Conceptual Breakthroughs The Domain of the Young

Jason Mendelson recalls this quote: "I love backing first time CEOs because they don’t know what they can’t do and never limit themselves."

Reminds me of a conversation I had with Auren Hoffman a couple weeks ago. We theorized the best time to start a company was around age 27. On the one hand, you have acquired enough knowledge and experience to do something meaningful. On the other hand, you aren’t weighed down by the baggage of too many experiences and the tendency for such baggage to reinforce preconceived notions. And you aren’t overly jaded. And you probably don’t have a family to care for. Also, when you’re 27, you’re still free from the status worries that bedevil adults — you don’t give a shit what the neighbor thinks.

According to this wonderful Dan Pink Wired article, I would argue high-tech entrepreneurship would fall under the "conceptual breakthrough" category — swift, deductive, certain, as opposed to inductive, step-by-step innovation. Conceptual innovation, Pink says, is the domain of the young.

“Conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers. Galenson maintains that this duality – conceptualists are from Mars, experimentalists are from Venus – is the core of the creative process. And it applies to virtually every field of intellectual endeavor, from painters and poets to economists.

7 comments on “Conceptual Breakthroughs The Domain of the Young
  • Seems to me that the right age to start a FIRST business differs for each individual.

    But the right time to start any business is when you have the idea and the passion. There are benefits to youthful energy and idealism; there are benefits to later wisdom and experience.

    Per Jason’s comment, first-time entrepreneurs are more fun to watch and help, but they also make a lot of rookie errors and can be obstinate in trying to re-invent the wheel with hygiene factors (e.g., “we’re not going to have titles at my company.”)

    Regarding “conceptual breakthroughs,” there are many young standouts but I think there is a perpetual selection bias in this issue because young entrepreneurs get more attention for their youth; it also seems to me that the usual examplars (Gates, Dell, Jobs) in the software industry were actually much YOUNGER than 27 when they started.

    It would make an interesting study to get some actual statistics on this!

    By the way, I looked up Sam Walton to give you a counterexample and he bought his first store when he was… 27.

  • At that age, you’ll have less to unlearn. You’ll be much more malleable and as you say, no baggages of any kind. It matters a lot in your eventual triumph.

  • As an old bastard (32), I can tell you that my role has really changed. While I still pump out tons of ideas, I’ve realized that I’m getting to the point where I can add more value by advising the 20somethings who don’t have families, and helping them to avoid the obvious pitfalls.

  • Applying econometrics to creativity is an interesting exercise, but I don’t think it will lead to any innovations in creating art, just as Seurat’s theories of painting didn’t lead to a “scientific” art.

  • I visited the Museu Picasso in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona.

    The crowds were there to genuflect before the masterworks, and the not-so-masterly works of the Master.

    I was put in mind of Tom Wolfe’s thesis in the Painted Word–that it’s not art if it requires an accompanying text to be intelligible.

    People were raving about some rather piss-poor examples of his pottery work, which he threw together in a mad frenzy of energy.

    The decorative embellishments of the pieces vibrated with the dash of his sure hand, but the pots were sloppily done.

    Any Hopi Indian on a bad day could turn out more accomplished work.

    Some of the real masterpieces to be seen were oddly neglected.

    The crowds were delighted by the Las Meninas series, a deconstruction of one of the greatest paintings of all time–Las Meninas by Velasquez.

    The cubist interpretation is arresting, and full of the evil magic that Picasso summoned with his brush–but the later pieces have been deconstructed to childlike absurdity.

    For me, this is the Master’s joking, ironic commentary on the sad state of the arts and the idiot audience that has made holy relics out of turds.

  • unrelated but amusing, via

    “A few years ago, I worked for a Los Angeles company that had a lot of meetings. The gatherings were long and boring, but I guess it was important for everyone to have their say. At that stage of my personal business evolution, I just accepted the fact that the meeting formats weren’t going to change. But something did change them, for the better.

    Because the meetings were so long, someone on the team suggested we institute “stand up meetings.” Instead of sitting at a traditional conference table, we took the chairs out of the room and ran meetings while standing on our feet. Well, the length of the meetings DRASTICALLY dropped, because people didn’t want to stand for long. Meetings went from 30-60 minutes to roughly 1/2 of that while still delivering meaty content. Neat, huh?”

  • I liked Dan Pink’s article–it made me think, but I disagree with his thesis that conceptual innovation is the domain of the young.

    My counter-thesis is that conceptual innovation is the domain of everyone.

    I’ve always resisted the journalist’s impulse to categorize human qualities and to discover ‘trends’ where none exist. That is the domain of schlock-magazines.

    Galenson’s statistical analysis of artistic creativity is provocative, but ultimately another exercise in futility.

    I daresay the results of all his work won’t have the slightest effect on artists or the way they create their art, rendering his conclusions null in the artists’ ecosystem and in the museums as well.

    The odor of Skinnerian mechanistic behaviourism wafts like an insidious perfume from Galenson’s econometric theories.

    His conclusions are of more interest to psychologists than artists, who will continue to create chaotically and grow their ideas organically rather than in the sterile hothouses of academicians and their artificial ‘light’.

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