Have you ever wondered why so many famous musicians, writers, and creators of all types have been one-hit wonders? Let's broaden that thought to say that creators generally do their best work during a phase of their lives, and that phase usually corresponds to youth. What's up with that? Why doesn't experience count for more than youth? I'll list some obvious reasons just to get them out of the way before telling you what I think is really happening.

Focus. When you're young, you can work intensely on a project and ignore everything else. As you get older, that becomes nearly impossible. Over time, your life naturally becomes more complicated. Your brain and your schedule accumulate so much clutter that concentration simply gets harder.

Risk. Young people can take bigger risks because they have less to lose. And the young are probably wired for riskier behavior in general. Big successes generally follow big gambles.

Hunger. You're always hungriest before you succeed. Everything else being equal, the person with the greatest motivation will come out ahead.

Youth is Interesting. When a young person creates something great, the public is interested. Humans are wired to be more interested in youth. Hypothetically, if your grandmother wrote the best song in the world, no one would care.

Creativity. Young brains are more creative. I'm not sure that this particular advantage is big enough to overcome the extra skill and experience that a creator gains over time.

The Halving Effect. A publishing rule of thumb is that a non-fiction author will sell half as many books with each successive effort. An author's first non-fiction book is generally the best ideas of his or her entire life. The second book is the stuff that wasn't good enough to be in the first book.

Some non-fiction writers defy the Halving Effect. And the biggest names in fiction do it routinely. When you see that happening, it often means ghost writers have taken over the heavy lifting while the famous author is more of a project manager.

Drugs. Young people do more drugs than older people. And artists probably do more drugs than the average young person. That might be a correlation without causation. I doubt there's a scientific study on that topic.

Comparison Effect. If an artist produces something great, followed by something that is 90% as great, the second effort will register as a disappointment to fans. The Comparison Effect works to the advantage of an artist such as Britney Spears whose early fame exceeded the quality of her music. She had lots of room to improve her music and surprise fans on the upside.

Fan Fatigue.
If a creator keeps mining the same vein, it all starts to feel the same to fans, even if the new work is as good as the old. If a creator tries to game the system by moving to something completely different, the Comparison Effect kicks in and fans say he should have stuck to his "day job."

My personal view is that one-hit wonders exist for the simple reason that you can only do one best thing in your life. If that one best thing happens when you are young, you might be lucky enough to be a struggling artist who can capitalize on it. But if your one best piece of work was going to happen at age 60, again by chance, you'll never find out. You'll probably be forced to change careers decades before your luck has a chance to happen.

This is a variation on the observation that you always find a lost item in the last place you look. It feels like a coincidence and yet it can't happen any other way. A creator who doesn't find success early will likely change careers. And for someone trying to make it big, anything less than a great effort early on probably won't get traction.

In this context, your best work also involves timing. If someone wrote the best hip hop song of all time in the Middle Ages, he had bad timing. A creator's best work is usually a lucky intersection of timing and talent. And by definition, you only get to have your best timing once.

When it comes to creativity, younger is probably better. But it might be overrated.

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Apr 15, 2011
I agree that the one hit wonders have the luck of creativity and timing. But I think the one hit wonders are actually probably not so creative, I think everybody has that "one" good idea or experience that can be molded into something great by using that summation of experience and thought. So the "one hitters who are good but not great pull that one "great" thing out and are burned out. But I agree in that I think creative people go through a period (some longer than others) of greatness, and in the case of some people it includes being associated with a time/place/other people, like the time at a university, a band with the right mix, the startup with a group of folks that clicked. Adjust any of the parameters and then it falls apart. Finally the big killer of creativity is $$. Not even the whole responsible thing. In youth "starving artists" devote all they're time to perfecting art. The beetles played for 1000's of hours before they hit it big perfecting their music. But now if someone gets that big wad of cash, they start collecting material good and worse a cadre of sycophants fawning at their every move so their being told each utterance is is brilliance, and also it becomes more of the chase of fame than the work. Alot of it is the world is so face paced that it promotes a one hit wonder. Remember when bands would release Albums every couple of years and have a firly long period where you were brilliant. Now if you write a hit song and you don't produce a new one in a few months your basically forgotten about (I think that's why we have the Britney's Lindsey's etc. they end up doing stuff to be in the public eye because you can't keep up that creative pace even if your good for long).
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Apr 12, 2011
da vinci
Apr 11, 2011
There is some research that suggests that some forms of creativity improve with age. The thought is that older people have fewer inhibitions and therefore do not criticize their work (therefore, not quitting prematurely). The types of creativity that seem to improve with age appear to be those related to humor and language. Also, older people have more experiences and more knowledge that can be combined to create something new.

My day job consists of working with elderly people in a retirement community. It is amazing how many published authors we have (who are publishing recent material). I also work with people who have Alzheimer's disease and have noted some spectacular artwork coming from that population.

Apr 11, 2011
What about you? Dilbert's been running for 20-odd years, yet you still have many dedicated fans. Is it different for comic strips, because it's a lot of good small work?
Apr 11, 2011
Scott- Scientists are creators too! ( Though Creationists are not scientors )
Darwin- origin of species published at age 50, the unifiying theory of the life sciences
Galileo- published on Jupiter's moons at 46, and credited as father of modern science
Perhaps some of the creative part occured earlier in their lives, but they certainly did not achieve fame for their creativity until late in life.
And both these creators had more long term impact than Ms Spears is likely to... but you never know. She still has time.
Apr 11, 2011
There are a whole load of bits and pieces needed to come together for success. Dylan wrote fantastic stuff just when a generation needed it and went on to produce brilliant mature stuff later. Then things seem to dry up. On the other hand - how many Einsteins have died on the plains of Africa?
Apr 11, 2011
I think it's more the "coin flip experience" reason.

I'm sure every artist has an answer for the question "if you weren't doing (X) what would you be doing?" maybe some would be regular miserable cubicle dwellers like the rest of us if they weren't living the hedonistic life of a famous author/musician/actor/whatever......

Anyways, the point is that at some point in their life they made a choice to do something that led them to their masterpiece. maybe they flipped the coin in their head and it was a "heads i work on this novel i've been wanting to write" or "tails screw that time to go get smashed and chase girls". probably not literally but you see what i mean. maybe if the "coin in the head" had turned heads the man who went home and caught an STD from some drunken hookup at a bar could have been the next Stephen King or Tom Clancy.

As you go on in life, the flips that do NOT lead you to your masterpiece usually take you further from it. When we're young, we haven't flipped the coin as much and so finding the flip to stardom is much easier. I know i wish i could have a few do-overs of some flips i made in my life.
Apr 11, 2011
For endeavors with fans, like music and acting, sexual attraction and perceived availability are large factors in "success". Exceptions to these primal criteria exist - for example Tracy Chapman. Is "Fast Car" her greatest song? Probably. But she has many good ones since. If her looks were a larger part of the equation she might have faded completely.

Cormac McCarthy is a counter example. He didn't even start writing until, I believe, his late 40's. He's an amazing author. Writing may be better suited to experience than youth, so it's not exactly a contradition of your point.

A great support to your point is the sciences - it seems that so often breakthrough discoveries are made by "young" (< 40 yrs) practitioners. Mathematics is a good example. Show me the 60 years old who is still making groundbreaking discoveries.

Great post! Thanks.
Apr 11, 2011
Is it not also possible that experience gets in the way of creativity? One way of interpreting creativity is "doing something in a way that has never been done before." It seems easier to do things in a completely new way if you don't fully understand the way that things are supposed to be done anyway.

I love bad metaphors, so here's one. I was briefly a white water rafting guide and when the water was low, the easiest way to avoid getting stuck on rocks was to not look at them. Seriously. If you look at them you would guide the boat onto them. If you look between them, you would guide the boat between the rocks.

If you throw a log into rapids, it will go through the biggest flow of water and completely miss the rocks. The log, of course, doesn't know that it is supposed to "avoid" the rocks. If you want a log to get stuck on the rocks you have to put a guide on it and tell him to miss the rocks.

It's the same principle of why, when people back their cars into tight spaces while staring at the cars next to them, they almost invariably park way too close. If they looked over their shoulders, through their windshield, and into the middle of the empty space, they would park in the middle of the spot every time.

Experience can be a little bit like an obsession with the things that you are trying to avoid. Inexperience is often a dream of the things that you want to accomplish.

This trap is avoidable, of course, but the younger artists don't have to deal with it much at all.
Apr 11, 2011
Come on now. I predict Scott Adams' magnum opus has yet to be written. The Dilbert Principle was excellent, however it could be radically revised, updated and improved by a lot. For a book on philosophy, God's Debris was pretty good except that it was more like a warm-up exercise.

For most artists, writers, etc., their best work was often done while they were stark raving hungry. Once an artist or writer is sated with about a million dollars his/her work will suffer from a lack of inspiration. Having an overwhelming desire to buy a can of beans for dinner is excellent motivation for dreaming up a blockbuster. J.K. Rowlings' first Harry Potter book is filled with references to food. Now that she is stinking rich she is destined to write books useful as second-rate paperweights.

Certain people can pound out hit after hit. These people work for the sake of something other than money. Socrates was philosophizing right until his death. Madame Blavatsky's magnum opus was published when she was 57 years of age. Tom Hanks keeps on improving although he hasn't done much lately. Steven Spielberg cranks out successful movies time after time (not that I like his movies). Proper judgment can only happen centuries after an artist's/writer's death. Time will sort out the pure gold from the second-rate paperweight material.
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Apr 11, 2011
Due to finding all kinds of amazing things when searching for something I actually need, I now try to look in two more places after finding the initial object of my search. Not only is it no longer in the last place I look, but I have a good chance of making two discoveries of things I had forgotten about or had just learned to ignore.
Apr 11, 2011
I think you are wrong. Most of the best artists have a pattern of consistent productivity of really good works, stretching through middle age and even beyond.

Examples from literature: Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov at 58, a year before he died; Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous works (Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest) in his forties (and he died at 52); George Orwell wrote 1984 the year before he died. For art: Monet painted many of his water lilies paintings in his 70s; Rembrandt painted some of his best self-portraits in his 50s; and Michelangelo designed St. Peter's in his 70s. For music: Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony (maybe his best work) at 54; Bach finished his Mass in B Minor in his 60s, the year before he died; and Wagner finished the Ring cycle in his 60s.

Also, I don't think there are that many "one-hit wonders", especially when discussing really creative people. Dickens, Balzac, Mozart, Picasso, Van Gogh et al. were all pretty productive. Even Leonardo di Vinci (not a productive painter) produced both the Last Supper and Mona Lisa (in his 50s), in addition to conceptualizing helicopters, calculators and plate tectonics.
Apr 11, 2011
This is similar to beginner's luck. People who started off gambling and who were lucky tended to keep on playing more than those who were unlucky. Similarly, there are lots of people writing songs. Some of them will randomly hit upon a good one, which is popular and encourages them to keep going. We are not taking into account all the failed songwriters who didn't and who gave up.
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Apr 11, 2011
There's also the effect of being a product of one's environment influencing our ideas. The older we get, the less we are a product of genetics, and the more we are a product of our environment.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 11, 2011
Very valid piece, Scott. It's far wiser and more honest than all that misleadingly optimistic crap that gets published about "encore careers." It is not easy staying relevant.

Yet I do try, now at age 60 with some significant accomplishment under my belt, to keep striving to make ever BIGGER contributions while recognizing that I may never do so. I try to balm myself by recognizing that even if I died tomorrow, I will have not fared too badly on the continuum between parasite and host. I like to think I've given more to the world than I've taken.
Apr 11, 2011
You might add the "I just want to say that I have done it" effect. Like running marathons, writing a book, cutting an album, or learning to fly, many things take so much time and painful effort, that just to be able to say you have done it once is enough.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 11, 2011
Missed one, similar to Hunger I would call it: Enough. A few people realize they have enough money and/or fame for their needs and either reduce their efforts or exit from public view like J.D. Salinger.
Apr 11, 2011
The "Comparison Effect" is a offshoot of a well-known phenomenom: regression to the mean. Any particularly outstanding effort is by definition a peak and will almost inevitably be followed by a lesser one.

Besides that, I think you missed the #1 reason, which we can dub "The Overthinking It Effect". Great art is as much an unconscious process as anything. I don't get paid for it, but I do write poetry for my own amusement, and I've long recognized that the very best stuff comes when I'm not trying to "force" it. I could write my wife a poem every week, but I would hate them. The few that I've given her over the years, though, I am extremely proud of. I don't know where the inspiration came from; it may just be random misfirings of my synapses producing a great turn of phrase. But I do know I can't make it happen on command.

Once an artist is known there is going to be pressure to come up with the next great thing before he is forgotten. Add this to regression to the mean, and a letdown is almost inevitable. If we would give artists the room to be creative, we'd get less art, but it would be of a much higher quality. (On a side note, this is why I think British sitcoms tend to seem so much funnier -- they have much shorter seasons and run for fewer seasons in general. "Fawlty Towers", which in one poll was voted the funniest show ever made, had just two seasons of six episodes, and they were made four years apart. Ricky Gervais often cites it as a model for how to make high quality television.)
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