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Money & Career

In Praise of People Who Bloom Later in Life

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Rich Karlgaard believes deeply in late bloomers.

After all, he himself fits what he sees as the definition of a late bloomer – “a person who fulfills their potential later than expected.” Several years after he graduated from Stanford University, while his classmates had continued on to law school or medical school, graduate degrees, or launched themselves into lucrative careers in the tech world, Karlgaard was working the graveyard shift as a security guard in a truck lot. Late one night, he made a humiliating discovery.

“From the lumber yard next door, I heard barking, so I went to investigate,” Karlgaard recalls. “It turns out their security guard wasn’t a person but a dog. At 25, my professional colleague was a Rottweiler.”

Karlgaard would go on to bloom at his own pace. Today, he’s the publisher of Forbes magazine and the author of several books, including Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement.

While people who are early bloomers and realize big success at a young age deserve to be celebrated, Karlgaard says we’re paying a high price as a society by undervaluing later-in-life bloomers. For one thing, he says, “we’re putting a tremendous amount of pressure on kids to achieve early. And while that may be creating a few winners, it may also be leading to a  rise in anxiety, depression, and even suicide among teenagers and young adults.”

For another, we’re overlooking the gifts that seasoned professionals in their 50, 60s, and 70s who are eager to work have to offer. “We’re putting people out to pasture when they still have important contributions to make,” Karlgaard says. “They may not want to work 60 hours a week, but how about a negotiation between the employer and older employees where they’d be able to work fewer hours for a reduced paycheck and maybe the title of coach instead of senior vice president. Age diversity within the workforce is a powerful and largely untapped weapon of creativity and productivity.”

In the meantime, we can tap our own capacity to thrive. Here’s Karlgaard’s message to the GetOld community: blooming has no deadline. We can bloom multiple times throughout our lives as our interests, priorities, and curiosity shifts. But this kind of reinvention might require some “repotting.” In Late Bloomers, he points to Kimberly Harrington, who published her first book, Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words, at the age of 50, after a career in advertising in Los Angeles.

Harrington had realized that, if she wanted to pursue her dream of writing essays and books, she needed to get away from the intensity of the advertising industry. For her new garden, she chose rural Vermont. She thrived. As Harrington told Karlgaard, “Leaving big, cool cities and the full-time world of advertising behind for the flexibility of freelancing in a smaller city provided the opening for me to think of doing something else. I suddenly felt like I had headspace.”

Ready to flower again? Ask yourself, Karlgaard suggests, “Am I in the best possible pot to bloom? What is the range of pots that will support my talents, temperament, and enthusiasms?” 

If you’re committed to change, Karlgaard says, take the first step forward. “Don’t worry if it’s not the perfect step. Research an interest, a peer group, a place, a hope. Envision your next pot.” The change involved in repotting may be either modest, like spending time with a new group of like-minded people, or as significant as moving to a new state.

 “The key is to make a change, to take a step, no matter how little, toward a more fertile environment for blooming,” Karlgaard says.  

Keep in mind, he adds, that “there is no fixed chronology to self-determination, no age limit for breakthroughs. Research supports the idea that as we lose some capabilities, we gain others that far outweigh what is lost.”

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