In Praise of the Late Bloomer

“What a late bloomer really is, is somebody who blossoms on their own schedule.”                              Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard

Let’s face it. We are enamored with youth. Portrait of senior designer at work, looking at camera, surroundWe’re enamored with its vibrancy, glow and seemingly endless mantle of possibility. It’s easy to understand why. Humans instinctively shy away from anything that reminds them of their own mortality; the slow decline in strength and speed, the fear of encroaching memory loss, the aching sense that the productive period of one’s life is coming to a close.

Which is why we view youth through such a hazy lens. But I remember something else from those years, a sense of having all the time in the world but none of it to waste. I remember feeling that if I didn’t make a big success of myself by (fill in the age), then I was headed toward a rather dull, limited and ultimately regret-filled future. Seems that I was an early trend-setter.

Back in 2011, British researcher Dr. Oliver Robinson, along with researchers from Birkbeck College, found that 86% of participants in a survey of 1,100 British young adults under 30 were feeling pressure to succeed across key areas of life: career, relationship and money. They were in the midst of the quarter-life crisis, dismissed as a “mini” mid-life crisis that is in actuality a full blown period of worry, doubt and fear, common among highly educated young people. The self-fed expectation that one needs to hit the mark in so many aspects of life – and hit it early – creates potentially paralyzing consequences for one’s future. Worry too much about not doing well today and you could wind up making narrow near-term decisions that impact your ability to explore what you want and what you can contribute over the long marathon of a career.

Today, such bi-polar hunger for carefree existence and paranoia about the fragile, do-or-die nature of youth is much more prevalent. College grads unlucky enough to enter the work world since the Great Recession seem old before their time; ever searching for the next extension of young adulthood while carrying a burden that their lives cannot possibly match the success of the generations who came before. It’s a horrible, crippling burden to carry and one that their elders, people like me, should help alleviate. How? Through a combination of perspective, compassionate listening and advice, and a re-framing of expectation that is realistic as opposed to crushing.

It is because of our obsession with youthful achievement that the late bloomer seems to be both an odd and attractive duck. CBS Sunday Morning recently profiled the “Late Bloomer” on its program. The unofficial theme of the segment was “Don’t Count Out the Older ‘Newbie’” when thinking about the possibility of success. The segment profiled well-known late bloomers such as Julia Child, Colonel Sanders and Grandma Moses, along with more current examples like Frank McCourt and Martha Stewart. What makes these achievers stand out has less to do with their actual age and more to do with their willingness to face down social ideas about what is age-appropriate. Even today, in the midst of the aging of the Baby Boom generation, there exists the social stigma about age and adventure. Many people don’t associate attending college, starting on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder or venturing into an entirely new line of work with anyone over a certain age. It’s often the stigma, and not the potential of the person, that determines whether or not one is comfortable trying something entirely new. Ageism is very much alive in our world.

Yet sometimes the most productive and fulfilling period of life is the one where the expectations are open and concern about failure is low. A period where effort itself is joyous and the outcome of such effort is simply a natural extension. It’s freeing to combine experience, wisdom and confidence; commodities that youth logically does not possess in equal measure. It’s also freeing not to be concerned about hitting the mark by a certain age, since age in many ways it taken out of the equation. As Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes, observes, the late bloomer is “somebody who blossoms on their own schedule.”

Which makes the connection between the quarter-life crisis and the late re-birth so compelling. Taken together, the youthful worrier and the older renegade could be very good for each other, each providing support and tools for the other. Small businesses, entrepreneurships and global corporations can facilitate these types of formal combinations by intentionally teaming professionals up based on skills, experience and, yes, age difference. And they can be open to accepting “newbies” of any age rather than unconsciously biasing toward the young newbie.

As for the professionals in these combinations, here are a few mindset guidelines to increase the benefit of working together:

  • Check ageism at the door
  • Same with a need to best or compete with each other
  • Don’t expect too much, or too little
  • Realize that you are both learning, regardless of role or work

The burden of youthful success and the reluctance of later life adventure stem from the same source: the expectation of when and how achievement and expression should take place. How old-school. Instead, why not imagine pushing back on the concept of time and age hard enough to allow for full contribution to a goal, a strategy, a project or a passion. Imagine re-defining what success looks like, regardless of age.


























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