Genius, Creativity, and Healthy Aging
by Jay Maddock, PhD
The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.
Recently, I had the good fortune to see Robert Plant perform at Austin City Limits. As the 70-year-old former singer of Led Zeppelin rocked his way through an incredible hour and a half set, my thoughts turned to genius, creativity, and healthy aging.
Led Zeppelin had released most of their groundbreaking work by 1973, when Plant was 25. This is similar to many musical artists including the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and many others whose “genius” work was produced in their 20s. A similar pattern is seen in high tech where Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Google were all founded by people in their 20s. In the field of mathematics, most of the breakthroughs and major findings occur when the person is in his or her 20s.1 Most Nobel Prize winners made their discoveries before age 40.2 How about faculty in public health? When do they have their biggest breakthroughs? A quick PubMed search did not reveal any published studies on this area. As a behavioral scientist, I decided to look at some of the major theories in the field and examine the ages of their developers. BF Skinner published his book on operant conditioning at 34. Icek Ajzen developed the Theory of Reasoned Action at 25. Albert Bandura published the Bobo doll studies at 36. James Prochaska published Systems of Psychotherapy at 37. The major accomplishments of each of these scientists occurred before 40 years old. Unfortunately, the age of R01 grantees has been steadily rising to a median of over 50 years old by 2015.3 This trend indicates that we might be missing the most creative or “genius” years of faculty productivity by restricting resources until a faculty member is established with dozens of published papers and viewed by the review committee as a worthy principal investigator.
As I thought through this, it became a bit depressing. Are we destined to do our best work before age 40? This led me to think about one of my favorite authors, Donald Ray Pollock, who published his brilliant debut novel, Knockemstiff at age 54. As I thought about this great book, Plant and his band the Sensational Shape Shifters played a song called “Dance with You Tonight” for the first time ever live. It was quite a good song, and I noticed the band ranged in ages from their 30s through their 50s. This was a good analogy for academic teams. Partnerships between senior and junior faculty as well as students can create a creative academic environment where the best ideas can be studied and maximize the creativity of junior people along with the know-how of more senior people. Surprisingly, there is little in the literature on this topic. A search of PubMed on senior and junior faculty collaborations revealed numerous studies about mentoring programs but little on actual teams.
My final thoughts were about the incredible career of Robert Plant. Here is an amazing 70-year-old, still rocking and producing great music when most people have retired. With longer life expectancies, we need to carefully examine the career trajectory of academics. We need to do a better job of creating life course trajectories of faculty that maximize their contribution at each phase. Many of our faculty reach the rank of full professor in their 40s and stay with roughly the same job description for the next 20-30 years. Finding out how to better tailor duties during this time will be a benefit to everyone in the academy. I’ll be thinking more about how to do this, and hope that I am half as productive and cool as Robert Plant when I’m 70.
- Gowers T. Mathematics: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press. 2002, Oxford, UK.
- Jones BF, Weinberg BA. Age dynamics in scientific creativity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2011;108:18910-18914.
- Levitt M, Levitt JM. Future of fundamental discovery in US biomedical research. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2017;114:6498-6503.
Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]
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