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You Might be a Late Bloomer

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Paul Cézanne always knew he wanted to be an artist. His father compelled him to enter law school, but after two desultory years he withdrew. In 1861, at the age of 22, he went to Paris to pursue his artistic dreams but was rejected by the École des Beaux-Arts, struggled as a painter, and retreated back to his hometown in the south of France, where he worked as a clerk in his father’s bank.

He returned to Paris the next year and was turned down again by the École. His paintings were rejected by the Salon de Paris every year from 1864 to 1869. He continued to submit paintings until 1882, but none were accepted. He joined with the Impressionists, many of whose works were also being rejected, but soon stopped showing with them as well.

By middle age, he was discouraged. He wrote to a friend, “On this matter I must tell you that the numerous studies to which I devoted myself having produced only negative results, and dreading criticism that is only too justified, I have resolved to work in silence, until the day when I should feel capable of defending theoretically the results of my endeavors.” No Cézanne paintings were put on public display when he was between 46 and 56, the prime years for many artists, including some of Cézanne’s most prominent contemporaries.

In 1886, when Cézanne was 47, the celebrated writer Émile Zola, the artist’s closest friend since adolescence, published a novel called The Oeuvre. It was about two young men, one who grows up to be a famous author and the other who grows up to be a failed painter and commits suicide. The painter character was based, at least in part, on Cézanne. (“I had grown up almost in the same cradle as my friend, my brother, Paul Cézanne,” Zola would later write in a French newspaper, “in whom one begins to realize only today the touches of genius of a great painter come to nothing.”) Upon publication of the novel, Zola sent a copy to Cézanne, who responded with a short, polite reply. After that, they rarely communicated.

  Things began to turn around in 1895, when, at the age of 56, Cézanne had his first one-man show. Two years later, one of his paintings was purchased by a museum in Berlin, the first time any museum had shown that kind of interest in his work. By the time he was 60, his paintings had started selling, though for much lower prices than those fetched by Manet or Renoir. Soon he was famous, revered. Fellow artists made pilgrimages to watch him work.  

  What drove the man through all those decades of setbacks and obscurity? One biographer attributed it to his “inquiétude”—his drive, restlessness, anxiety. He just kept pushing himself to get better.

  His continual sense of dissatisfaction was evident in a letter he wrote to his son in 1906, at age 67, a month before he died: “I want to tell you that as a painter I am becoming more clairvoyant to nature, but that it is always very difficult for me to realize my feelings. I cannot reach the intensity that unfolds before my senses. I do not possess that wonderful richness of color that animates nature.” He was still at it on the day he died, still working on his paintings, still teaching himself to improve.

The year after his death, a retrospective of his work was mounted in Paris. Before long, he would be widely recognized as one of the founders of modern art: “Cézanne is the father of us all,” both Matisse and Picasso are said to have declared.

Today we live in a society structured to promote early bloomers. Our school system has sorted people by the time they are 18, using grades and SAT scores. Some of these people zoom to prestigious academic launching pads while others get left behind. Many of our most prominent models of success made it big while young—Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Taylor Swift, Michael Jordan. Magazines publish lists with headlines like “30 Under 30” to glamorize youthful superstars on the rise. Age discrimination is a fact of life. In California in 2010, for example, more people filed claims with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing for age discrimination than for racial discrimination or sexual harassment. “Young people are just smarter,” Zuckerberg once said, in possibly the dumbest statement in American history. “There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, in what might be the next dumbest.

But for many people, the talents that bloom later in life are more consequential than the ones that bloom early. A 2019 study by researchers in Denmark found that, on average, Nobel Prize winners made their crucial discoveries at the age of 44. Even brilliant people apparently need at least a couple of decades to master their field.

The average age of a U.S. patent applicant is 47. A 45-year-old is twice as likely to produce a scientific breakthrough as a 25-year-old. A study published in The American Economic Review found 45 to be the average age of an entrepreneur–and found furthermore that the likelihood that an entrepreneur’s start-up will succeed increases significantly between ages 25 and 35, with the odds of success continuing to rise well into the 50s. A tech founder who is 50 is twice as likely to start a successful company as one who is 30. A study by researchers at Northwestern University, MIT, and the U.S. Census Bureau found that the fastest-growing start-ups were founded by people whose average age was 45 when their company was launched. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation produced a study that found that the peak innovation age is the late 40s.

  Successful late bloomers are all around us. Morgan Freeman had his breakthrough roles in Street Smart and Driving Miss Daisy in his early 50s. Colonel Harland Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken in his 60s. Isak Dinesen published the book that established her literary reputation, Out of Africa, at 52. Morris Chang founded Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, the world’s leading chipmaker, at 55. If Samuel Johnson had died at 40, few would remember him, but now he is considered one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language. Copernicus came up with his theory of planetary motion in his 60s. Grandma Moses started painting at 77. Noah was around 600 when he built his ark (though Noah truthers dispute his birth certificate).

Why do some people hit their peak later than others? In his book Late Bloomers, the journalist Rich Karlgaard points out that this is really two questions: First, why didn’t these people bloom earlier? Second, what traits or skills did they possess that enabled them to bloom late? It turns out that late bloomers are not simply early bloomers on a delayed timetable—they didn’t just do the things early bloomers did but at a later age. Late bloomers tend to be qualitatively different, possessing a different set of abilities that are mostly invisible to or discouraged by our current education system. They usually have to invent their own paths. Late bloomers “fulfill their potential frequently in novel and unexpected ways,” Karlgaard writes, “surprising even those closest to them.”

[Jim VandeHei: What I wish someone had told me 30 years ago]

If you survey history, a taxonomy of achievement emerges. In the first category are the early bloomers, the precocious geniuses. These are people like Picasso or Fitzgerald who succeeded young. As the University of Chicago economist David Galenson has pointed out, these high achievers usually made a conceptual breakthrough. They came up with a new idea and then executed it. Picasso had a clear idea of Cubism, and how he was going to revolutionize art, in his mid-20s. Then he went out and painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Then there are the “second-mountain people,” exemplified by, say, Albert Schweitzer. First, they conquer their career mountain; Schweitzer, for instance, was an accomplished musician and scholar. But these people find their career success unsatisfying, so they leave their career mountain to serve humanity—their whole motivational structure shifts from acquisition to altruism. Schweitzer became a doctor in the poorest parts of Africa, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1952.

Finally, there are the people Galenson calls “the masters.” In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses, he writes about people like Cézanne or Alfred Hitchcock or Charles Darwin, who were not all that successful—and in some cases just not even very good at what they did—when they were young. This could have been discouraging, but they just kept improving.

These people don’t do as much advanced planning as the conceptual geniuses, but they regard their entire lives as experiments. They try something and learn, and then they try something else and learn more. Their focus is not on their finished work, which they often toss away haphazardly. Their focus is on the process of learning itself: Am I closer to understanding, to mastering? They live their lives as a long period of trial and error, trying this and trying that, a slow process of accumulation and elaboration, so the quality of their work peaks late in life. They are the ugly ducklings of human achievement, who, over the decades, turn themselves into swans.

Let’s look at some of the traits that tend to distinguish late bloomers from early bloomers—the qualities that cause them to lag early in life but surge ahead over the long haul.

Intrinsic motivation. Most of our schools and workplaces are built around extrinsic motivation: If you work hard, you will be rewarded with good grades, better salaries, and performance bonuses. Extrinsic-motivation systems are built on the assumption that while work is unpleasant, if you give people external incentives to perform they will respond productively.

People who submit to these extrinsic-reward systems are encouraged to develop a merit-badge mentality. They get good at complying with other people’s standards, following other people’s methods, and pursuing other people’s goals. The people who thrive in these sorts of systems are good at earning high GPAs—having the self-discipline to get A’s in all subjects, even the ones that don’t interest them. They are valuable to companies precisely because they’re good at competently completing whatever tasks are put in front of them.

  People driven by intrinsic motivation are not like that. They are bad at paying attention to what other people tell them to pay attention to. Winston Churchill was a poor student for just this reason. “Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn,” he wrote in his autobiography, My Early Life.

But such people can be great at paying attention to things that do interest them. The intrinsically motivated have a strong need for autonomy. They are driven by their own curiosity, their own obsessions—and the power of this motivation eclipses the lesser ones fired by extrinsic rewards.

Extrinsically motivated people tend to race ahead during young adulthood, when the job is to please teachers, bosses, and other older people, but then stop working as hard once that goal is met. They’re likely to take short cuts if it can get them more quickly to the goal.

Worse, as research by scholars like the psychologist Edward L. Deci has established, if you reward people extrinsically, you can end up crushing the person’s capacity for intrinsic motivation. If you pay kids to read, they might read more in the short term—but over time they’ll regard reading as unpleasant work, best avoided. A 2009 London School of Economics study that looked at 51 corporate pay-for-performance plans found that financial incentives “can have a negative impact on overall performance.”

I once asked a group of students on their final day at their prestigious university what book had changed their life over the previous four years. A long, awkward silence followed. Finally a student said, “You have to understand, we don’t read like that. We only sample enough of each book to get through class.” These students were hurrying to be good enough to get their merit badges, but not getting deep enough into any subject to be transformed. They didn’t love the process of learning itself, which is what you need if you’re going to keep educating yourself decade after decade—which, in turn, is what you need to keep advancing when the world isn’t rewarding you with impressive grades and prizes.

  Intrinsically motivated people, by contrast, are self-directed and often obsessed, burying themselves deep into some subject or task. They find learning about a subject or doing an activity to be their own reward, so they are less likely to cut corners. As Vincent van Gogh—a kind of early late bloomer, who struggled to find his way and didn’t create most of his signature works until the last two years of his life before dying at 37—wrote to his brother, “I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.”

In Drive, the writer Daniel Pink argues that extrinsic-motivation models work fine when tasks are routine, boring, and technical. But he cites a vast body of research showing that intrinsically motivated people are more productive, more persistent, and less likely to burn out. They also exhibit higher levels of well-being. Over the long run, Pink concludes, “intrinsically motivated people usually achieve more than their reward-seeking counterparts.”

Early screw-ups. Late bloomers often don’t fit into existing systems. To use William Deresiewicz’s term, they are bad at being “excellent sheep”—bad at following the conventional rules of success. Or to put it another way, they can be assholes. Buckminster Fuller was expelled from college twice, lost his job in the building business when he was 32, and later contemplated suicide so his family could live off his life insurance. But then he moved to Greenwich Village, took a teaching job at Black Mountain College, and eventually emerged as an architect, designer, futurist, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Colonel Sanders was fired for insubordination when he was a railway engineer, and then fired again for brawling with a colleague while working as a fireman. His career as a lawyer ended when he got into a fistfight with a client, and he lost his job as an insurance salesman because he was unsuited to working for other people. Then, at 62, he created the recipe for what became Kentucky Fried Chicken, began to succeed as a franchiser at 69, and sold the company for $2 million when he was 73.

  Late bloomers often have an edge to them, a willingness to battle with authority.

  “Diversive curiosity.” Our culture pushes people to specialize early: Be like Tiger Woods driving golf balls as a toddler. Concentrate on one thing and get really good, really fast—whether it is golf or physics or investing. In the academic world, specialization is rewarded: Don’t be a scholar of Europe, be a scholar of Dutch basket weaving in the 16th century.

  Yet when the journalist David Epstein looked at the lives of professional athletes, he found that most of them were less like Tiger Woods and more like Roger Federer, who played a lot of different sports when he was young. These athletes went through what researchers call a “sampling period” and only narrowed their focus to one sport later on. In his book Range, Epstein writes that people who went through a sampling period ended up enjoying greater success over the long run: “One study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earning lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fitted their skills and personalities.”

[Jessica Lahey and Tim Lahey: How middle school failures lead to medical school success]

Many late bloomers endure a brutal wandering period, as they cast about for a vocation. Julia Child made hats, worked for U.S. intelligence (where she was part of a team trying to develop an effective shark repellent), and thought about trying to become a novelist before enrolling in a French cooking school at 37. Van Gogh was an art dealer, a teacher, a bookseller, and a street preacher before taking up painting at 27. During those wandering years, he was a miserable failure. His family watched his repeated downward spirals with embarrassment.

During these early periods, late bloomers try and then quit so many jobs that the people around them might conclude that they lack resilience. But these are exactly the years when the late bloomers are developing what psychologists call “diversive curiosity”—the ability to wander into a broad range of interests in a manner that seems to have no rhyme or reason.

The benefits of this kind of curiosity might be hard to see in the short term, but they become obvious once the late bloomer begins to take advantage of their breadth of knowledge by putting discordant ideas together in new ways. When the psychologist Howard Gruber studied the diaries of Charles Darwin, he found that in the decades before he published On the Origin of Species, Darwin was “pen pals” (as David Epstein puts it) with at least 231 scientists, whose worked ranged across 13 broad streams, from economics to geology, the biology of barnacles to the sex life of birds. Darwin couldn’t have written his great masterworks if he hadn’t been able to combine these vastly different intellectual currents.

Epstein notes that many of the most successful scientists have had diverse interests, and especially in different kinds of performing: Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to spend large chunks of time as an amateur actor, musician, magician, or other type of performer than non-Nobel-winning scientists are. Epstein quotes Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the founder of modern neuroscience: “To him who observes them from afar, it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies,” Cajal wrote, speaking of these late-blooming Nobelists, “while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them.”

Late bloomers tend to have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and can bring multiple ways of thinking to bear on a single complex problem. They also have a high tolerance for inefficiency. They walk through life like a curious person browsing through a bookstore. In old age, the historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, “The amateur spirit has guided my thinking and writing.” He had wandered from subject to subject throughout his life, playing around.

The ability to self-teach. Late bloomers don’t find their calling until they are too old for traditional education systems. So they have to teach themselves. Successful autodidacts start with what psychologists call a “high need for cognition”—in other words, they like to think a lot. In his book Curious, Ian Leslie presents a series of statements that, when answered in the affirmative, indicate a high need for cognition: “I would prefer complex to simple problems”; “I prefer my life be filled with puzzles that I can’t solve”; “I find satisfaction in deliberating hard and for long hours.”

  Leonardo da Vinci is the poster child for high-cognition needs. Consider his famous lists of self-assigned research projects: “Ask the master of arithmetic how to square a triangle … examine a crossbow … ask about the measurement of the sun … draw Milan.” Benjamin Franklin was similar. After he was appointed U.S. ambassador to France, he could have relaxed on his transatlantic voyages between home and work. Instead, he turned them into scientific expeditions, measuring the temperature of the water as he went, which allowed him to discover and chart the Gulf Stream.

Successful late bloomers combine this high need for cognition with a seemingly contradictory trait: epistemic humility. They are aggressive about wanting to acquire knowledge and learn—but they are also modest, possessing an accurate sense of how much they don’t know.

This mentality combines high self-belief (I can figure this out on my own; I know my standards are right and the world’s standards are wrong) with high self-doubt (There’s a lot I don’t know, and I am falling short in many ways).  

The combination of a high need for cognition and epistemic humility is a recipe for lifelong learning. Late bloomers learn more slowly but also more deeply precisely because they’re exploring on their own. The benefits of acquiring this self-taught knowledge compound over time. The more you know about a subject, the faster you can learn. A chess grandmaster with thousands of past matches stored in their head will see a new strategy much faster than a chess beginner. Knowledge begets knowledge. Researchers call this “the Matthew effect”: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance.” Pretty soon, the late bloomer is taking off.

  The ability to finally commit. Of course, late bloomers can’t just wander forever. At some point they must grab onto some challenge that engages their powerful intrinsic drive. They have to commit. Ray Kroc endured a classic wandering period. He got a job selling ribbons. He played piano in a bordello. He read the ticker tape at the Chicago stock exchange. He sold paper cups and then milkshake mixers. In that latter job he noticed that one restaurant was ordering a tremendous number of milkshake machines. Curious, he drove halfway across the country to see it, and found a fast-food restaurant that was more efficiently churning out meals than any he had ever encountered. “There was something almost religious about Kroc’s inspirational moment when he discovered McDonald’s,” Henry Oliver writes in his forthcoming book, Second Act. Kroc just cared about hamburgers and fries (and milkshakes) more than most people. He bought the restaurant, and brought to it his own form of genius, which was the ability to franchise it on a massive scale.

The mind of the explorer. By middle age, many late bloomers have achieved lift-off and are getting to enjoy the pleasures of concentrated effort. They are absorbed, fascinated. But since they are freer from ties and associations than the early achiever, late bloomers can also change their mind and update their models without worrying about betraying any professional norms.

We have a notion that the happiest people are those who have aimed their life toward some goal and then attained it, like winning a championship trophy or achieving renown. But the best moments of life can be found within the lifelong learning or quest itself. It’s doing something so fulfilling that the work is its own reward. “Effort is the one thing that gives meaning to life,” the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck once wrote. “Effort means you care about something.”

“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life,” the sculptor Henry Moore once told the poet Donald Hall. “And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.”

Crankiness in old age. So far, I’ve been describing late bloomers as if they were all openhearted curiosity and wonder. But remember that many of them have been butting against established institutions their whole lives—and they’ve naturally developed oppositional, chip-on-the-shoulder, even angry mindsets.

In his essay “The Artist Grows Old,” the great art critic Sir Kenneth Clark wrote about painters—like Titian, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Cézanne—who produced their best work at the end of their lives, sometimes in their 80s or even 90s. He noticed that while these older artists painted with passion, this passion was inflected with what he called “transcendental pessimism.” The artists who peak late, he found, “take a very poor view of human life.” They are energized by a holy rage. The British artist William Turner felt so hopeless late in life that he barely spoke. “Old artists are solitary,” Clark writes. “Like all old people they are bored and irritated by the company of their fellow bipeds and yet find their isolation depressing. They are also suspicious of interference.”

The angry old artists fight back with their brushes. They retreat from realism. Their handling of paint grows freer. “Cézanne, who in middle life painted with the delicacy of a watercolorist, and was almost afraid, as he said, to sully the whiteness of a canvas, ended by attacking it with heavy and passionate strokes,” Clark writes. “The increased vitality of an aged hand is hard to explain.”

Younger painters, like younger workers in any field, are trying to learn the language of the craft. Older painters, like older expert practitioners in other fields, have mastered the language and are willing to bend it. Older painters feel free to jettison the rules that stifle their prophetic voice. They can express what they need to more purely.

Clark’s analysis is insightful, but I think he may be overgeneralizing. His theory applies to an angry, pessimistic painting like Michelangelo’s late work The Crucifixion of St. Peter, a painting of an old man raging against the inhumanity of the world. But Clark’s theory doesn’t really apply to, say, Rembrandt’s late work The Return of the Prodigal Son. By the time he painted it, Rembrandt was old, broke, and out of fashion; his wife and many of his children had preceded him to the grave. But Prodigal Son is infused with a spirit of holy forgiveness. It shows a father offering infinite love to a wayward, emaciated, and grateful son. It couldn’t be gentler.

Wisdom. After a lifetime of experimentation, some late bloomers transcend their craft or career and achieve a kind of comprehensive wisdom.

Wisdom is a complicated trait. It starts with pattern recognition—using experience to understand what is really going on. The neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg provides a classic expression of this ability in his book The Wisdom Paradox. “Frequently when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary,” he writes. “The solution comes effortlessly, seamlessly, seemingly by itself. What I have lost with age in my capacity for hard mental work, I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight.”

But the trait we call wisdom is more than just pattern recognition; it’s the ability to see things from multiple points of view, the ability to aggregate perspectives and rest in the tensions between them. When he was in his 60s, Cézanne built a study in Provence and painted a series of paintings of a single mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire, which are now often considered his greatest works. He painted the mountain at different times of day, in different sorts of light. He wasn’t so much painting the mountain as painting time. He was also painting perception itself, its continual flow, its uncertainties and evolutions. “I progress very slowly,” he wrote to the painter Émile Bernard, “for nature reveals herself to me in complex ways; and the progress needed is endless.”

“Old men ought to be explorers,” T. S. Eliot wrote in East Coker. “Here and there does not matter / We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.” For some late bloomers, the exploration never ends. They have a certain distinct way of being in the world, but they express that way of being at greater and greater levels of complexity as they age.

Wisdom is an intellectual trait—the ability to see reality as it really is. But it is also a moral trait; we wouldn’t call a self-centered person wise. It is also a spiritual trait; the wise person possesses a certain tranquility, the ability to stay calm when others are overwhelmed with negative emotions.

[Arthur C. Brooks: How to succeed at failure]

When I was young I was mentored by William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman, both at that time approaching the end of their careers. Both men had changed history. Buckley created the modern conservative movement that led to the election of Ronald Reagan. Friedman changed economics and won the Nobel Prize. I had a chance to ask each of them, separately, if they ever felt completion, if they ever had a sense that they’d done their work and now they had crossed the finish line and could relax. Neither man even understood my question. They were never at rest, pushing for what they saw as a better society all the days of their lives.

My friend Tim Keller, the late pastor, was in some ways not a classic late bloomer—his talents were already evident when he was a young man. But those talents weren’t afforded much public scope at the church in rural Virginia where his calling had taken him.

Tim didn’t feel qualified to publish his first major book until he was 58. Over the next 10 years he published nearly three dozen more, harvesting the wisdom he’d been gathering all along. His books have sold more than 25 million copies. During this same time, he founded Redeemer, the most influential church in New York and maybe America.

When Tim got pancreatic cancer at the age of 70, he was still in the prime of his late-blooming life. Under the shadow of death, as he wrote in The Atlantic, his spiritual awareness grew deeper. He experienced more sadness and also more joy. But what I will always remember about those final years is how much more eager Tim was to talk about the state of the world than about the state of his own health. He had more to give, and he worked feverishly until the end. He left behind an agenda for how to repair the American church—a specific action plan for how to mend the Christian presence in our torn land.

I’ve noticed this pattern again and again: Slow at the start, late bloomers are still sprinting during that final lap—they do not slow down as age brings its decay. They are seeking. They are striving. They are in it with all their heart.


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