Do We Get Less Creative As We Age?

February 7, 2008  

In an earlier blog post, I included a quote from Voltaire. He once said, “Man can only have a certain number of teeth, hairs, and ideas. There comes a time when he necessarily loses his teeth, his hair, and his ideas.” This quote sparked a small debate between 2 blog readers.

Dr.YKK chimed in with, “I don’t agree with Voltaire on the ideas part. As Einstein says, ideas are unlimited. I would like to add, ‘at whatever age.’ We don’t lose ideas, we gain ideas and wisdom with age.”

Gareth Garvey responded with, “Maybe the number of ideas we can have is unlimited. Our problem can be that as we get older we can find it harder to accept new ideas and end up rejecting our own ideas before we have voiced them. We need to remind ourselves to think young, at least some of the time.”

This is an interesting debate. In some respects, both perspectives are correct.

I have found that there are two factors that inhibit our ability to think creatively as adults: 1) knowledge/expertise, and 2) the need to look good.

Expertise is the Enemy of Creativity


I often say that expertise is the enemy of creativity. The more we know, the harder it is to see things differently because we get locked into old ways of thinking. To quote Einstein once again, he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Unfortunately, society and our educational systems have put a premium on knowledge rather than imagination. Schools teach the regurgitation of facts rather than thinking and creativity.

Studies show that 98% of 5 year olds test as highly creative, yet only 2% of adults do. We don’t lose our creativity, but we learn habits which stop it from emerging.

Looking Good is the Enemy of Creativity

Although I read the studies about age and creativity, I had never truly experienced the difference between adult thinking and child-like thinking until a couple of years ago. I was speaking about creativity on a cruise ship to about 20 adult passengers with ages ranging from 40 to 90. I decided to start with some improv comedy routines to get the creative juices flowing.

Just as we were getting underway, a dozen 12 year olds walked in the room. We decided to have a competition: the adults versus the pre-teens.

The result was astonishing. With the adults, this creative endeavor seemed like work. They were stiff, unfunny, and they were clearly thinking way too much about their responses. With the kids, everything flowed. They were funny, flamboyant, and outrageous. They did not censor their thoughts. They had no concern about looking silly.

This last point is so important. As adults, although we have creative ideas rolling around in our heads, we self-censor. We don’t want to look silly. We don’t want to say something that might have us look bad in the eyes of our peers or boss. This need to “look good” stops us from playing.

Fortunately, there is no reason why adults can not recapture their creative juices – and prove Voltaire wrong. It just takes a shift in mindset and a bit of practice. And it requires us to relearn how to play like children.

Learn more on how to Unleash Your Inner Innovator

Leave a Reply

Old Comments

5 Responses to “Do We Get Less Creative As We Age?”

  1. Gregg Fraley on February 8th, 2008 5:33 am

    And…

    Expertise can also put you in a position to make combinations that are only known to experts. Many innovations are the result of putting two old things together, or, adding something new to the old mix. One reason Edison could invent so many new things because he knew everything about all the old stuff he could make things from.

    Everything you say is true about adults — IF they are not self-aware about creativity and creative thinking concepts. If they are and practice creative behavior and they combine it with expertise you have a very powerful combination. Take a group of adult improvisers from Improv Olympics and they’ll go those kids one better!

  2. Stephen Shapiro on February 8th, 2008 9:05 am

    Gregg, you are so right.

    When I lived in London (where I believe you spend a lot of your time these days), I used to regularly go to the Comedy Story on Sunday nights to see their improv group. They were (and still are) brilliant! I loved to watch them work their magic. They would definitely beat the pants off of the 12 year olds.

    If you can combine expertise with the ability to think creatively and the confidence to play, you have a powerful combination. In that situation, Voltaire would be VERY wrong.

    Gregg, you may also get a kick out of this post if you have not seen it. You will know the conference I was attending when I wrote it.

    http://www.steveshapiro.com/2007/06/28/quote-of-the-day-18/

  3. George Carlin Quote | Stephen Shapiro on Innovation, Creativity, Goals & Performance on June 23rd, 2008 2:38 pm

    [...] this is what stifles innovation.  As adults, we worry about our bad ideas emerging.  We don’t want to look silly, so we filter [...]

  4. Dot Versus Line Thinking | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro on September 17th, 2008 9:34 am

    [...] Although I personally do not like the use of the words competent versus incompetent, I agree with his underlying message. In some respects, this is his version of my expression, “Expertise is the enemy of creativity.” [...]

  5. Tweets that mention Do We Get Less Creative As We Age? | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro -- Topsy.com on December 15th, 2010 4:56 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Shapiro, Stephen Shapiro. Stephen Shapiro said: @SunniBrown A second entry on expertise, age and creativity – http://bit.ly/dW9QBl [...]