Once upon a time, there was a little girl who dreamed of becoming an Olympic figure skater.
She practiced toe loops and axel jumps with the passion of a zealot, her skates cutting through the ice like the jagged edges of a lightning bolt. Years later, she paired off with someone who shared a similar Olympic vision — a partner who would lift her off the ice and catch her when she came twirling at him like a hurricane. They trained arduously and pledged to take the world of figure skating by storm.
But in the winter of 1968, after years of hard work and training, they failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympics Team when they competed in the U.S. national championships. It was then that the girl wondered whether her passion in life had been slightly askew, and could be best applied elsewhere.
Arriving at this crossroads on the eve of her defeat, the girl knew that her skates would only take her so far. The road ahead wasn’t paved in ice, after all, but rather quicksand running deep into the earth, threatening even the most formidable competitor.
She took a breath, nevertheless, because there was no way out but forward. She put away her ice skates and tread through the uncertain path ahead. She ended up in Paris, of all places — the city of lights — thousands of miles away from home. It was there that her passion took on a new meaning.
Back then, she was known as Vera Wang: the figure ice skater. Today, not only is she an iconic wedding dress designer. She’s also a savvy businesswoman, philanthropist, and mother.
LATE ACCORDING TO WHOM?
Toni Morrison. Julia Child. Winston Churchill. Mark Twain. Alfred Hitchcock.
And Vera Wang, to name a few.
They each have something in common: their achievements in middle and old age have welcomed them into a small community of famous late bloomers.
Vera Wang was 40 when she solidified her position as a major fashion designer.
Toni Morrison was 39 when she published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.”
Winston Churchill was 71 when he became prime minister of the United Kingdom, ready to kick some serious WWII ass.
And then there’s Donald Trump, who became president of the United States at the ripe age of 70. Does this make him a late bloomer, too?
If so, according to whom?
In his 2008 essay, “Late Bloomers,” best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell argues that these late-to-the-party individuals aren’t just meandering through life trying to figure who they are or what they want to accomplish.
It’s just that they take longer to get better at the thing that will eventually cement their legacies.
They arrive late to the party not because their time management skills suck, but because they’ve taken the time to look good, as opposed to showing up looking like a hot mess.
But wait! Do you mean to tell me that breakthroughs can happen at any stage in life?
Great question, dear reader!
It appears that they can.
Gosh. If only someone would have told you…
THE CULTURE OF EARLY ACHIEVEMENT
…But how could they?
Sadly, the prospect of achieving success later in life isn’t something that’s widely talked about in American culture.
In fact, American culture eats up the notion of early achievement like a cardboard tube of Pringles!
It favors the prodigy and the young savant over the individual who is “budding” and needs just a little more time to bloom.
Now and then, lists of “The Youngest Self-Made Millionaires” and “30 [fill in the blank] Under 30” are published online and in print more so than candidates who find success in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
These accolades are disproportionately young. We see this in the entertainment industry where the cut off age for American Idol is 28 and where runway models are considered too old at the tender age of 26.
I, for one, am indignant when writing competitions call for submissions from writers under 30.
Is it my fault that my petals didn’t bloom until 30+ seasons had passed? Why open the doors to the Stephen Kings of our time when there are plenty of Toni Morrisons out there who are just as hungry?
FAST TRACK TO SUCCESS
The educational system in America isn’t making things any easier on us late bloomers.
To uncover brilliant young minds and equip them with the right tools for success, Fast Track programs are developed and implemented in elementary schools across the nation. They administer rigorous tests to students who are in their operational stages of development.
In Rich Karlgaard’s book, “The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement,” the author describes an “early achievement conveyor belt.”
“[It’s] a system that will reveal the strengths of some people — your rapid algorithmic giftedness, your ability to focus, your determination. All great early achievers have that. But there are so many gifts that go undiscovered.”
High school level math and science exams are administered to these precocious individuals, designed to separate the mice from the men. It’s like walking through a vineyard and selecting the most promising grapes to send to the crusher while discarding the imperfect ones. (I find it rather comical, in this context, how wine gets better with age.)
The early achievement plan creates a road to success that is mapped out by key figures (ie. parents, educators, advisors) except by the driver herself. GPSs are configured to conceal all alternative roads and to reroute the drivers should they stray from the assigned path.
These roadblocks to individual success are insurmountable and actually negate the word “individual.”
But the people who lust for your early success in life mean well, don’t they? They act with good intentions.
You know what else is paved with good intentions?
The road to hell, my friends.
If only we could tread down a path like Vera Wang’s, then who knows?
We might end up in our own versions of Paris.
LATE BLOOMER BLUES
When we talk about the success of late bloomers, we usually talk about those individuals who’ve had breakthroughs later in life. Not the person who developed late (biologically-speaking.)
That’s not to say that there isn’t a stark difference between girl A, who wears a D-cup at the age of twelve, and girl B, who won’t quite get there until she’s eighteen or older.
The above example is late-blooming by empirical observation, time-bound to one’s formative years.
I’d like the record to reflect that I was both late to “succeed” and late to develop.
When I was 16 years old, I looked like I was 12. I wanted to keep up with my peers who looked wise-as-fuck beyond their years.
So I did what the Got Milk? commercials encouraged me to do: I chugged that creamy substance straight from the carton like it was water. After all, it was supposed to “do my body good;” to increase my bone density and help me grow taller.
I mean, wasn’t it?
In the 90s, if I wasn’t listening to The Cranberries, raising my Tamagotchi, or showing off my jungle-themed Trapper Keepers, I was drinking milk like it was Merlin’s goddamn growth potion.
Nevermind that it induced constant gagging. I didn’t give a flying fuck. All I wanted was to be “like Mike”: tall, muscular, and well-developed.
Where was that hookah-smoking Caterpillar from “Alice in Wonderland” when I needed him!? Absolem was his name?
Show me where the magic mushrooms are, you sick junkie! I want to GROW!
But, alas, my development turned out to be as stubborn as my personality.
When I turned 21, I didn’t look a day over 16, whereas my male counterparts were looking sharp-jawed, broad-shouldered, and sun-kissed with wrinkles.
What’s more, my stunted growth seemed to mirror my career ambitions (or the lack thereof.)
When I was 18 and fresh out of high school, I chose not to jump on the college bandwagon right after graduation.
Instead, I took a gap year. And I don’t regret a second of it.
THE ADVANTAGE OF LATE BLOOMERS
When I was a wee boy and grownups asked me what I wanted to be later in life, I gave them my go-to response.
I want to be a firefighter! I said with a twinkle in my eyes.
Not because I wanted to put out fires or rescue cats that were stranded in trees. But because I had a shiny fire engine toy that I cherished. Because it made this loud siren noise whenever I pressed the red button.
Because I didn’t know any better.
And guess what? I still didn’t know any better when I was 18, 24, 29, 32, and dare I say, 35. Shouldn’t I be paying off a mortgage and raising children by 35?
Who the fuck knows?!
The point is not to push early achievement tactics on eager young minds. (Although kudos to you if you’re on track to become the next Zuckerberg.)
We all need guidance to find our rightful paths in life. Let’s allow those we take under our wings to have a say in how these pathways are constructed. Let’s allow them to explore alternatives if only to validate these pathways; to make sure that the roadblocks are inserted for good reasons.
To quote Karlgaard:
“Late bloomers tend to be the ones who find their own path … to this magical place where late-blooming occurs. [It’s an] intersection of deepest talent, native talents and deepest passions; passions so deep you’re willing to sacrifice for them. When you arrive at [your] destination—and I hope that everybody has the chance to get there—then no longer do you feel pushed by society’s expectations…
“You feel pulled towards some greater destiny…
“You can endure and get the kinds of gifts like grit and perseverance that you might not have when you’re feeling like you’re being pushed by parents or by society’s expectations.”
So, if you happen to get lost on this road we call Life, make sure that your GPS settings are flexible.
Remove the roadblocks to uncharted territories.
Because who knows what delights await you?