genius doesn’t mean it’s not there.
I talked recently with David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago who began studying prices at art auctions — an exploration that drove him to understand the nature of creativity over the course of one’s career. He realized there were two very distinct types of creativity — “conceptual” (in which a young person has a clear vision and executes it early, a la Picasso or Zuckerberg) and “experimental” (think Cezanne or Virginia Woolf, practicing and refining their craft over time and winning late-in-life success).
I saw this kind of fast, “conceptual” creativity and success exemplified not too long ago at my Smith College reunion, where I heard a talk by one of our notable alumnae, Thelma Golden, now the Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Golden has been on my radar for a long time — the year I graduated, she was honored by the college with a special prize. Though it typically goes to older alumnae, she won it only 10 years after graduation for her achievements as a Whitney Museum curator. She’d known she wanted to enter the field since high school, she told us. Her focus was singular, and she attained professional success almost immediately. It’s enough to make anyone feel like a loser in comparison.
“In our society,” Galenson told me, “once you’re famous, you’re always famous.” If you’re a conceptualist who makes a big splash, your reputation is secure. Mark Zuckerberg could quit Facebook tomorrow to become a hermit, and people would still seek him out 50 years later. It’s much harder if — unlike Thelma Golden — you haven’t had a clear vision of your future since you were 15, or you’ve taken a more circuitous route to get to your current professional destination. “The fundamental problem,” says Galenson, “is not simply how society looks at Cezanne at age 45 [before his success]. It’s that Cezanne looks at himself and has a deep, dark insecurity. Cezanne would say, I’m not sure I accomplished anything. There’s no external reinforcement at all, and that’s a real problem. Because you don’t produce dramatic results, people assume you’re a failure and a lot of these people have to give up their profession.”
The devaluation of experimental creativity isn’t just a problem in the arts. Tech journalist Farhad Manjoo recently bemoaned the rise of “blockbuster-itis” in the online world. The rapid rise of Instagram and its billion-dollar brethren can lead investors (and even entrepreneurs themselves) to conclude something is a failure if it doesn’t win millions of users right away. That mentality, Manjoo warns, can easily lead to powerful new breakthroughs being killed prematurely.
But the most poignant part of Galenson’s research is the self-doubt he alludes to. In a world where early achievers are so lavishly rewarded, it’s hard to maintain confidence if your process is a slower and more deliberate one — especially if others lose faith in you. But late bloomers can take comfort in his finding that creativity isn’t one-size-fits-all. If you haven’t been invited to the White House or launched an IPO or made the cover of a national newsmagazine before age 35, there’s absolutely no reason to believe you can’t still accomplish those goals later in life. And as managers and leaders, it behooves us to be open-minded and show similar faith in our employees. “I don’t go out and measure the cost of the errors people make on the basis of this belief [that creativity is only for young people],” he told me, “but it could be significant.”
Are you a conceptual innovator or an experimentalist? How has that shaped your career?
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on June 26, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.