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Old masters

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 27, 2014

The NY Times interviewed several people in their 80s who are still killing it in their careers and creative pursuits. Says Ruth Bader Ginsberg about surprises about turning 80:

Nothing surprised me. But I’ve learned two things. One is to seek ever more the joys of being alive, because who knows how much longer I will be living? At my age, one must take things day by day. I have been asked again and again, “How long are you going to stay there?” I make that decision year by year. The minute I sense I am beginning to slip, I will go. There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt. I appreciate that I have had as long as I have… It’s a sense reminiscent of the poem “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” I had some trying times when my husband died. We’d been married for 56 years and knew each other for 60. Now, four years later, I’m doing what I think he would have wanted me to do.

The interviews are accompanied by an essay by Lewis Lapham, himself on the cusp of 80.

John D. Rockefeller in his 80s was known to his business associates as a crazy old man possessed by the stubborn and ferocious will to know why the world wags and what wags it, less interested in money than in the solving of a problem in geography or corporate combination. By sources reliably informed I’m told that Warren Buffett, 84, and Rupert Murdoch, 83, never quit asking questions.

I read a book several years ago which is relevant here called Old Masters and Young Geniuses, in which economist David Galenson divided creative people into two main camps: conceptual and experimental innovators:

1) The conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They have firm ideas about what they want to accomplish and then do so, with certainty. Pablo Picasso is the archetype here; others include T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells. Picasso said, “I don’t seek, I find.”

2) The experimental innovators who peak later in life. They create through the painstaking process of doing, making incremental improvements to their art until they’re capable of real masterpiece. Cezanne is Galenson’s main example of an experimental innovator; others include Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock. Cezanne remarked, “I seek in painting.”

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