Make room for Late Bloomers

10 June, 2019

In a world obsessed with early achievement, don’t overlook the value of taking the scenic route to success

Early achievement has become a hallmark of today’s culture. From acing university admissions, to snagging the “perfect” first job, to innovating and disrupting industries while still in your twenties – early success is constantly celebrated and expected, even demanded. While it’s wonderful to recognise and encourage those whose talents flower early, could this excessive promotion of early achievement have a dark side? Absolutely, argues Rich Karlgaard in his insightful book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement.

So, this week, my message focuses on late bloomers, i.e., those who reach their peak later than expected by present-day culture. What are the drawbacks of overvaluing early success? What are the unique strengths of potential late bloomers? And how can you kick-start your journey towards late-stage success?

Karlgaard identifies the negative impact of our culture’s obsession with early achievement on two groups of people. First, the youngsters who face a huge amount of pressure from family, community and media to succeed quickly and definitively. Starting as early as preschool, children are relentlessly evaluated, pressurised and held up to an unrealistic standard of achievement. Is it really any surprise that young people today face more mental health issues than ever before?

Succeeding early doesn’t inoculate you from stress and anxiety – in fact, it may make things worse. Think of the school topper who is so used to winning that even a single bad grade sends him spiralling, or the high-performing young executive who is unable to bounce back from a failed project.

Success can also be addictive when it comes early, a prize that has to be kept at all costs. Karlgaard gives the example of Jonah Lehrer, a whiz kid who majored in neuroscience at Columbia, won a Rhodes scholarship, studied philosophy at Oxford, published three acclaimed books and was giving US$ 40,000 speeches by the time he was 30. Then, it all came crashing down. It was discovered that Lehrer had fabricated quotes for his bestselling book and plagiarised the work of other writers. He was fired from The New Yorker and National Public Radio, his books were recalled, and his “comeback” was brutally criticised. In Karlgaard’s words:

There’s no joy in cataloging Lehrer’s missteps. I don’t believe he’s a bad person who tried to dupe agents, publishers, editors and the public. I see him as a victim of today’s social pressures and expectations…. Most of all, I see him as an embodiment of a line from novelist Walker Percy…“You can get all As and still flunk life.”

Late bloomers are those who fulfil their potential further down the line than expected, often in surprising and novel ways. Sadly, through today’s cultural lens, those who don’t succeed instantly are seen as flawed.

The second group of people who are placed at a huge disadvantage are the late bloomers. Karlgaard notes that people have always come into their own and excelled at different ages and stages of life. Late bloomers are those who fulfil their potential further down the line than expected, often in surprising and novel ways. Scott Kelly, a below-average student who was bored throughout high school, went on to become a record-breaking astronaut, spending over 500 days in space. Morgan Freeman got his big break in Hollywood at the age of 52 after spending decades in small theatre productions, and Dave Duffield was 66 when he founded his tech firm, PeopleSoft.

Sadly, through today’s cultural lens, those who don’t succeed instantly are seen as flawed. As Karlgaard explains:

If we or our kids don’t knock our SATs out of the park, gain admittance to a top-ten university, reinvent an industry or land our first job at a cool company that’s changing the world, we’ve somehow failed and are destined to be also-rans for the rest of our lives…. Being seen as a potential late bloomer was once a mark of vitality, patience, and pluck. Nowadays, more and more, it is seen as a defect (there must be a reason you started slowly, after all) and a consolation prize. This is an awful trend since it diminishes the very things that make us human – our experiences, our resilience, and our lifelong capacity to grow.

Late blooming strengths

Research shows that the human brain continues to rewire and refine itself throughout life, and can peak at various times. Thanks to their wide portfolio of experiences, late bloomers bring some very specific strengths to the table, as highlighted in the book:

1. Curiosity

Late bloomers generally retain a childlike curiosity into adulthood, at which point they receive the additional advantage of a mature executive function – the ability to plan ahead, anticipate problems, think rationally and control emotions. Hence, late bloomers are better able to convert curiosity into innovation.

2. Compassion

The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand how to help them develops as the years go by. Late bloomers have a deeper appreciation of others’ challenges and can handle difficult feelings, making them more suited to work with and lead people.

3. Resilience

Early bloomers tend to be self-centred, crediting themselves almost entirely for their success. Hence, when they fail, they either turn to vehement self-criticism, or blame everyone else. Late bloomers, on the other hand, develop the ability to bounce back from adversity through practice. Resilience is a skill that has to be earned.

4. Equanimity

This word means “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation”. As we grow older, our brains seek calmness rather than hectic activity. Calm leaders inspire confidence, especially in turbulent times, while mental composure makes us better problem-solvers and listeners.

5. Insight

Late bloomers can draw on a rich mental library of experiences and patterns to come up with novel perceptions. Even better, the mature brain is a smarter judge of which ideas are actually useful. Hence, more perceptions can be converted into useful insights.

6. Wisdom

The Berlin Wisdom Project defined wisdom as “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life”. This asset, which accrues over years of ups and downs, allows you to better navigate social interactions – from discerning someone’s true intentions, to moderating your own reactions. It also enables sharper decision-making, stronger coping mechanisms and the ability to interpret patterns more accurately and rapidly. 

Challenges and suggestions

While your family, friends and community are beneficial in many ways, they can also hold you back. Peer pressure doesn’t end when you become an adult; it continues to govern your choices subtly, from the jokes you tell, to the clothes you wear, to the job you have. If you’re a potential late bloomer who wants to do something different and ambitious, people around you may be discouraging, saying things like “That doesn’t really sound like you” or “I just don’t want you to get hurt”. As we internalise these messages, we lose our self-belief and confidence – which are key ingredients for blooming. Moreover, traditional and social media overwhelmingly say that there’s only one right way to grow, achieve and succeed, i.e. early. This kind of normative thinking can make you feel inadequate and out of place.

So, how can potential late bloomers overcome these challenges?How can you take charge of your own story and propel yourself towards success? Here are two great recommendations from Karlgaard:

1. Learn to quit

There is immense value in quitting – be it a project that you hate, a career path that doesn’t make sense any longer, or a relationship that’s become toxic. While quitting is almost always labelled as a weakness and a mistake by society, there are times when it’s the wisest decision. By saying “no” to something that isn’t working for you, you create the space to say “yes” to something that truly excites you. As Karlgaard explains:

Applying single-minded resolve to something that you don’t really believe in actually makes you less effective. Tenacity misapplied erodes our ability to summon willpower or persistence when we actually need it.

This is because willpower isn’t a never-ending resource – it’s finite. So, save your resolve for a genuine passion or a new pathway, instead of exhausting it on other people’s goals or activities that have outlived their usefulness.

This goes for companies, too, by the way. Karlgaard gives the example of Intel, whose bread and butter was memory chips through the 1970s. But as new companies entered the market, Intel faced a severe financial crisis. Finally, they decided to leave the memory chip business and move on to microprocessors. In order to do so, they had to get over the idea that quitting was the same as “losing” and reframe it as the smartest move for the future.

2. Manage self-doubt

Influenced by external pressure, most late bloomers undervalue their own skills and contributions. Some turn to self-sabotage as a way of dealing with self-doubt, i.e. creating an obstacle that keeps them from meeting their goal. Procrastination and perfectionism are common forms of self-handicapping. Others fall back on negative stereotypes created by people in their lives. For example, “you’re just not good with numbers” or “you’ll never succeed in a job that’s about people”. Fortunately, as Karlgaard shows, self-doubt can be turned into an asset: 

When properly managed, it is a source of information and motivation. As a result, it can help combat complacency and improve our preparation and performance. It drives us to question results, experiment with new strategies and be open to alternate ways to solve problems….

To manage self-doubt, we need to acknowledge it and train ourselves to reframe it in a healthier way. One excellent tool is self-talk. Time and again, science has proved the powerful effects of positive self-talk, which increases self-belief and confidence. It also offers objectivity, which can help you overcome restrictive cultural messaging. So, talk to yourself honestly and compassionately, and give yourself feedback from a distance – like you would with a close friend. Researchers have found that speaking to yourself as another person (i.e. using your own name or saying “you”) is extremely effective.


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