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The Art of Growing Old

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One of the side effects of my portfolio life is that I travel more than any rational person should. I have inadvertently become an inconspicuous observer of world cultures as I briefly move through all manner of terra incognita. I mostly come away with small fragments that wouldn't make the final edit of a rough guide -- Capetown is abuzz with energetic X-Gamers, well groomed millennials dash with designer bags at all hours under the jewel tone lights of Shanghai and inexperienced chain-smoking adolescent boys block traffic in Yogyakarta when they drive underpowered rigs on steep roads. The world is moved by the adrenaline and ambition of youth. No big whoop.

So I was surprised when I was in Barcelona the other day to see something I wasn't expecting -- the venerable and grey in the parks and cafés and at the beaches with paintbrush, pad and pen or guitar -- creating. I'm not talking about the well-heeled ingénue at the drama club in sunny Sarasota or the über-talented venture capitalist turned successful painter now residing in placid Carmel. Instead, what I saw in Barcelona was democratization of creativity -- the sauntering and gaunt made substantial through the visible act of creation -- a life enlivened by art. While they may not have overrun the financial district, they do indeed occupy the numerous places of beauty and history just beyond the purview of the thundering horde of tourists that encircle the Sagrada Família -- the Gaudí Cathedral to you and I -- and other landmarks. It made me wonder what are they doing in City of Counts... and why aren't we doing more of it here?

I couldn't say that the elderly are treated with any more well-earned respect in Spain than they are in other places I've visited. But seldom have I seen so many people taking up a second career -- no -- a second life. Not so much dabbling as passionately participating. It must also be said that Catalonia has a very rich tradition of creativity with a history of painters like Miro and Dali, and Picasso who spent his formative years there. The region also produced the architect of the ornate Gaudi, for we whom we derive the term "gaudy." Musicians like celebrated cellist Pablo Casals -- my favorite of the lot -- provide a soundtrack for the eye candy. There are also a host of brilliant writers from the region whom sadly remain obscure to most English-speaking people.

The point is that the culture of this region may be what makes this third act of personal re-creation more common than in other places or at least more overt. Communal values help initiate behavior and sustain it. If we see our parents or grandparents play the violin in the park, we come to believe that this is both normal and desirable. In America, we have an extraordinary culture of creativity but it mostly focuses on the young -- think American Idol. Even child prodigies Orson Wells and Leonard Bernstein found that their first act was their best. While we acknowledge late bloomers like painter Grandma Moses or composer Elliott Carter, they are often called to our attention to motivate us much in the same way that Publishers Clearing House tells us that we may already be a winner. We can only assume the odds are about the same.

While we know that various types of creative endeavors and play are essential to the cognitive development of children, there is considerable debate among researchers as to whether these benefits are ongoing and extend to the elderly. For example, numerous studies suggest that while key brain functions decline with age, creative activities such as painting may actually delay some of the effects. Similarly, experiments with various forms of creativity as well as interactive media technology are being conducted to develop potential treatments to help mitigate the debilitating effects of dementia. Of course there is no data to support careless claims of miracle cures, which are not to be believed.  Public health researchers suggest that creativity is positively related to quality of life issues among the elderly, particularly in cases of depression, grief and isolation. They also note that the function of creativity changes with age from production to experience. We enjoy the process. In short, there is mounting evidence creativity may be more than self-fulfilling. It may be self-sustaining.

Maybe this has been going on everywhere for years and I just never noticed it. Perhaps it's really a cult which is only revealed to the soon to be initiated -- pass the Kool-Aid, please.  Or it could be a mature movement, the senior underground, and they are plotting to take over the world... again. I think George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart had it right in You Can't Take It with You, their wonderful play about a houseful of odd artisans and performers, when the stuffy young Tony Kirby remarks "It takes courage. You know everybody's afraid to live." It takes courage to create -- to be passionate about our own art -- to grow old. We all do. It's time to get to work composing that new ballad or busy on the novel you've been meaning to write. Your heath and wellbeing may depend on it. As for me, I might just return to Barcelona when I am in need of kinder weather. Pass the paella.

JEFF DEGRAFF is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.

For more by Jeff DeGraff, click here.

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