Are you past your prime? To explore this question, I plotted the lives of 177 artists, composers, poets, scientists, and software developers from the year 1300 to today. For each, I selected one signature work that I have seen, heard, or read. When choosing between, say three operas by one composer, I went with the one that blew my hair back.
We all start out in the center as babies and then gradually distinguish ourselves as we grow older. Sixty percent of these masterpieces were created by people in their thirties or forties. I call this the “Donut of Peak Creativity.” Marie Curie discovered radioactivity at 31; Michelangelo finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at 37; Gustav Mahler completed his epic Fifth Symphony at 42. Sure, some artists, composers, poets, and scientists continue to produce into their sixties but by 65 production drops off precipitously. Don’t wait until retirement to get started.
It also appears that precocity is contagious. Of the works made before age 30, most cluster together during three distinct periods: the revolutionary zeal of early 19th-century Europe (Shelley, Keats, Géricault, Chopin); the modern frenzy bracketing World War I (Picasso, Stravinsky, Bohr, Duchamp, Pound, T.S. Eliot); and the tech boom of the new millennium (Jobs, Brin, Page, Zuckerberg). Whenever there’s a revolution—be it with bayonets, bombs, or bytes—youth are leading the charge.