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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