By age 10, I had missed my opportunity to be a champion gymnast. And an Olympic figure skater. And an adequate basketball player who could dribble and run at the same time. This didn't stop me from playing sports. In high school, I played tennis, ran track, was even on a basketball team for a while—where I'm pretty sure I scored one basket in three years. I played sports because it was fun and frankly, I liked the uniforms. But even then, I knew the sobering truth about athletic skill: most of the time, if you want to become a highly skilled athlete (or simply make varsity), you needed to start young—and I hadn't.
This emphasis on starting young is important because many sports aren't lifelong, at least not at a competitive level. Studies show that on average, most athletes peak at age 26. (Though as a teenager I once got schooled on the tennis court by an affable, trash-talking 80-year-old with a vintage racket. Let's say just say there are exceptions.) As a teen and young adult, I was sometimes wistful about my dismal athletic career. Maybe I should've practiced more. Maybe I should've focused on a single sport early in life. Usually this thought only occurred to me during the Olympics or when I watched Wimbledon. I wouldn't call it a genuine regret. Nonetheless, I can't go back. In gymnastics or figure-skating years, I'm a senior citizen. Furthermore, it's not likely I'll head to a field, court, or gym today and a latent athletic ability will reveal itself. Athletic skill doesn't tend to work that way. But something else does.
Creativity doesn't peak or deteriorate. At least, it doesn't have to. Unlike other abilities and skills, our capacity to create—write, paint, invent, play music, cook, build, design—doesn't necessarily diminish with age. Our joints may wear out and our senses may dull, but our creative muscle doesn't atrophy. According to author Mark Walton, who writes about creativity and aging, from a neuroscience perspective "we are hard-wired for creativity for as long as we stay at it, as long as nothing bad happens to our brain.” And as long as we don't get stuck in familiar habits and stop taking creative risks. Research shows that continually exploring new ideas and skills is the way we keep our creative muscle strong and our cognition sharp.
I was raised to see creativity as a lifelong pursuit, not something tied to performance or a profession. The adults in my life modeled it for me. When I was a kid, my dad took up drawing as a hobby. We would sit side by side at the kitchen table, each of us with our drawing pencils and paper. My mom signed up for piano lessons as an adult. One of my grandmas tried her hand at oil painting in her late 60s. The other grandmother spent her retirement years sewing, decorating wedding cakes, and gardening. My grandpa spent countless hours in his workshop, sanding, sawing, building. I learned early that I would never outgrow creativity.
I've also learned that some creative abilities are dormant, just waiting for a wake-up call. Over the years, I've heard many inspiring stories of people who didn't develop their creative abilities until adulthood. One of my favorite examples is artist Lisa Congdon. A few years ago I heard Lisa speak at Alt Summit, an annual conference for design bloggers, lifestyle writers, and creative entrepreneurs. Lisa took her first painting class on a whim when she was in her thirties. She didn't launch her art career until she was nearly forty. As a child and young adult, she never saw herself as creative. (A staggering thought if you're familiar with her innovative style and prolific career.) You can listen to Lisa's Alt keynote speech where she shares her story here.
But creative discoveries don't have to become your career for them to have value. My husband's grandmother was in her 80s when she started to write poetry. Her mind was sharp but her physical health kept her at home in a little duplex in a tiny town. At her age, it would've been natural to focus on limitations and mourn lost abilities. But during one of our visits, she shared that she had started writing poetry. As she told it, one night she lay awake in bed. Another night of insomnia. As she lie alone in the darkness, waiting in vain for sleep, she prayed that God would give her something to set her mind to. Then she got up, pulled out a notepad and pen, and wrote a poem. It was the first of many poems that she wrote until the end of her life. Writing poetry became a source of comfort for her but she had also discovered a hidden ability, a fresh way to share her voice and interpret her experience.
The belief that everyone is creative is an important one to me. So much so, that I just wrote a book about it. The book is for preteens but I think its message transcends age. (You can learn more about it here.) I think you can start exploring your creative abilities as a child, or you can pick up your first paintbrush at 60. When it comes to creativity, it's never too late.