Q: Can you share some of your personal techniques for staying creative?
A: Well, I think I said the most important ones. Number one, tackle something new and number two, work with young people. But I’ll give you two kinds of examples of that. I wrote a book in 1999 called The Disciplined Mind in which I talked about teaching truth, beauty, and goodness, which is a very traditional view. I believed it and I wrote it, but it began to be challenged by people, including my own kids. And so in 2008 I decided to give some lectures in New York. I happen to be on the board of The Museum of Modern Art, so I talked them into giving me a set of three lectures. The lectures had a title, which was forbidding, but I think the subtitle was Reflections in a Postmodern Digital Era. And what I did was to take the ideas of truth, beauty, and goodness and ask how do they change with postmodernism, which is a critique of all those established ideas, and the digital media? Now I have a book which is called Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed, which is a play on a book of mine called Frames of Mind. Now, I gave myself that task because I knew that I couldn’t just repeat the stuff I’d already said. Then at the end of October I was giving a talk in Boston to a leadership group. And I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. I did it as a favor. I wrote about leadership many years ago, and so I have all the slides, and I was just going to do it in my sleep. And then I actually had an inspiration just a week before, and I changed the title to Leadership in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter.
Q: Oh, that’s good.
A: And that made me stretch. So you do things to keep yourself from falling into a rut. But it’s very hard when you’re old to say to yourself, “You know, you’ve already said this, or, “Well, you’ve got it completely wrong.” You need people around. If you don’t have critics, then the chances of repeating yourself are overwhelming.
Q: Two pieces from your book Creating Minds really jumped out for me, the ones about Faustian bargains [sacrificing a rounded personal life in the name of a creative mission] and the retention of childlike qualities. They made me wonder, again getting back to what happens when people age, about whether older people’s unwillingness or inability to sacrifice comfort and stability and our tendency to let go of childlike qualities could explain, in part, why creativity tends to diminish as we grow older?
A: I was going in a little bit different direction. Have you run into this concept of neoteny yet?
A: N-E-O-T-E-N-Y. Neoteny. It’s an important concept. It’s basically retaining young characteristics as you get old. And when I think about Bruner, and Noam Chomsky, compared to other people who were equally distinguished,, they’re very neotenous. And again I don’t know whether you can do anything to maintain neoteny. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a lot about neoteny.
Q: In my conversations with artists, again and again I hear that people have this sort of resurgence of confidence and courage when they hit middle age. They seem to describe getting to a point in their lives where they just don’t really care how people look at them.
A: You see that over and over again. But you don’t want it to be illusory. We talk a lot about these issues at the Museum. It certainly comes up with Picasso and it certainly comes up with De Kooning. People are really split about whether their later work is worth looking at. They may think they’re breaking new ground, but other people may not. I think it’s the same for composers, too. In the new book that’s coming out in April I have a little squib on Elliot Carter, because I went to the Tanglewood performances a couple years ago where they played 47 of his pieces. And there’s no question that he’s still composing and in many ways his recent work is more accessible. But 100 years from now if they play his music at all, will they be interested in it? That’s something that’s very hard to judge. So this is where what I call the field becomes important. I may think my most recent work is my best work. Many people think their recent work is their best work. But in a sense that’s irrelevant.
Q: Because the work doesn’t change things, it doesn’t have big C impact, unless the field accepts it.
A: Yeah. And in fact what I would say is the great work produced by people in later life is rarely something new. It’s much more likely something summative and more synthetic. Many, many artists, what they do is they have their daring period and then they reintegrate everything that’s happened before. I mean, Picasso basically went through the history of art.
Q: When you talk about retaining childlike qualities, what exactly are those qualities as they relate to creativity.
A: Well, I have a slide somewhere which lists them. I think curiosity is very high. I think willingness to make a fool of yourself. Not wanting to be bored. I mean, Chomsky is a nice guy, I interviewed him here at Harvard a couple of years ago. He says, “I never take anybody’s word for anything.” And I think when that applies to yourself that’s very important. Don’t take anything as is, always be chipping away at what’s wrong, asking how could this be done better. One of the interesting things about Bruner, which I share with him, is we move on to new areas. It’s very hard to keep in the same area year after year unless, as I say, what you’re doing is so novel that it takes a lifetime – that’s what I think was the story with Mandelbrot. He just opened up a universe. But I don’t think that would be true for most mathematicians.
Q: So let me ask you about your 10-year theory, the idea that it takes ten years to master a discipline.
A: Let me simply also just add one more thing, which is I think some of this is biological. I’m at the stage where I go back to my 45th college reunion and my 50th high school reunion and it is amazing that there’s always a few who seem like they’re still 30 years or 20 years old. And others, it’s like they’re completely sclerotic. And that has to have a biological component. I mean you can’t help it if you age tremendously. And if you’re lucky enough to be a Bruner, Chomsky, Elliot Carter – I mean Elliot Carter is still very animated and he’s going to be 102. I mean, again, that’s biology. It’s not sufficient, but it may be necessary.
Q: Right. Of course. But the 10 years that it takes to master a domain, are there exceptions to that rule?
A: Well, one thing I’ve begun to write about is that in the computer age it may happen quicker. If 100 years ago you were learning chess, you were kind of at the mercy of who was around. Now there’s every game in the world online, so I think it could be shorter. Also if it’s a very new domain it doesn’t take as long. But if you take a look at the computer people, even Zuckerberg spent 10 years programming. And if you read Malcolm Gladwell, all those guys who were born in 1954 and ’55, they were programming for 10 years. So there’s nothing magic about it. But I don’t think there are a lot of freebies.