Malcolm Gladwell Explores the Connection Between Genius and Precocity

A little genius by RedBison on Flickr
A little genius by RedBison on Flickr

In his article in The New Yorker – Late Bloomers, Malcolm Gladwell, considers the work of an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson and why we tend to equate genius with precocity.

In biology, the term precocial refers to species in which the young are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of birth or hatching.  In the context of Gladwell’s article, he explores precocity – the manifestation of unusually early development or maturity, especially in mental aptitude – in the context of literary and artistic genius.  Referencing Galenson’s book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, Gladwell talks about the way our minds work by “entertaining the notion that there are two very different styles of creativity, the Picasso and the Cézanne.“

In Late Bloomers, Gladwell writes:

Galenson did a simple economic analysis, tabulating the prices paid at auction for paintings by Picasso and Cézanne with the ages at which they created those works. A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth, he found, an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.

Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life. But that’s not quite right.

We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else—that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.

There’s something comforting about knowing that youth and genius don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

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