Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Gladwell on prodigies and late bloomers

Malcolm Gladwell gave a very interesting and entertaining talk on Monday night at Columbia. I strongly recommend taking the hour and a half to listen to it here. Plug in your headphones and listen to it while you write email, IM, or work (that's what I did). It is worth it (besides I haven't forced you to read too much lately, so you should have some surplus time).

The talk is largely about Univ. of Chicago economist David Galenson's work on creativity -- prodigies (Picasso, American car makers, the Eagles) and late bloomers (Cezanne, Japanese car makers, Fleetwood Mac).

In addition to describing Galenson's interesting empirical findings and simple model of creativity, Gladwell makes several interesting points about society's strong preference for prodigies over late bloomers. He argues that our tastes have shifted, and it is much harder to be a late bloomer now. Gladwell thinks that this is a bad thing.

This description is massively incomplete. You should just follow the links and learn more.

I really enjoyed Gladwell's talk, especially his description of the difference in the creative processes of the two types of people.

A thought on a possibe reason for the phenomena of our society placing higher value on prodigies than late bloomers: people would rather be prodigies themselves and thus have more interest in them. At least for me, I feel that I am more the Cezanne type (or less glamorously, the Dell-type versus the Apple-type) but wish very much that I were the Picasso type instead. Thinking about it economically, if you discount future success like you would future income, all else being equal, it seems it might be better to enjoy success in your 20s. (Of course, some might say that if you knew you'd already hit your peak at 30, the rest of your life would be a lot less happy). Still...
Clarification: I'm trying to think about why I'd so much prefer to be a prodigy and think that it simply seems to be lower cost, for an equal amount of success, than being a late bloomer. Not only do prodigies work for a shorter period of time before they have their greatest success but also it seems to be likely that more of their output comes from innate talent and thus requires less effort.
Certainly, it is easy to understand why a preference for prodigies emerges. Obviously, we prefer to achieve the same benefit at a lower cost.

I think Gladwell is concerned that we have gone too far. He believes that the benefits of having the best of Cezanne, Fleetwood Mac, or functional hybrids is more that worth the costs and risks associated with waiting for them to develop.

Essentially, he hears these arguments that people have to produce their works of genius when they are young, looks at Galenson's evidence on the prevelance of late bloomers, and concludes that people's expectations that someone will produce great works later in life are way too low. Because they assign a small probability to realizing the good outcome (and maybe they discount these benefits too steeply), people think that the expected benefits of waiting for someone to bloom do not exceed the costs.

However, other factors could explain less willingness to wait for people to bloom. For instance, the opportunity costs of investing in late bloomers could have risen. I am sure there are a variety of reasons this might have occured. One possibility is that identifying prodigies became cheaper, so investing in prodigies became relatively more attractive.
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