The Two Types of Creative People and How To Work With Each

A bout the time Daniel Pink published A Whole New Mind, his call for corporate America to understand creative people, he authored a mostly missed but incisive article for Wired magazine. Entitled “What Kind of Genius Are You?“, it introduces a helpful typology for understanding creativity from economist David Galenson.


Young Genius

The Type: The first type of creative is the Young Genius, or what Galenson calls the “conceptual innovator.” These types don’t understand conventional thinking and are compelled to do what for them seems natural (even if for others it’s radical). They are swift and decisive in acting on their unique vision. Consider: Picasso created Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, considered the most important painting of the 20th century, when he was 26. Einstein published his first theory of relativity when he was 26. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 26. Maya Lin made the Vietnam War Memorial when she was 23. Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro at 30.

Their Output: Young Geniuses do their best work in their 20s and 30s. F. Scott Fitzgerald never repeated the power of The Great Gatsby, which he wrote in his late 20s. After the early success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee never published again. Ezra Pound produced 85% of her poems before the age of 40. Picasso and Einstein lived long lives but likewise could not repeat their early, iconoclastic achievements.

How They Operate: Conceptual innovators are more likely to conceive a completed work in their mind before ever beginning work; the rest is merely execution.

Working With This Type of Creative Person: Without meaning to, conceptual innovators can come across as divas, because they form a complete idea in their mind prior to beginning work, and in fact find it difficult to work without a solid understanding of where they’re going. They aren’t big on revisions and drafts; their work emerges primarily in a single output. For example, Stephen King avoids multiple revisions to his writing and describes his stories as “found objects.” Don’t expect to create something over time with this type of creative; instead, spend extra time at the beginning of the project talking about possibilities and exploring models and references, then be willing within reason to accept what they come up with.


Old Master

The Type: The second type of creative is the Old Master, or what Galenson calls the “experimental innovator.”

Their Output: Old Masters get better with a long period of dedication to their craft. Clint Eastwood’s filmography has by far been the best in the back quarter of his life. Robert Frost wrote 92% of his poems after the age of 40. Beethoven didn’t compose The Ninth Symphony until he was fully deaf; by then his dedication had led to complete internalization. In Galenson’s research, Paul Cezanne is the archetype of the old master. Whereas Picasso thought through his works carefully before he put them to canvas, “Cézanne rarely preconceived a work. He figured out what he was painting by actually painting it.”

How They Operate: Experimental Innovators discover greatness in their own work by doing; they often have no idea what will emerge when they begin, and can even partway through the creative process feel like they have achieved nothing. In fact, whereas conceptual innovators know when they’re finished, most experimental innovators have a hard time distinguishing the end of their work.

Working With This Type of Creative Person: Experimental innovators need room to explore. These types don’t enjoy being monitored while they work; they’d rather retreat and spend time with an idea before emerging for feedback and revisions. They might feel or come across as less confident or assured in their creativity than conceptual innovators because of the nature of their creative process. These types need space to find their best work.

Of course these two types are poles, and most some live somewhere in between rather than at one edge or another. Nobody past thirty wants to think of themselves as a Young Genius, for fear their best work might be behind them. But what can you learn from these two extremes? Where do you see yourself, and those with whom you work, in this continuum? How would you describe the working environment?


About the Author

Len Wilson

Facebook Twitter Google+

Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).