In the October 20 issue of the New Yorker, statistician/übergeek Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the commonly held belief that creative brilliance is the sole province of youth. “Genius, in the popular conception,” he writes, “is inextricably tied up with precocity, [requiring] the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.”
Gladwell questioned that assumption. And he found that creativity – like youth – is not always wasted on the young.
Calling for backup, he cited University of Chicago’s David Galenson, who recently made headlines as the economist who invented a way to evaluate the importance of a work of art based on how frequently its reproduction appears in textbooks.
Expanding the scope of his methods, Galenson found that there are about as many “great” poems, paintings and films created by middle-aged and older artists as there are “great works” produced by artists in their youth. From this data, Gladwell concluded that, for every youthful prodigy, there is a “late bloomer” – one who doesn’t come into his or her own until middle age.
Okay, fair enough. (And, as a 42-year-old, I feel relieved that my best years may yet be ahead.) But then, Gladwell followed Galenson in citing an example of Alfred Hitchcock, who directed an unbested string of seven classic hits between the ages of 54 (Dial M for Murder, 1954) and 61 (Psycho, 1960). According to them, Alfred Hitchcock was a late bloomer – and ought to be counted among those who find success later in life because “they simply aren't much good until late in their careers.”
Hmmm.... Not so fast, smart boys. The fact is, Alfred Hitchcock distinguished himself with a successful film career in Britain long before he moved to the States to direct the previously-mentioned series of films. He directed his breakout film, The Lodger, (1926) at 28 and followed that with additional successes. Highlights include The Ring (1927), Blackmail (Britain’s first talkie,1929) and Murder! (1930). Hitchcock was praised for his brilliance, originality and deftness of touch that, in the words of one critic, challenged “comparison with the best that America [could] produce.” By the time he’d directed the classics The 39 Steps (1935, and which anticipates North by Northwest in both its plot and its themes) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), Hitchcock was being courted by Hollywood’s top producers – he eventually signed a multipicture deal with David O. Selznick – and was being hailed as Britain’s greatest director.
Though Hitchcock continued to improve his methods and technique, and indeed can be said to have peaked during his fifties and early sixties, his genius was clearly evident even as a young man. Both Galenson and Gladwell overlook these facts about his career, and for that I have to deduct points from their research.
But the biggest problem that I have with Gladwell’s article is that he divides “genius” into two camps – those who peak early and then peter out and the late bloomers who reach their potential after many long, seemingly unfruitful years. I don’t think it’s that simple. My observation is that, yes, there are people who fall into one of those two groups. There is also an abundance of gifted individuals who fit everywhere in between. Alfred Hitchcock's genius was such that he fit into both categories.