How to Be a Late Bloomer

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.