How to Be a Late Bloomer

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Late bloomers are underrated.

It’s not just the condescending phrase —  the whispered implication that they should have bloomed earlier. And it’s not the fact that our culture tends to sprinkle the young with the fairy dust of infinite possibility, while treating late bloomers with the grim surprise we give when spotting an escaped farm animal roaming city streets – what are YOU doing here?

No, the real reason they are underrated is that these kinds of second-act successes are more common and possible than we might think.  So in the interest of germinating blooms in our own lives, here are a few random ideas.

1. Be Willing to Be Stupid Early On

We know about Julia Child taking her first cooking class in her mid-thirties, Shinichi Suzuki opening his legendary music school at 46 , late-arriving authors like Frank McCourt and Norman Maclean, and of course the official godmother of late bloomers, Grandma Moses, who learned to paint in her seventies.

What’s not mentioned in those stories is how the rest of the world — often including their closest friends — regarded their venture as borderline insane. To persist in the face of this sentiment is not an easy thing to do, and requires a particular combination of muleheadedness and dreaminess.

Muleheadedness also comes in handy during practice, because it takes an older brain more repeats to learn something. On the other hand, older brains tend to be good at remembering what they’ve learned.

I like the way Abraham Lincoln put it: “I am slow to learn and slow to forget what I’ve learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.”

2. Play to Your Strong Suits

Young people are good at learning certain kinds of skills — okay, lots of skills. But older brains actually work better as they get older in many softer integrative tasks, especially those requiring discernment and reasoning.

Cheerful fact: People aged 40-65 score more highly than younger people on four of six major mental capacities, including the most vital: inductive reasoning. So while teens make good figure skaters and violinists, there’s a good reason we don’t choose many 19-year-olds as CEOs, teachers, or leaders. So pick something that plays to your increasing neural strengths — soft skills rather than hard ones. For more on this, check out Barbara Stauch’s wonderful and useful new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.

3. Use Your Freedom to Screw Up

Let’s take a moment to feel sorry for super-talented young people, because their lives too often resemble a fast-narrowing corridor of endless practice routines, early pressure, and the kind of devilish bargaining that led a violinist Yeou-Cheng Ma (sister of Yo-Yo Ma) to produce the saddest quote I’ve ever heard: “I traded my childhood for my good left hand.” Their skill comes to defines their identity and thus their possibilities — and creates a mindset where they are often afraid to take risks.

Late bloomers, on the other hand, get to develop their own identities and, equally important, screw up. If something doesn’t work out, they have other skills to fall back on — particularly emotional skills. And when it comes to building their talent, they’ve got the most important asset: the freedom to experiment, to make mistakes and fix them.

For a good lesson on doing this, check out this Julia Child clip (interspersed with Meryl Streep’s re-enactment from a recent movie). Child takes a risk, screws up royally, and it comes off as a triumph of late-bloomer resilience.


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7 Responses to “How to Be a Late Bloomer”

  1. Parklane says:

    I try to check this site, every now and then,having read the talent code, which i’m studying now in order to put the concepts in perspective.
    The problem is that most high aspiring but plagued with the guilt of underachievement adults try to live their dreams in their children and as such depriving the kids the opportunities for them to really develop as normal human beings i.e. tiger Woods, andre agassi and the price is the joy of growing up and also lack of Emotional intelligence more often than not.

  2. Eric says:

    I think this is a wonderful article, and website. In our media there is so much emphasis and preference for those that are young-that saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is so ingrained that it is believed and internalized.

    One thing that this site hits over and over is that it is more about the individual’s perception and attitude more than anything else. It can be challening to fly in the face of public opinion, but nothing worth having is ever easy.

  3. Terry says:

    Yep, Julia’s teaching more than how to cook, she’s teaching a pre-requisite skill: how to learn to cook.

  4. Brian says:

    I agree. Such relevant and intelligent articles. I thought of older workers facing learning a new job or even field because of the economy.

    I believe Mr. Coyle has a certain gift for hope.

  5. Dale Kirby says:

    Your Mind at Middle Age: A Review of The Grown-Up Brain – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education
    http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Your-Mind-at-Middle-Age-A/26380/

    Developmentally, it turns out that, while we might not be growing tons of new neurons as we age, our brains do gain more myelin, the fatty substance that facilitates connections between neurons, for many decades

  6. I appreciate your posts immensely, probably because I’m a late-bloomer. I was the shy, smart kid in school. I had many friends but wasn’t bold enough to start anything new or even create. I was in what I’d call my observational stage of life. I was observing the early bloomers and probably learning some good lessons on what not to do.
    My how that changed once I reached my 40′s. I’ve hooked up with other late bloomers and we have the better half of our lives to do big things!

    Be Well,
    Michelle

    P.S. Doctors and teachers have tossed around that “late bloomer” phrase with our daughters. I have no problem with that.

  7. Joy says:

    Beautifully worded article – and so true.

    I’m in my 40′s and I’m a late bloomer,I have been since I was born. I know that sounds a little unusual but I’ve always been out of stride with the masses. I see that now in my forties.

    I’m bolder now more than ever and it is rather handy that with a bit of age has also come some wisdom. Magic is created when you place the two together.

    I generally choose the second or third most popular way of being in this world and therefore have the rare privilege of peacefully observing the world from several perspectives including the ‘lets all be sheep and run off a cliff together cos there’s safety in numbers’ version which I accept as one type of truth and sometimes, if following the flock from time to time serves a wise purpose I’ll do that too but not often – having alternatives that I am quite comfortable with is great rather than just fixed thinking.

    I’ve had a total career change in my 40′s and I’m loving it. Life for me feels like it’s just beginning

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