How These Late-in-Life Geniuses Bloomed at Last
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the road to excellence has a less conspicuous, but no less significant, slow lane.
By Sean Braswell
Part of a weeklong series on aging boomers, or what we like to call the golden oldies.
Robert Frost had aspired to be a poet since he was a teenager. But the American literary icon would not publish his first book of poetry until he was 39, and his best and most anthologized works would not follow until he was well into middle and old age. “Young people have insight. They have a flash here and a flash there. It is like the stars coming out in the early evening,” he reflected at age 63, but “[i]t is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations.”
Frost’s lengthy journey to prominence, and even genius, during the “dark of life,” however, is far from the road less taken. Despite science, society and Silicon Valley’s common belief that creativity, innovation and excellence are the near-exclusive province of the young, a surprising number of late bloomers dot the annals of human history — women and men who endured years of hardship, failure and missed opportunities, or who toiled in obscurity for decades before making an impact in the later stages of life. And once you move past the dazzling glare of history’s Mozart-like geniuses, you find that late bloomers are quite abundant; in fact, there are many more roads to becoming an old master than a young prodigy.
The lives of late bloomers remind us of what is possible.
Sometimes you don’t discover your passion in life until you’ve done some other things first. “I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate,” Julia Child once observed. The legendary chef, who spent years working in public relations, advertising and government intelligence, fell in love with French cuisine at her very first meal in France after World War II. Soon after, she enrolled in cooking school and began logging her proverbial 10,000 hours, emerging around the age of 50 to publish her first cookbook and host her first television show.
Sometimes you don’t get the opportunity to make the most of your experiences until relatively late in life. Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, didn’t start building his business empire until he was 53 years old. Until that point, the former Red Cross ambulance driver was a traveling salesman, peddling milk shake machines and paper cups. “I was an overnight success all right,” Kroc wrote in his autobiography, “but 30 years is a long, long night.” Another iconic American entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker, worked as a laundress and saleswoman before launching a hugely successful business in her late 30s, selling hair and beauty products for African-American women and amassing her entire fortune in the decade before her death at age 51.
Sometimes, instead of opportunities, life places obstacles on the road to success. It wasn’t until Laura Ingalls Wilder turned 65 that the first installment of her epic Little House on the Prairie series was published. By then, she had already devoted decades to being a farmwife and mother, schoolteacher, loan officer and newspaper columnist, and she had endured more than her fair share of hardship, from droughts to house fires. Anna Mary Robertson, better known as the iconic artist Grandma Moses, had also been a farmwife with numerous children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren before picking up a paintbrush at age 78 when her arthritic fingers could no longer sew. Another influential writer, Miguel de Cervantes, wrote Don Quixote in his late 50s after an eventful life in which he spent years behind bars and as a captive of Barbary pirates.
For many late bloomers like Robert Frost, innovation follows considerable trial and error, the culmination of decades of experimentation and experience. The English naturalist Charles Darwin embarked on his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle in his early 20s but spent decades gathering evidence to support his theory of natural selection. Similarly, Paul Cézanne, arguably the most influential artist of the late 19th century, spent most of his early life struggling with his craft, even abandoning painting for a banking career at one point, before finally finding his groove and earning his first one-man exhibition at age 56. Such examples, University of Chicago economist David Galenson tells OZY, demonstrate “a radically different kind of creativity with a completely different kind of life cycle.”
Galenson, who has studied the lives of numerous artists, scientists and other innovators, argues that there are broadly two types of innovators: conceptual ones, like Mozart or Picasso, who make their biggest contributions early in life — and who typically get the lion’s share of the world’s attention — and the less appreciated experimental innovators, the late bloomers whose contributions come after decades of toil. “The conceptualists are theorists,” Galenson explains, “the experimentalists are empiricists — they improve over time, they accumulate evidence, they are incremental, inductive and cautious.”
The list of late bloomers goes on and on, from Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain to Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Gehry. And unlike the youthful genius, whose rocket-fast rise simultaneously impresses and demoralizes the rest of us, the tenacious, late-blooming experimentalist reminds us of what is possible as we pursue our own versions of full bloom.