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Snow Capped Idea Volcanoes:

Creativity of the Elderly

Shlomo Maital


     A mind is a terrible thing to waste.   Are we wasting the creative minds of our seniors?   Is the wrong-headed assumption that creativity is entirely the domain of young minds depriving the world of revolutionary ideas? As countries in the West and East alike age, will we marginalize all those senior minds — and waste a precious resource?  

     Consider my own example.   I requested, and received, early retirement from my university employer, in 2001. I was then able to help lead a management institute that worked with many global high-tech companies and startups. I learned how to help them diagnose their core problems and make their organizations consistently innovative. I then wrote down what I learned in a dozen books, that I wrote, co-authored and edited, almost one a year.   I became a snow-capped idea volcano – and completed the Boston Marathon when I was 63.   And today, at 75.5 (the decimal was supplied by an Asian nation, when I applied for a visa) I am working on a collection of short stories titled “What If? The Willing Suspension of Disbelief”.

       And best of all, I got to meet and study a very large number of creative individuals, snow-capped like me, whose ideas were validated and activated and created enormous value. I could have opted for a rocking chair, which is what society often prescribes for seniors. Luckily I chose the ‘volcano’ alternative.

       We know a lot about the aging brain. It works a bit slower. It doesn’t remember things that well. But it does have an ephemeral quality called wisdom – the quality of having the magical mixture of knowledge, experience and judgment. I cannot count the number of startup ideas I’ve seen, that embody magical technology, to satisfy a non-existent need. Senior brains avoid that trap.

         Here is just one example, that I wrote about in my innovation blog a year ago:

     John Goodenough and his team at University of Texas (Austin) “has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity”, writes Pagan Kennedy, in the New York Times.   “He and his team filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works, as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.    

     This is not Goodenough’s first invention. At age 57 he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package; such batteries now exist in nearly all devices at home and at work.  OK – another genius. Nice. But what is unusual about Goodenough?   His age.   He is 94 years old.

   The thing is, we have known for many centuries that senior brains are highly productive and creative. Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps history’s single most creative individual, was making breakthrough discoveries in hydraulics and anatomy when he was 57, in 1509 (in those days, old age!) and when he was 62, a year before his death, he was making plans to drain the Pontine Marshes in Italy.

     Often, the first step toward breakthrough ideas is smashing an iconic sacred-cow assumption. Let’s discard forever the assumption that only fresh young brains are creative. Let’s tell our seniors, we need your ideas, built on your wisdom and your experience. And then, let’s harvest the crop of world-changing ideas erupting from all those snow-capped idea volcanoes.


Five Life Lessons: Learning Life Forward

By Shlomo Maital

Kirkegaard Kirkegaard

The great Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard once defined the tragedy of life: “We live life [looking] forward,   we learn life [looking] backward”.   My wife and I are visiting York University, in Toronto, Canada. I spoke to a class of young engineers, just beginning their studies, at the invitation of my host, Prof. Andrew Maxwell, who heads the BEST Bergeron Entrepreneurship for Science & Technology program in the Lassonde School of Engineering. I shared with them these 5 life lessons, that I have learned personally:

  • Take on BIG challenges:   challenge yourself hugely. If you fail, failure is glorious, and you learn a lot, so much that there really is no such thing as failure, when you’re tackling something enormous. If you succeed – well, your life takes on huge meaning.      
  • Start with WHY!         Find something you are deeply passionate about. This will be your rocket fuel. Start with this, and move on from this point.       Many of my young students do not yet know what their life passion is, because no-one has asked them, nor have they asked yourself. Use your passion to fuel your rocket – but first, be sure to find such a passion.
  • Be like da Vinci: in SOME ways.   Leonard da Vinci was immensely creative, he invented the submarine, tank, airplane, parachute, and vastly more things. He drew with left-handed in his notebook, and wrote notes in mirror writing, to keep them secret.       So in this – be UNLIKE him.       Don’t keep secrets. If you never share your ideas, you’ll never improve or find people to help you implement them.
  • Be truly expert in at least one thing, go deeply into it; and learn a little about everything you can, you never know. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy (handwriting) at Reed College. Why? It interested him. Because he did, the Macintosh, when launched, had beautiful fonts. This led to desktop publishing. DT publishing saved the Mac, created a huge market, and it was utterly unintended… simply because Jobs loved beautiful fonts.      
  • Become very comfortable with being uncomfortable. All great things emerge from people who are uncomfortable about something – they just HATE it, can’t tolerate it, want to CHANGE it.       Much of modern life is about becoming, and remaining, comfortable, free of thirst, hunger, pain, boredom, anything uncomfortable. So get uncomfortable about something, and be comfortable with it, because THIS is what will drive you to action.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital