Late bloomers

Perhaps it’s envy, or maybe it’s a simple by-product of age, but I’ve grown weary of stories about kids hitting it big (important note: I am at the age where everyone younger than me is referred to as a kid, and everyone under 25 is referred to as “12”).

I’m talking about the teen who launches a successful startup out of their parents’ basement; the college student who publishes a literature-changing bestseller; or the 20-something who paints masterfully enough to gain worldwide recognition.

They’re fascinating, these tales of early genius, but they make me wonder what the heck I’m doing at my computer, long day after long day, hoping for… well, I don’t really know. Some kind of big break, I suppose, or a brilliant idea of some sort that will change the world and make me independently wealthy.

Aren’t we all, to some extent, under the impression that we’re destined for something greater than our current situation? We might not be under the illusion that it will ever happen, but everyone dreams big dreams, even if we don’t admit it. Maybe I’ll write something groundbreaking (I doubt it, but that possibility is infinitely more likely than me painting something, I’ll tell you that).

I’m probably not alone in trying to figure out how success comes quickly and easily to some, while others work and grind for years, even decades, with no luck.

Mention the word “genius” and we often think about people whose talents emerged early in life. Mozart composed a famous piano concerto at 21 and Orson Welles wrote Citizen Kane at 25. Picasso’s first serious masterpiece was completed at 20. Saul Aaron Kripke (not Barry Kripke from The Big Bang Theory, but close) thought up his first completeness theorem in modal logic (whatever that is) at the ripe ole age of 17. And both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates co-founded their companies as college students.

So yes, the examples of talent flowering early are plentiful and nothing short of amazing. Still, I can’t help but look for some inspiration from those who have met victories with a few grey hairs and wrinkles. They give me hope, a reason to believe that breakthrough work can come at any age.

Sometimes good things come to us slowly. Sometimes it’s about perseverance, trial and error. Sometimes it’s about finding your calling after years of raising a family or earning a living. Sometimes it takes being out of the workforce for a decade to understand your place in the world. How you get to that moment doesn’t really matter, though sometimes it’s the journey that creates the opportunity.

Consider these people: way back in the 1700s, Mary Delany was a 72-year-old British woman who was grieving the death of her husband when she met two botanists. Their descriptions of their journeys through the South Pacific were startlingly vivid, so much so that the widow picked up a pair of scissors and began cutting pieces of paper to create mosaics of plant life. Those pieces are now in the British Museum, studied centuries later by other botanists and artists alike.

Then there’s the 21st century version of that story. J.K. Rowling was a single mother on welfare, suffering from anxiety and depression, when she wrote Harry Potter in tiny cafes around Edinburgh, where she would walk to put her daughter to sleep. She was well into her 30s when she became a global phenomenon, and today she is one of the most wealthy and famous authors on the planet.

There are many great stories of people who found their success later in life. Samuel L. Jackson was 46 when he got his first starring role in a movie, and Charles Darwin was 50 when the book on his theory was published. Duncan Hines was almost 80 when he finally licensed the right to put his name on cake mixes. Julia Child first appeared in her television show when she was 51, Colonel Sanders didn’t franchise KFC until he was 62, and a man named Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at 89.

Likely the best thing about being a late bloomer is not just about receiving lots of money or public recognition, but about years of struggle in the quest for mastery of your craft. I suspect that recognition and success, when tempered with several decades of assorted failures, tastes that much sweeter.