Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker, “Late Bloomers,” is one of my most favorite reads in recent past, as it brings to light something that our society doesn’t seem to recognize, give value to or completely understand – those who flourish later in life. I read it fervently and then have re-read it many times since. It resonated with me, because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how we live in a culture with expectations around life markers – what you should achieve and when you should achieve it. You graduate high school to go to college and/or get a job, start your career, get married, have some kids and continue to climb up your career ladder while you invest in your retirement and perhaps a home. While this can be a lovely life for many, it doesn’t work for all. Some people take time to figure out the path that works for them and chose non-traditional ways to explore it. Yet our system is not set up in a way to foster and support people who chose to explore and develop their talents over time. Instead they are often left feeling like a square peg in a round hole, not given the space or time to figure out their passion, talents and greater place within this crazy space we all call home.
Gladwell’s article features the author Ben Fountain, who left his career as a lawyer to pursue his interest in being a writer. Usually when you read stories or interviews with people who quit a job to pursue a passion, it is to tell you how quickly they then rose to fame and fortune. Yet, “Late Bloomers” focuses on those who encounter real-life struggles after their decision to follow a desired path, and therefore it sits as a much more relatable and realistic read for me. I was hooked after I learned that it took Mr. Fountain 18 years from the day he left his job as a lawyer till he got his first big writing breakthrough when he “took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.” The rejections along the way were what ultimately allowed him to meet his late-blooming success.
As an educator Gladwell’s point that “Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents,” has left me thinking a lot about our formal education settings, the expectations that are placed on us in our youth and the effect that this has on us as adults. In the United States, students are led to believe that success = getting an “A” or a certain score on a test. Everything within our classrooms is set up for this type of learning and since this is how we judge our students that is exactly what type of adults we are producing as well. We do not provide the space for students to try, fail and try again. There is no time for students to do things over and over again because of the pressure to move onto the next lesson in order to fulfill the next standard on a long list of standards. In the hurry to do all of this, what other skills, traits, gifts and talents are we overlooking and not enriching? How is this then affecting how we learn and grow once we are adults?
The economist, David Galenson, is quoted as writing in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” “Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.” I felt my head nodding while I read this line and could think of many people who exemplify this definition of experimental artists. People who live their early lives feeling nothing but frustration, as there isn’t a crystal ball on the desk letting them know, “No worries. This will all make sense in 18 years.” I can’t help but feel, though, that Galenson’s work helps to validate late bloomers’ process and journey, and some of that frustration might dissipate, hopefully leaving more room for creating and experimenting.
Yet, what do you do in the meantime? A girl has bills after all! How do you realistically take the chance of following your interest, while at the same time support yourself? It’s always easier said then done, but…you ask for help: “But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level…This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others.” This is something that I struggle with a lot – especially as an independent, single woman. I feel that if I have to ask for help, then it somehow degrades the decision and the process. Yet Gladwell’s point has allowed me to start seeing it a little differently – more as a means-to-an-end instead of a crutch.
So what are your thoughts? Are you a late bloomer? Does Gladwell’s article leave you thinking a little more about something that might have been squashed early on in your life because you were never given the time or space to build this skill? If you were going to quit your job tomorrow, a al Ben Fountain – what would you do?
Image via The New Yorker