At long last, Malcolm Gladwell on innovation

October 17, 2008

Picasso and CezanneThe long-awaiting article by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell about David Galenson’s theory of innovation finally appeared in the magazine’s Oct. 20 edition and online.

The article focuses primarily on experimental innovators, who tend to do their best work later in their careers. The piece is called “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?”

Three excerpts contain lessons that Gladwell draws from Galenson’s discoveries:

Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life.

But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else—that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.

Early in their careers, experimental innovators may be distinguishable from people who will never succeed, Gladwell says:

On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.

Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.)

Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to acccept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?

And in conclusion:

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others.


Norman Mailer, conceptual innovator, dies at age 84

November 10, 2007

Norman MailerTry this one on for size — Norman Mailer as conceptual innovator.

Like most such innovators, he did what’s arguably his best work at the start of his career. That’s “The Naked and the Dead” from his mid-20s.

Like most such innovators, he kept changing his subject matter and style. His topics ranged from that war novel to protest marches to death-row inmate to Jesus to conceptual-innovator Picasso to astronauts.

By continually moving on to new fields of endeavor, he avoided the mid- and late-career slump that conceptual innovators often hit. That accounts for his great mid-life successes — his Pulitzer-prize-winning “The Armies of the Night” from his mid-40s and “The Executioner’s Song” from his mid-50s.

Mailer died today in Manhattan.


Unaware, but battling hard for aging innovators

June 12, 2007

BachIn his recent Financial Times article “Better great than never,” Christopher Tyler fights against the notion that only the young are innovative. It’s a battle that can be fought and won again and again, I suppose.

Tyler and his interviewees show no awareness of the work of David Galenson, so the piece comes across as a bit half-baked, without much insight into why innovations happen when they do.

It’s valuable nonetheless. Although Tyler does little more than list artists, scientists and inventors and their ages when they produced great work, his list is an impressive one. He starts with contrasting composers and poets:

Meteoric young Mozart is worshipped while staid old Bach is merely revered, though Bach’s youthful improvisations on the organ shocked his Lutheran congregations. Shelley and Keats, dead by 30, shine more lustrously than old Wordsworth – although it was Wordsworth who was mainly responsible for the Romantic movement.

He touches on the step-by-step methods of experimental innovators, without labeling them as such:

Innovation demands more than enthusiasm. Progress in science is not so much revolutionary as incremental. ”You need knowledge before you make a breakthrough,” says Frank James, professor of the history of science at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. ”It is about suddenly recognising that something is important.”

Galileo didn’t do anything of significance until he was past 40, and Faraday didn’t discover electrical induction until he was older still.

(So) it is no surprise to find that most scientific advances were made by people in their 30s and 40s. Ted Hoff was 34 when he invented the microprocessor. The Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles completed his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (a puzzle he decided to crack when still a boy of 10) at the age of 42. Charles Babbage was a year older when he designed his ”analytical engine”, forerunner of the programmable computer. Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered penicillin.

Gutenberg press reproductionAt the age of 50, Gutenberg invented his moveable-type printing press, William Harvey published his treatise on the circulation of the blood, … And Louis Pasteur was 60 when he discovered a vaccine for anthrax.

The conceptual approach, which tends to be more successful for youthful innovators, is also evident:

Occasionally the innocence of youth can work in a scientist’s favour. Thanks to his ignorance of chemical structure, William Perkin discovered the first aniline dye, mauveine, by accident when he was an 18-year-old lab assistant. …

The intuitive element of many discoveries reinforces the impression that only the young can be good at invention. Scientific solutions are often associated with an apparently heaven-sent flash of insight – Newton reputedly prompted by the apple’s fall to investigate gravity, for example, or Friedrich August Kekule’s dreaming of a serpent eating its tail to give him the shape of the benzene molecule. Most frequently quoted is the experience of Henri Poincare, who got the answer to an abstruse problem of mathematical functions while climbing on to a bus in Caen. So certain was Poincare of his solution that he settled down to chat with a fellow passenger – they were on a geological field trip – and only bothered to verify it when he got home.

Others in Tyler’s list might be examples of older conceptual innovators who make a breakthrough soon after switching careers.

UranusEven more telling, perhaps, are the examples of those who took up their subjects late in life. William Herschel, for example, was a music teacher before he turned to astronomy, discovering the planet Uranus at 43, infrared radiation and the asteroids at 62, and continuing to make observations into his 70s.

…Literature is full of examples of late vocations: the 19th-century German novelist Theodor Fontane was a chemist before turning to literature, and was nearly 60 before writing the novels that influenced Thomas Mann. Cervantes and Thomas Hobbes both wrote their masterpieces late in life.

Other young innovators are listed without explanation:

Newton, like many mathematicians, was an early starter, identifying the spectrum by means of a prism at the age of 24.

Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock at 28.

And older ones too, including the familiar examples of Cezanne and Monet, whom Galenson often cites:

In the arts, too, inventiveness can go on into old age. Beethoven’s late string quartets were music for another age. Verdi wrote his best operas at the end of his career: his Otello is often described as his most perfect fusion of drama and music.

Cezanne, though he started to break with his contemporaries in his 30s, was more than 60 when he completed his futuristic ”Les Grandes Baigneuses”. Monet gave Impressionism its name with his ”Impression: Soleil Levant”, exhibited in 1872; but it was as a 90-year-old that wrestling with the effects of light and water on his pond at Giverny pushed him into abstractionism.


Give conceptual Ralph Ellison a break

May 16, 2007

Ralph EllisonIn the eyes of many, Ralph Ellison was a disappointing, pitiful figure because he didn’t manage to follow up his great first novel, “Invisible Man,” with a second novel, despite years of trying.

The latest expression of that viewpoint comes in Arnold Rampersad’s biography and a review of it by Hilton Als in the New Yorker.

But Ellison deserves better. His career follows some typical patterns of conceptual innovators, which suggests that Ellison didn’t have much say in the matter. Conceptual innovators typically do their best work early, with lower-quality work following later in their careers.

With that thought in mind, some of the criticisms sound merely like complaints that Ellison wasn’t an experimental innovator — a type of innovator who gradually improves with experience.

Although Ellison was no “young genius” — he published “Invisible Man” at age 41 — that book was the beginning of his career as a novelist. The book came out 18 years after he arrived in New York to pursue literary endeavors, and was followed by decades of attempts to finish a second novel, “Juneteenth.”

Like many conceptually innovative writers, Ellison was much more inspired by the literature of the past than by his experience of the present.

As Als writes:

  • “He sought to emulate the writers who gave him a sense of himself as an artist, not just as a black man. …
  • “In Hemingway’s work, as well as in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ Ellison claimed to have found a language that evoked the improvisatory sound of jazz or the rhythm of the blues. …
  • “His technique … was almost exclusively mined from white writers, mostly notably Faulkner, for whom Ellison felt a reverence that almost did him in as a novelist in later years. … (The two-thousand-page manuscript [of ‘Juneteenth’] was posthumously edited and published in incomplete form in 1999.) This failure was due partly to Ellison’s attempt to incorporate Faulkner’s vast range and scope into a single work—a task that even Faulkner never accomplished. …”

Als and Ramersad suggest that Ellison needed to follow the pattern of an experimental innovator, drawing inspiration from his environment:

Ellison’s failure, Als writes, was due “partly to the fact that he didn’t manage to follow his own early advice to Wright: he never quite found the explicit reality of his characters. … (Rampersad) implies that Ellison’s failure to align himself with other blacks was what prevented him from continuing his career as a novelist.”


Clint Eastwood as inspiration for late bloomers

February 4, 2007

An inspirClint Eastwoodation for late bloomers — that’s one way of thinking about 76-year-old Clint Eastwood, who is currently in the running for best-picture and best-director Oscars.

Economist David Galenson and co-author Joshua Kotin portray Eastwood that way in a recent piece in the L.A. Times, but that’s not all they do.

“Is such creativity in old age rare?” they ask — and give the answer: “No.”

Experimental innovators who make “gradual improvements culminating in late achievements,” they write, “account for many of the most important contributions to the arts. That our society does not generally recognize this fact suggests that we’re missing a key concept about creativity.”

Among the late-blooming experimental innovators that they cite:
Titian, Rembrandt, Monet, Rodin, Cezanne, Jackson Pollock, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Mark Twain, Henry James, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Virginia Woolf, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Warren Buffett.

For example, “Twain wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ at 41 and bettered it with ‘Huckleberry Finn’ at 50; Wright completed Fallingwater at 72 and worked on the Guggenheim Museum until his death at 91.” Further: “Sculptor Louise Bourgeois is 95. Later this year, she will be honored with a retrospective at London’s Tate Modern museum. Last November, her “Spider,” a sculpture she made at the age of 87, sold at auction for more than $4 million, the highest price ever paid for her work and among the highest ever paid for the work of a living sculptor.

They don’t dismiss the early-blooming conceptual innovators:
Arthur Rimbaud, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Orson Welles, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jasper Johns — who “all revolutionized their artistic disciplines in their teens or 20s — plus Bill Gates. “Picasso, for example, created the first cubist paintings at 25, and Welles made ‘Citizen Kane’ at 25.)” But those are the young geniuses that get the most attention.

“Our society prefers the simplicity and clarity of conceptual innovation. … Yet the conceptual Bill Gateses of the business world do not make the experimental Warren Buffetts less important. Recognizing important experimental work can be difficult; these contributions don’t always come all at once. Experimental innovators often begin inauspiciously, so it’s also dangerously easy to parlay judgments about early work into assumptions about entire careers.”

Their greatest message is for potential late bloomers: “Don’t give up. There’s time to do game-changing work after 30. Great innovators bloom in their 30s (Jackson Pollock), 40s (Virginia Woolf), 50s (Fyodor Dostoevsky), 60s (Cezanne), 70s (Eastwood) and 80s (Bourgeois).”


‘Blog Escritores’ on David Galenson

January 13, 2007

In “Blog Escritores,” Waldo Art praises the “curious and interesting” perspective of bookworm economist David Galenson. (Actually he describes Galenson as a “library rat.”)

He also adds 26-year-old Vargas Llosa and 19-year-old Arthur Rimbaud as new nominees for the category of conceptual innovator. In Spanish:

Vargas Llosa (con 26 años publicó: La ciudad y los perros).
Arthur Rimbaud (con 19 creó: Una temporada en el Infierno).

And 70-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright as experimental innovator:

F. Lloyd Wright (con 70 años creó: Fallingwater).


Robert Louis Stevenson as conceptual innovator

December 10, 2006

Suggestion from reader Sarah Brodsky: “Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island at age 33 and A Child’s Garden of Verses at age 35. I think he was conceptual because he is remembered for these few major titles rather than for a body of work. Some of his less-famous novels, like The Black Arrow, are actually pretty bad.”