“Be not afraid of growing slowly. Be afraid only of standing still.” — Chinese proverb
Perhaps it’s envy, perhaps a simple function of age, but I’ve grown weary (and wary) of stories about precocity. The teen who launches a successful startup. The college student who publishes a bestseller that also happens to be lyrical, compelling and wise. The 20-something who paints masterfully.
They’re fascinating, these tales of early genius, but they make me wonder what the heck I’m doing at my computer, long day after long day, hoping for that big break. Surely I’m not alone in trying to figure out why success comes quick and easily to some, while others, just as talented and hardworking, plod and ponder for years, even decades.
Mention genius and we think about the young whose proficiency flamed early. Mozart composed a famous piano concerto at 21 and Orson Welles wrote “Citizen Kane” at 25. Picasso’s first “serious” masterpiece was completed at 20. Saul Aaron Kripke thought up his first completeness theorem in modal logic — whatever that is — at the age of 17. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates co-founded their companies as college students.
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So, yes, the examples of talent flowering early are plentiful and nothing short of amazing. Yet, I can’t help but draw more inspiration from those who met their victories with a headful of gray hair and a face with its share of wrinkles. They give me hope; they give me reason to continue believing that breakthrough work can come at any age, if you have faith in yourself and learn, learn, learn, work, work, work.
That’s probably why encountering two articles last week about women who found success at an age when most of us believe the best is behind us has proven so encouraging. Sometimes good things come to us slowly, incrementally. Sometimes it’s about perseverance. Sometimes it’s about finding your calling after years of raising a family or earning a living. How you get to The Moment, however, really doesn’t matter. At the risk of sounding hokey, of eliciting eye-rolling and snickers, it’s about the journey; about discovery and determination.
Consider the story of Mary Delany, a 72-year-old Englishwoman who, in the 1770s, invented a new art form as she grieved the death of her second husband. On a visit to a friend, she met two botanists who had accompanied an explorer on his journey through the South Pacific. Enthralled, she picked up a pair of scissors and began cutting pieces of paper to create mosaics of plant life. Those startlingly accurate mosaics are now in the British museum, according to an article in Literary Hub, and botanists continue to consult them two centuries later.
Then there’s the 21st century version of that story. Anne Youngson is 70 and a debut author. Her novel, “Meet Me in the Museum,” is as much the story of two older people’s budding intimacy as it is about our ability to reimagine our lives, regardless of age.
Away from the creative world, where maturity is a boon because of the wisdom it can confer, many greet success in midlife and way beyond. Colonel Sanders didn’t franchise KFC until he was 62. Cinde J. Dolphin created the firm Marketing For Mavericks, to help California winemakers with social media in her late 50s, when she wasn’t getting any callbacks on her job applications. And Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at 89.
I suspect, however, that the best thing about being a late bloomer is not just about receiving lots of money or public recognition. It’s also about the long and arduous struggle for mastery. The recognition for success, when tempered with failures, tastes that much sweeter.