The Long Game of Creativity: If You Haven’t Created a Masterpiece at 30, You’re Not a Failure

Orson Welles direct­ed the great­est movie ever made, Cit­i­zen Kane, at age 25, with only a lim­it­ed knowl­edge of the medi­um. When Paul McCart­ney was 25, he, along with his fel­low Bea­t­les, released the era-defin­ing album Sgt. Pepper’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band. By age 29, Pablo Picas­so rev­o­lu­tion­ized mod­ern art by devel­op­ing cubism.

If hear­ing such sto­ries sets off an exis­ten­tial pan­ic attack because you squan­dered your 20s with too much real­i­ty TV and grad­u­ate school, then take heart — you’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly a fail­ure.

As Adam West­brook points out in his video essay The Long Game, Leonar­do da Vin­ci was a total los­er before he paint­ed The Last Sup­per at age 46. As a youth, Leonar­do planned grandiose projects that he wouldn’t be able to fin­ish. This, of course, did lit­tle for his rep­u­ta­tion and even less for his career as a free­lance artist. But he con­tin­ued to work, eking out a liv­ing by endur­ing the demands of picky, small-mind­ed clients, and, through this lean peri­od, Leonar­do emerged a great artist. Robert Greene, in his book Mas­tery, calls this peri­od “The Dif­fi­cult Years.” Every suc­cess­ful cre­ative slogs through some form of the Dif­fi­cult Years, even child prodi­gies. Mozart just went through his strug­gles at a time when most chil­dren are learn­ing to read.

In oth­er words, “genius” has less to do with innate tal­ent than just doing the work. Of course, that isn’t near­ly as good a sto­ry as that of the roman­tic genius. But it is encour­ag­ing for those of us who haven’t quite yet won that MacArthur grant.

You can watch Westbrook’s video essay in var­i­ous parts above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Enhances Our Cre­ativ­i­ty

Mal­colm McLaren: The Quest for Authen­tic Cre­ativ­i­ty

Mihaly Czik­szent­mi­ha­lyi Explains Why the Source of Hap­pi­ness Lies in Cre­ativ­i­ty and Flow, Not Mon­ey

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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Comments (6)
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  • alexes says:

    good to hear. need­ed the inspi­ra­tion to keep at it — thanks!

  • Betty says:

    Thank you for re-tweet­ing this today. At 54, I won­der if what I do cre­ative­ly will ever real­ly mat­ter. But watch­ing this reminds me that the mak­ing of the art real­ly is enough. I real­ly do appre­ci­ate the reminder.

  • Dan Andersen-Denmark.An old bugger in your history with me. says:

    Ive said enough,theres got­ta be a lit­tle mys­tery left,or the inter­est fades!I love youre ongo­ing process.

  • Dan Andersen-Denmark.But what does submit mean?I am fairly good at engglish,but you lost me there!something aboput accepting? says:

    Ive said enough,theres got­ta be a lit­tle mys­tery left,or the inter­est fades!I love youre ongo­ing process.

  • Andrew says:

    This is total non­sense. Leonar­do was already work­ing for the Medici in his 20s and a decade before he paint­ed The Last Sup­per he was already Engi­neer and Painter to the Duke of Milan and had already pro­duced The Vir­gin of the Rocks and Lady with an Ermine. “Total Losers” do not get chushy gigs with the aris­toc­ra­cy.


    I pho­tographed Steve Busce­mi when I was in my 20’s
    And hon­est­ly not much has hap­pened since then as far as a liv­ing. But I keep on try­ing.

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