Ever worry that you've already peaked in life? Ever lie awake at night fighting the gnawing dread that your best days are already behind you, that each remaining day of your life will be slightly worse than the previous, that your crowning professional achievement, your legacy, was that pretty solid memo you wrote for that staff meeting six years ago, the one with the nice bullet points?
But in case you did ever wonder about such things, new data from an economist in the Netherlands may make you feel great or terrible about your life, depending on how old you are.
Philip Hans Franses of the Erasmus School of Economics has been working for some years now to quantify human creativity — specifically, to determine at what age people like writers, painters and musicians are at the peak of their careers.
You may have read about his previous work involving the age at which Nobel literature laureates wrote their prize-winning works, or when painters created their paintings that are the most valued in the art world. To those analyses, Franses recently added a study of when the top 100 classical music composers wrote their most popular works, as determined by sales at classical music retailer Arkiv Music.
You could do plenty of hemming and hawing about Franses's methodology, particularly if you majored in the liberal arts in college. Is Beethoven's crowd-pleasing 5th Symphony really an objectively better piece than the late string quartets? Is Jackson Pollock's Number 8, 1950, meaningfully superior to any of his other splattered canvases? Is literally anything by Rudyard Kipling, winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize, good at all?
But Franses's analyses have the virtue of providing meaningful metrics of "quality" in domains, like the creative arts, where such things are usually hard to pin down. And they make it possible to draw some interesting conclusions, particularly about when people tend to produce their most high-quality work. When they peak, in other words.
And the numbers show a remarkable degree of uniformity across the three domains of art, music and literature. On average, Nobel Prize-winning writers produce their best work at age 45. Painters peak at age 42. And classical composers produce their most popular works at age 39.
If you take all 221 painters, 100 classical composers and 90 Nobel Prize-winning authors that Franses has studied, and you plot the ages when they produced their most important works, you get a chart that looks like this:
As you can see, Franses's artists, writers and musicians peaked most often in their 30s. But the average peak age across the entire dataset is 42. This is because while relatively few of these creative folks peaked before their 30s, plenty of them produced their most important works in their 40s, 50s and beyond.
There are some fun outliers at the ends of the chart. At one extreme, American composer Charles Ives produced his most popular work, Variations on "America," at the tender young age of 17. Seventeen! Think of your own youth: did you produce any musical masterpieces before you graduated high school? If not, Charles Ives has officially beaten you at the Game of Life.
At the other end of the scale lies American painter Edward Hopper. His Chair Car, painted when he was 83, sold at auction for $14 million in 2005, making it at the time the priciest Hopper painting ever sold.
Franses's analyses aren't just interested in the raw age at which creative types produced their best works, but also what percent of their life they had lived at the time — that is, how long they lived before they produced their masterpieces, and how long they lived after.
Those particular numbers tell an interesting story. Painters and composers in Franses's dataset had lived, on average, roughly 62 percent of their total lifespan when they created their most important works. This number is just a hair away from the so-called "Golden Ratio" that so often appears in the arts, music and nature.
This is all getting a bit mystical for economics research. It seems doubtful that there's any particular significance of a "golden ratio" of your days of life lived, beyond that when you're two-thirds of the way through your life, you hit a confluence of knowledge, experience and energy that makes it possible to do good work.
It remains an open question to what extent Franses's methodology accurately reflects "quality" in these specific domains. Beyond that, it's unclear how much you can generalize from the experience of the world's top writers, painters and musicians to the day-to-day output of the average working stiff.
Still, his work provides tantalizing food for thought, and it provides a creative solution for quantifying a difficult-to-quantify phenomenon: human creativity.
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