Mark Zuckerberg was 20 when he launched Facebook. Steve Jobs was 22 when Apple II was released. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were just 23 when they began their research project called Google. The early accomplishments of these creative minds might have you believe the window to achieve life-changing success is limited. Science says otherwise.

Philip Hans Franses from the Erasmus School of Economics studies the careers of the world's most creative and brilliant individuals. Specifically, he studied 90 Nobel literature laureates, 100 of the most popular classical composers, and 221 artists who painted the most-valued works in the world. After analyzing each their life's accomplishments, then pooling together the data, Franses has found the average age for peak creativity across each of these groups: 42 years old.

But, everyone doesn't live to be the same age. So Franses also looked at the lifespan of each creative mastermind in his data set, then calculated the percentage of life lived when they hit their peak. On average, the Nobel laureates, composers and artists had lived 61 percent of their lives when they completed their most notable works. All had lived about two-thirds of their lives before reaching their creative peaks.

The challenges in quantifying creativity

Economists enjoy having nice, clean numbers in their data sets because it makes for nice, clean results. But can creativity truly be quantified? That's exactly what the research aims to do, and Franses does has a quantitative method for identifying when each of these people hit their peak. He identified the age when people produced their most notable work. So even if a painting didn't gain notoriety until years after it was painted, Franses used the age at which it was produced. Unsurprisingly, many of these prolific artists produced more than a single piece of notable work. Who's to say which Beethoven symphony, Pollock painting, or Kipling novel is truly their best?

And then, there's the question of which writers, artists, and musicians are considered "the best." For writers, it was analyzing Nobel literature laureates. For the composers, Franses choose those who wrote the 100 greatest hits of classic music as determined by music sales. The painters who made the cut were those who created the most highly valued paintings in the world. In all cases, he chose subjects to analyze as determined by their popularity in the respective worlds. It could be argued that the greatest writer, composer, or painter is one you've never heard of. But that wouldn't have exactly made it easy for Franses to pull together this data.

Though it's difficult to truly quantify something at fuzzy as creativity, Franses's studies do help to dispel the stereotype that our future is in the hands of brilliant young minds just finishing college (or dropping out of it). Perhaps life experience, work experience, and perspective are valuable tools for success after all.

Published on: Sep 13, 2016