Late bloomers are people who achieved proficiency in some skill later than they are normally expected to. The key word is “expected.”

School Is a Machine, Learning Is Not

Ever since the 19th century, when education was first standardized, learning in popular imagination is highly connected to age. The school system, back then and now, is modeled after a factory – people get education in batches, based on their date of manufacture. If you were manufactured seven years ago, that means it’s time to learn the multiplication table, for instance. And if you are ten and you still have not mastered the table, you are reshuffled to the un-smart batch. Perfect logic. Except the lives of many successful people proved it wrong. They mastered a skill at an older age. They are late bloomers. Let’s see who they are and how they did it.

Learning Languages Late: At 20 Still Spoke No English

When Joseph Conrad became one of the titans of English Literature at 39, few people knew that at 20 Joseph still spoke no English at all. He was fluent in Polish and French, growing up in the part of Poland that is now Ukraine. He learned English at sea. When he started writing, he himself and his agent hesitated about Joseph’s ability to communicate in English with readers who at the time were members of one of history’s most class-conscious societies. His foreignness proved to be an advantaged, and his English writing style became iconic. 

The Reasons Why People Bloom Later

Parents

The life circumstances of late bloomers suggest that they could bloom earlier had circumstances been a bit different. Paul Cezanne’s father protested his son’s plan to study art, envisioning his son a banker like himself, possibly delaying Paul’s education as an artist. Of course, if you really set your mind to something, even parents can’t stop you.

Geography

Joseph Conrad was simply born in a non-English speaking country. Ultimately, though, it may have been to his advantage, because he may have never developed his original exotic style was he raised in England.

Finances

Sylvester Stallone originally wanted to be an actor, but being evicted from his apartment lead him to performing in soft pornographic movie roles at $200 for two days work, delaying his big break with Rocky.

Non-Dream Jobs

For some people the reason is more trivial – they were simply in the wrong, but good,  job for too long. Reid Hoffman enjoyed success at Paypal. Martha Stewart succeeded as a stoke broker. Julia Child had a stable job with the government. But as their lives later showed, they were capable of much more.

Simply Having No Clue

Fauja Singh knew what running was all his life, but it wasn’t until his son was beheaded by a flying sheet of metal, that Fauja took a different look at life. First he sank into depression. Then he moved on from India to England where he first learned what a ‘marathon’ was. He thought it was 26 kilometers when he showed up for training.  It turned out marathons are 26 miles long (41 kilometers). He still ran, even at age 100. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

Is It Ever Too Late to Learn?

Learning something late in life might sound like a bad deal if you compare yourself to all the young talented folk. Understandable. The catch is that doing something earlier does not necessarily make you better at it than if you did it later. Could you say that Stallone is a worse actor than actors who started in their teens? Was Julia Child a worse cook just because she started cooking at 30? With Fauja Singh it’s even easier –  just finishing the marathon at all he already wins.

The Rare Late Bloomers

To be fair, late bloomers in some fields, like music and computer science, are rare. We did our best to find them, but have not yet succeeded. If you know of one, be sure to write us.

Illustrated by Anastasia Borko

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