Q: So if a 25-year-old and a 50-year-old were both starting at the same time down the path of mastering a domain, would there be a difference in the speed and the depth and the skill with which they could each master that domain?
A: I think without question. If this was a stock, I’d put it all on the 25-year-olds. I use plural because of course there could be individual exceptions. I mean, the difference between 25 and 50 is massive. And the difference between 15 and 25 is very big. And again, you’re talking about statistical norms here. There are probably some 15-year-olds who are already encrusted. Whenever I read anything about how you can learn just as well when you’re old, I think it’s nonsense. I just think it’s total nonsense. It’s people trying to delude themselves. Let me give you an analogy. My wife is Ellen Winner, who’s an expert on giftedness and prodigy. When you read this stuff which says there’s no such thing as talent, it’s all the amount of hours, it’s just total nonsense. And only somebody who’s in the grip of the theory would believe it. Because even if at the age of three Yo-Yo Ma was no different than one hundred other cellists, by the age of three-and-a-half he was beyond the ten-year- olds. And that’s got nothing to do with practice. It’s got to do with incredible genetics. My mother says what many people say, which is when you’re old every year is like 10 years.
Q: Except it feels like 10 days.
A: So when you say how do we know this, the way I would turn it around is, on what evidence do people make the opposite claim? When I look at the evidence I never find it convincing.
Q: So what do we lose?
A: I haven’t written about this, but I would say it’s probably half cognitive and half personality or motivation in some way. Some of it is that it’s more difficult to remember and learn things. But the other, for the reasons we were talking about, is that life gets in the way, so to speak. And it raises interesting questions. Do you have family and so on?
Q: I do.
A: Those are reality factors. I mean, Russo had lots of kids, but he dropped them all.
Q: It’s that Faustian bargain.
A: Right. Picasso, he had millions of lovers, but he never took responsibility for anything. I mean, I wouldn’t say that what holds most of us back, but rather what gives us a life is other than just our work.
Q: What are your observations of ageism in America? And how does ageism perhaps factor into some of the things we’re talking about?
A: Well, I think we are very ageist society, but I don’t actually think that’s a big factor in what we’re talking about. In fact, it might motivate some people. So I don’t think people say, “Well I’m not going to take chances because old people are frowned on.” It would be interesting to know whether, if we looked at various sectors and various societies, whether there’s more of a tendency for people in Europe, say, compared to the United States, to continue to perform at a very high level. The 18th century until the 20th century, America didn’t count in the creative sphere. Then the 20th century was sort of America’s, but nobody knows who the 21st century will belong to. Clearly if you’re a woman actor you’re not going to get a job after 40 unless you’re Helen Mirren. I don’t follow the pop music at all. But I think the Rolling Stones and Keith Richards, those are exceptions, right?
Q: They are the exceptions to the rule. I think it’s largely because they’ve hung on to a lot of youthful qualities that we like to associate with popular music.
A: It’s not that it’s just old people going to listen to them. Is that it?
Q: It’s not exclusively old people, but it is a lot of old people, and I think that a lot of older performers who are still touring and selling records are largely nostalgia acts now.
A: That’s what I was asking.
Q: I think people want to feel young. They want to connect with youth, they want to connect with those feelings that they had when they were listening to that music the first time around.
A: Well, maybe the question to ask you, since it’s your business, is out of 50 pop music icons between the age of 25 and 35, how many of them when they’re 60 have grown and deepened and done new stuff? I mean what percentage is that?
Q: Very few. Maybe people would disagree with me, but I would name Bob Dylan. I would name Van Morrison. But the Stones don’t do anything new. They’re peddling their former glory.
A: That’s the problem. You have to be willing to put your art before your audience.
Q: Right. And very few are willing to do that. I had a conversation recently with a musician about the idea that, in terms of staying vibrant and creative and innovative throughout your life, it’s actually an advantage to not have attained a certain measure of success. Because once your art becomes fully integrated with commerce it becomes harder to remain innovative.
A: Yeah. But I think Yo-Yo Ma is really an interesting example here., because he’s really an example of one of these neotenous types, including in personality. I mean, he’s very childlike. And I don’t think he has to work at it. He just he welcomes stretching. And he’s not afraid of falling flat on his face. I mean he’s failed, in the opinion of people, he’s fallen flat on his face any number of times. But he would say, “too bad.”