The trappings of outward success are often tied to one’s age. Launch a successful tech company at 56 and you’re a laudable innovator. Accomplish that feat while a sophomore in college, like Mark Zuckerberg, and you’re a celebrity. Western culture’s fascination — some would say preoccupation — with early achievers easily dates back centuries.
The image of a four-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dazzling audiences with his harpsichord performances is one famous example. But this recounting of Mozart’s early talents belies the fact Mozart’s most renowned works, such as his final three symphonies or popular operas, were written much later in his life. The symphonies he wrote as a child are formulaic and uninspired compared with his later masterpieces.
I know because I’ve heard them all.
I find stories of late bloomers to be far more inspiring and relatable.
Take Toni Morrison, who published her first novel at 40. Or Morgan Freeman, who worked as an off-Broadway actor until his first major Hollywood role in Glory at age 52.
Late-in-life flourishings can apply to anyone in all walks of life. Are you considering early retirement at 55 so you can open that winery or coffee shop you always wanted to run? Are you finding your first big break as a professional in your middle years or later? These are all hallmarks of late bloomers, and it’s something to celebrate.
I’ll be content to “bloom” at any stage in life. I was certainly no child prodigy or early success story. Like many people, my teens and early 20s were directionless but largely joyful times that were full of making mistakes that make for great stories. Life had its own plans for me: A son at age 25, an unexpected divorce three years later, and a realization that I enjoyed writing in my late 20s.
And so, I can relate to the story of J.K. Rowling who, as a single mother in her early 30s, finally got her break as a writer with the publication of the first installment of Harry Potter.
Finding oneself in mid- to late-life seems more rewarding to me, partly because those rewards probably came after overcoming one or several obstacles. An outside observer of American culture might notice the contradictory narratives we peddle in this country — namely, that we admire heroes who overcome diversity, yet we paradoxically celebrate those who had early breaks in life.
When we don’t recognize and celebrate late bloomers, we risk diminishing late-life accomplishments when we should be lauding them. A complete shift in mindset in this area is needed, and there are signs that change is a comin’.
A recent interview on KERA’s Think featured author Rich Karlgaard, who was touting his book Late Bloomers: The Hidden Strengths of Learning and Succeeding at Your Own Pace. It was inspired by his personal life journey. The author was named publisher of Forbes magazine in 1998, but Karlgaard describes his early adult years as largely directionless. After graduating from Stanford, Karlgaard found himself working as an hourly wage security guard at a trucking yard in his mid-20s.
Through interviews and his book, Karlgaard argues, among other things, the obsession with achieving success early in life has led to college bribery scandals and unsustainable “conveyor belts” of expensive private schools, boarding schools, and stressed-out students.
Beginning in our 20s, each decade of life offers new skills that can enhance self-discovery and the opportunity to bloom later in life.
“In our 30s, 40s, and 50s, deeper pattern recognition, empathy and compassion, communication skills — all the things you need to grow and be effective as a leader — come into play,” Karlgaard said in a recent interview. “Then, in our 50s, 60s, and 70s, a whole set of attributes that lead to what we might call wisdom come into play.”
Late Bloomers shares recent findings in medical and scientific research that explain why mid- to late-career success is a function of the continual growth of our brains well into old age. It’s an inspiring exploration of the late bloomers of the world who are just now gaining the respect and recognition that they deserve.
As Karlgaard says in the opening line of his book, “For late bloomers of all ages, destiny has called our names.”