One day soon I am going to die. Don’t panic, the cancer isn’t back. I’m quite healthy. But I am thirty-five. That’s half my three scores years and ten. Of course, my life expectancy is higher than that, probably my quality of life expectancy too. But with a little bad luck, I am already midway on the wave. If you scoff at the idea that thirty-five is early middle age, you might have a surprise waiting for you when the time comes. “Everybody goes out as though he had just come in”, said Montaigne. The best way not to get caught out by your death is to act like it’s closer than you think it is.
Our time is not guaranteed to be well spent. How many people are lost to weariness, laziness, mental decline, exhaustion, redundancy? I have seen too many colleagues dropped by the office because they were no longer seen as being fresh enough, and too many lives not lived as they could have been. One of my grandmothers was a widow for forty years. The other outlived two of her children. “Sometimes it is the body which is the first to surrender to old age,” says Montaigne, “sometimes the soul.”
Every year, we delay some part of living. As we get older, each year is a bigger part of what we have left. But we don’t value our years differently enough. People plod through jobs and lives they do not want. Do they not know what fraction of themselves they are letting go? Is it as simple as not being able to think of an alternative?
How long will you reassure yourself with the statistics? Most people who think thirty-five is still young aren’t so informed about life expectancy that they know what the odds of dying at sixty actually are, nor do they seem to take any sort of insurance against it. Their faith in not being middle-aged is a little too solid to be credible.
There is a powerful halting quality to the stories of mothers with cancer or young men who drop dead of heart failure in the gym. The odds of it being us are low, but not zero. Aeschylus was killed by a falling tortoise shell. I can’t imagine there are useful statistics on the odds of that happening. Did you know, by the way, life expectancy had stagnated for some years before covid?
This isn’t a philosophy of misery, it’s a call for action. We must live while we can. You do not have to die for your life to diminish. JFDI, as I would say in another context. YOLO.
All of which is to say, I quit my job on my thirty-fifth birthday and am writing a book about late bloomers. This is being generously funded by Tyler Cowen and the Mercatus Centre through the Emergent Ventures scheme. It’s a life-changing opportunity.
A dozen years ago or more, I saw an article in the paper about a High Court judge who was retiring to start a PhD in theology at Oxford. I can never find that article in newspaper archives, but it stayed with me. I can see it in my mind. Several years later, I read James-Lees Milne’s Diaries; this passage fixed itself in my memory.
I am a late developer more than most men of my generation and in some respects still quite adolescent, an opsimath indeed.
Opsimath is a mesmerising word — and an even more captivating idea.1 Then, listening to Tyler Cowen’s interview with Tim Ferris, a phrase struck me: “People who have not yet succeeded but maybe they will.”
I was reminded of Leonard Bernstein's father who didn't want his son to study music and who later said, “How did I know that he would become Leonard Bernstein?” Immediately, also, I thought of the genius Penelope Fitzgerald, who has a claim to be the most underrated novelist of the twentieth century. She started writing fiction aged sixty.
So I suggested the Fitzgerald Rule as a way of modelling “people who have not yet succeeded but maybe they will.” The rule, based on Fitzgerald’s life, is simple. You spot talent by looking at what people persist at, not what persistently happens to them.
No-one expected greatness from Penelope. Her life was a mess, her houseboat sank, her husband was a drunk and a dropout. They were homeless at one point. Hermione Lee has a snippet from some family friends, talking about when the boat sank, who said that was exactly the sort of thing they expected of the Fitzgeralds. They were looking at the wrong thing.
Instead, what matters most in Fitzgerald’s life is her quiet persistence. Her novels are based on the tumult of her life, but also on her wide-ranging immersion in great European art. She travelled, read, learnt and practised the languages of the major historical cultures. She sat in the rafters at the opera and theatre, taking her own sandwiches. And she taught.
Without all that, she would not have written the strange, unique novels she did. Unlike almost everyone else who writes about Fitzgerald, I don’t entirely “blame” her husband and the chaos he caused for her late start. I think it was partly innate. Some people flourish later. Fitzgerald was, for all the turbulence of her life, self-directed, self-educating, deeply curious, and, in a non-obvious, broad-minded way, ambitious. She was also pragmatic.
These are qualities that recur again and again in late bloomers, people like Margaret Thatcher, who was 50-1 against at the bookies in the run up to the Conservative Party leadership election, or Audrey Sutherland, who looked at herself in the mirror one day and realised if she didn’t quit work and become an explorer now she never would. She was sixty.
Once you start looking, these people are everywhere. Siphiwe Baleka nearly became an Olympic swimmer aged fifty. He was denied the chance because of a technicality. Rani Hamid started playing chess aged thirty-four and became Bangladesh’s first International Woman Master. Frank Lloyd Wright did more than half his life’s work after the age of sixty-eight. Barry Diller didn’t work independently for the first thirty years of his career: then he took over QVC and became a phenomenal success. The philosopher Mary Midgley wrote her first book aged fifty-nine, saying, “"I didn't know what I thought until then."
I was going to write my MA dissertation on late bloomers, but I got sidetracked into a project about Elizabeth Jenkins, a novelist and biographer of distinction who is now all but forgotten. She is a prime example of a late bloomer whose career changed course because of an interruption, in her case an affair that left her devastated and inspired her to write a vicious, subtle novel The Tortoise and the Hare. Without that change, she would probably be remembered only as Austen’s first biographer, rather than as the author of one of the more popular Virago Modern Classics. (If you want to read my dissertation, email me or say so in the comments. It’s about the real lives behind the characters of Tortoise as well as Elizabeth’s life.)
I hadn’t lost my broader interest in the subject, though; my most popular essay ever, written last year, is about opsimaths. And I have been writing about people like Alan Lascelles.
Now I’m developing this idea into a book, a series of biographies of late bloomers. I want to encourage people to think about how to evaluate themselves as potential late bloomers — and how to discover and encourage late bloomers in the workforce. By telling the stories of a series of individuals, I hope to inspire people to look for potential in people we are currently under-rating. Biography is a mode that helps people see how they can apply the lessons to their own lives but it will be made more rigorous by the inclusion of scientific and psychological research. Each subject will be chosen for their field — politics, literature, etc — and compared to other people in that field, to show the patterns people follow and the range of scenarios in which late bloomers thrive.
This is not going to be easy optimism and cheery self-help. I don’t think many people can wake up one day and discover that you are in fact a fully-formed Cézanne or Toni Morrison. (Even people like Mary Wesley and Grandma Mose shows some early signs of a talent delayed by circumstances.) There is a compelling idea that populists are attracted to the concept of late bloomers. I’m not here to argue that our current system of assessing and allocating who is good at what is broken, dysfunctional, and needs replacing with a friendly gentocracy.
But there is more than one way to be successful. There are people who flourish later on. Late bloomers exist in all fields. And because their “lateness” is relative they exist at all ages. A tennis player might be a late bloomer in their twenties, while for a business executive success in their fifties might be late. My experience of spending a decade working in the talent attraction industry is that the people in charge of finding and selecting talent are not thinking enough about late bloomers.
Equally, I’m not trying to make people feel comfortable that they might wake up one day and discover they are a genius. This is about trying to understand what late blooming is and why it happens to some people. Is it something we can “solve” and thus make these people early bloomers, or should we be looking for ways of identifying and enabling late blooming talent on its own terms?
Late bloomers often face obstacles. They are self-educating and self-directed. There is usually some interruption in their life, either external or internal. Before luck or the sudden emergence of raw talent comes into play, late bloomers are the product of persistence. Not necessarily in the way the concept of “grit” promotes persistence at a goal over the long term. They also display range, curiosity, a willingness to change, openness, and self-direction.
Biographies of late bloomers will illuminate all this. It might leave us with lessons about how some people can be helped to flourish earlier — but more often I think it will show us that some talents come to fruition differently. We should encourage a diversity of paths to success.
What’s most intriguing about late bloomers is that even at an advanced age, they don’t give up, they haven’t lost their sense that doing something is their best course of action. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote from prison. Eugène Ehrhart graduated high school aged twenty-two and finished his PhD aged sixty. Charles Spearman started his PhD aged thirty-four, paused it when he had to fight in the Boer War, and completed it aged forty-one.
This spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases for the rest of us just when we start getting ready for it.
Seneca’s “very few exceptions” are what interest me. He was one himself. Late bloomers are an inspiration to us all for personal development, for helping us discover new sources of talent in business, but also for showing us how to live a good life. “It is not that we have a short time to live,” Seneca said, “but that we waste a lot of it.”
If you are interested in wasting less of the time available to you, I expect my book will be of interest.
Give me your opinion!
What should I call the book? Take the survey to give me your opinion about titles and tell me about your favourite late bloomers… or leave your thoughts in the comments
They all Laughed: late bloomers and lifelong learners
The Fitzgerald Rule: life stories of late bloomers
Look at me now: how late bloomers succeed when no-one expects them to
Things take the time they take: lives of the late bloomers
Slow burn:: late bloomers and lifelong learners
Never Too Late: life stories of late bloomers