Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?

Are you a “marathoner” or a “sprinter”?

If, like me, you are not an avid runner, not to worry. This question refers to life and career achievements, not exercise regimens. It was inspired by an article, “The Continuing Pursuit of Genius” (link here), published in the alumni magazine of Walden University, a non-traditional, distance learning university that markets itself to adult students:

According to David W. Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, when it comes to expressing genius, there are “sprinters” and then there are “marathoners.” In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), Galenson describes two types of innovators (or geniuses), that is, those “whose work changes the practices of their successors.”

Those in the first group are what he calls “conceptual innovators,” people who burst onto the scene with an important contribution early in their careers or at a fairly young age—wunderkinds like Picasso, Orson Welles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Mozart. In the second group are the “experimental innovators” whose “greatest successes are the result of long periods of gradual improvement of their skills and accumulation of expertise.” These are the people who, while they may be successful throughout their careers, generally make their greatest contributions when they’re older.

The occasion of turning 50 this month has caught me in one of those reflective states of mind, which I’m told is a common affliction of this particular birthday. (I’ve also dug out the old polyester leisure suit, bought a Ferrari, and arranged to go bungee jumping. NOT.) But seriously folks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my generation, that group of tail end Baby Boomers who grew up in between the 60s folks and Generation X, labeled by some “Generation Jones.”

In any event, I believe that my generation, at least collectively speaking, is still seeking to find its place in this world. We appear to have more marathoners than sprinters among us, which means that maybe, just maybe, we’re finally poised to make our signature contributions to the world around us. Let’s hope that these contributions will be informed by our own successes as well as mistakes, and those of generations preceding us.

Let’s also hope that there’s plenty of gas left in our tanks to seek out and make those contributions. I’ve realized that hitting 50 leads to some conflicting thoughts: You still feel “young” (whatever the heck that means), but you start thinking about what to do with the years you have left, and you also realize that retirement could beckon in another 15-20 years. (That’s assuming we can afford to retire, a topic for umpteen other posts.)  It leads you to ask those “big picture” questions, such as “What’s the meaning of life?”

Which leads me to wonder: Will my generation innovate, create, nurture, and build with the many good years we have left?  Or will we simply play out the season and then hang it up?  Our choice, but I think it’s an easy one.  Heaven knows this world needs whatever good stuff we can bring to it.

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