Have you ever noticed that most artists tend to get less creative when they get older? A band’s first album is often their best—or maybe their second or third album is better—but rarely does a band record their most creative music on their twelfth album. Sure, some artists like The Rolling Stones continue to perform well into their 70s, but they are only rehashing the creativity of their 20s and 30s. They are not recording new songs, or if they are, those new songs are nowhere near as beloved or creative as their earlier work. That is the normal life cycle of most musical artists: they release creative music when young, get popular, then “play the hits” for the rest of their career.
The same applies to other art forms such as writing. A novelist may write good books well into their 70s and 80s. Authors actually get better at the craft of writing over time. But by and large, the work of older authors is never as creative as their younger work. Stephen King is probably writing the most finely crafted prose of his life today in his early 70s, but his books are nowhere near as mind-blowing and original as his work from the 1980s.
A similar trend is noticeable in the world of Hollywood movies. Steven Spielberg, still directing movies in his mid-70s, has improved his craftsmanship of filmmaking on the technical level—his newer movies all look amazing and feature great acting and special effects—but will he ever make a film more creative than Jaws or Close Encounters? Doubtful. It applies to actors, too. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are still fine actors today, but they don’t give the same bravado performances that they gave in the 1970s. De Niro today (77) cannot top Travis Bickle (33).
Why is this? Why do creative people get less creative when they get older? Think about what creativity is and why people create art. Most often, people create art to connect to other people. Art, or the desire for a person to create art, comes from a desire for human connection. An artist creates a work of art—be it a song, poem, or book—in hopes of finding an audience who connects with that art. The more desperate an artist is for human connection, the more creative they get with their art in order to stand out among the crowd.
In the evolutionary lens, creating art may be a means to find a compatible mate and/or social support. Once you make that human connection and form lasting relationships, you have less reason to continue making art. There’s less need to search for connection when you have already found it through a loving spouse, children, and close friends who have your back. Younger people tend not to have found those close connections in life yet, so artists just starting out tend to be the most creative. They often aren’t very skilled at their craft yet, but they rise to the top of their field based on pure creativity. Their art is so creative that people connect with it deeply, even if the craftsmanship isn’t top-notch. You see this most often in music. Teenage punk rock bands don’t play their instruments very well, but they connect with fans through raw emotion and the power of their creativity.
Older artists are more likely to have found human connections, especially if they had earlier success. The Rolling Stones basically invented hard rock in the 1960s and as a result attracted millions of fanatics through the 1970s. Anywhere the band went, they had no problem finding people who loved and respected their music. Once they achieved massive worldwide fame and success, they became less creative in the 1980s and onward because they were no longer desperate for connection. With success, artists become complacent and their creativity suffers. In that sense, artists can become slaves to their earlier success. Fans demand they play the hits over and over again, so they do.
When an artist is young and starting out, they have no fans, and there are many other artists striving for attention as well, so they must be as creative as possible to stand out. If they have not achieved success, they must continue growing more and more creative until they do succeed—or else quit. The most creative of artists will eventually gain loyal fans. Once they have fans, they will then become less creative because they need only to retain the fans they have, not search to find new ones. Therefore, they don’t need to be as creative. They found something in their art that works, so they can keep doing that over and over again. By changing their art in any way or trying something new (aka being creative), they are actually risking losing the fans they already have. Creativity is a risk for already successful artists.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule. The alternative rock band Radiohead had a hit single in 1993 with “Creep” and gained lots of fans after their first two albums. But then in 1997, they tried something completely new and different (more creative) by becoming much more experimental, both lyrically and instrumentally, with OK Computer. That’s one of the greatest albums of all time, but many fans of Pablo Honey hated it because it wasn’t what they expected. Then Radiohead reinvented themselves again in 2000 with Kid A, embracing electronic music, and they continue to grow as musical artists to this day. Austin Kleon illustrated what makes Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke different from most artists in his book, Show Your Work! “Whenever Yorke feels like his songwriting is getting too comfortable or stale, he’ll pick up an instrument he doesn’t know how to play and try to write with it.” Another musical artist who repeatedly reinvented himself over the years, even against the wishes of his fans, is Bob Dylan. Some artists are so committed to art for its own sake that they don’t care about the commercial success and fan admiration. They’ll take creative risks for themselves regardless of how others react.
An example from the film world is Stanley Kubrick, who directed movies across multiple genres and styles (noir, war, historical, satire, sci-fi, horror, thriller) until he was 70. He never made two films alike and they were all masterpieces. Or consider the artist Pablo Picasso, who completely changed his painting style from classical to surrealist and continued creating art until he died at the age of 91. Artists like Yorke, Kubrick, and Picasso are exceptions to the rule, however. You rarely see older musicians try new instruments for the first time later in life. They stick to what they know works. They play the hits.
Most artists aren’t aware of this. They don’t consciously choose to “sell out” (though some do). In most cases it’s simply natural that once you find success, you continue to do the thing that was successful. Yet creativity is—by definition—novel. So it’s almost impossible for an artist to maintain both success and creativity. If they continually innovate creatively, they will only maintain the subset of their audience who crave that sort of novelty, but those types of fans are rare.
For a writer or novelist to stay creative, they should always be experimenting: switch genres and styles, try different narrative techniques and structures, focus on new themes, and attempt unique ways to tell a story. Of course, if a writer does this, they risk complete failure. Which is why so few successful artists attempt it. Philip K. Dick wrote almost exclusively science fiction, and there were recurring themes of androids vs. humans and the nature of reality, but all his stories involved novel concepts and ideas. Perhaps that’s why he never attained major commercial success during his life. If PKD had one on-going space opera series, it might have been more popular during his life, but would his work remain as revered for its creativity long after his death?
Most successful writers tend to have found a formula that works then continue that through a series with the same characters, or reproduce iterations of the formula with slightly different characters and plot elements. When an author writes a successful murder mystery in an enclosed location (like Agatha Christie), they are pressured by both their fans and publishers to continue to do variations on that same premise with the same lead detective. Of course, that’s creative in its own right—to be able to write dozens of books about closed-room murder mysteries that are all of a high quality. But more creative still would be to try something completely different.
The loss of creativity is correlated with age, but age is not the causation. Complacency (not age) causes creativity to decline. An artist can only afford to become complacent after they have achieved success. It just so happens that older artists are more successful because if an artist is not successful, they tend to give up before reaching old age.
Raymond Chandler was a hard-boiled mystery writer, perhaps the greatest and most influential of the private detective genre, but he didn’t start writing novels until he was 44 years old. He wrote The Long Goodbye, what many (and he himself) consider his best book when he was 65. Why was Chandler so creative in his 50s and 60s, as opposed to his 20s and 30s? Because he wasn’t creating art at that age. He lost his job as an oil executive during the Great Depression then turned to writing pulp fiction. Chandler was older but desperate for an audience. Without earlier success to cling to, he had to be creative. Humans don’t lose their capacity for creativity with age; they simply lose their desire to be creative.
The reason older artists lose creativity is because they’ve attained connection with and admiration from fans, which they want to maintain. If you have an audience, it’s natural to want to please them by giving them what they want. In that light, sacrificing creativity might be a fair trade-off for success. As for artists yet to attain a large audience and commercial success, all they have is creativity.