Finding success later in life

If you're in your 30s and still haven't written the great Australian novel or scored a Nobel Prize, have you left your run too late?

From: Sunday Life

Fashion icon Vivienne Westwood is possibly the only woman in her 70s who can carry off leather and ruffles without a whiff of irony. The grande dame of the runway has never been shy in public. While other designers agonise over the right "muse" to front their labels, Westwood would happily star in her own couture campaigns.

Her passion for the irreverent means she has always attracted a legion of high-profile fans - the most conspicuous, perhaps, being Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw, when the fashion-loving character donned Westwood's bridal gown on her (sadly disastrous) big day.

It's easy to see why young people love her.

So much so, in fact, that few realise Westwood spent her early career not in a design studio but a classroom - as a primary school teacher. She recalls quitting art school for teaching college at the age of 17, saying, "I didn't know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world."

Despite her love for fashion, it would be another decade before she and then boyfriend (and later Sex Pistols manager) Malcolm McLaren opened their own clothing store in late 1971 - a move that not only launched Westwood's career, but also ultimately sparked the birth of punk.

Westwood was 30 when she started working full-time in fashion - an age by which most people expect to be entering mid-level roles in their careers. And for those involved in creative pursuits, it's often the unspoken deadline we give ourselves to "make it" in our areas of passion - after which we might begin to consider "getting a real job" or start contemplating all the big "M" words, like mortgage and motherhood.

The thinking is, if we are any good at what we do, shouldn't we be excelling by our 30s? Not necessarily, argues Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of What the Dog Saw. There is a common misconception that genius is "inextricably tied up with precocity". For example, when we think of art and innovation, prodigies like Picasso and Mark Zuckerberg (who founded Facebook at the age of 19) automatically come to mind.

If we assume anyone who succeeds must excel early or not at all, it's because so many of history's "greats" did their breakthrough work in their youth: Mozart wrote his famous Piano Concerto No.9 at 21, Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane at 25 and Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at the age of 26. As a result, we mistakenly jump to the conclusion that geniuses and prodigies are one and the same.

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The good news, explains Gladwell, is that there is every chance our best work is yet to come. He refers to a recent study by economist David Galenson, who found that, contrary to popular belief, there is no proven correlation between age and peak creativity. In the areas of film and poetry, some "geniuses" did their best work at the beginning of their careers, while others - such as Westwood - simply did theirs much later.

According to Galenson, the key difference between prodigies and late bloomers is in their creative approach. Prodigies like Mozart, Welles (and, in a sense, Zuckerberg) tend to be "conceptual" people, meaning they "start with a clear idea of where they want to go and then they execute it". On the other hand, late bloomers tend to be "experimental" - "Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental ... [and] the imprecision of their goals means that [they] rarely feel they have succeeded."

The notion of talent and genius also holds surprising implications in our emotional lives. "Every adult life is defined by two great love stories," writes author and philosopher Alain de Botton. On the one hand, there is our well-charted quest for romantic love, and on the other, our quest for love from the world ("a more secret and shameful tale"). In his book Status Anxiety, de Botton argues this second love story "is no less intense than the first ... and its setbacks are no less painful". This is because no matter how much we try to downplay worldly success, it's invariably heartbreaking to be dismissed by society as a "nobody".

For late bloomers, especially, the feeling of trying to balance hope against a sluggish reality can often become a source of great anguish - and for some, the frustration can (understandably) drive them to abandon a lifelong passion in favour of more "practical" goals. "We're all clear from an early age what we want to do," says Anne-Marie Orrock, human resources expert and managing director of Corporate Canary. "Some people will go for it, but others will rationalise that they can't do it based on society's projection on what's doable and what isn't."

Renowned humorist David Sedaris, now 54, dropped out of college twice and worked as a house cleaner until his first collection of essays was published at the age of 37. "I had a job in Chicago [where] ... I had to crawl on my belly over fibreglass and dead squirrels to staple up screens so that no more squirrels could get in," he recalled in an interview. "It's the kind of job where you just couldn't take enough baths."

Throughout a series of odd jobs (which he details brilliantly in his best-selling memoirs), he kept his writing dreams alive by jotting down quirky anecdotes in a diary. And it was one night when he was reading from it in a club that his breakthrough came - a National Public Radio host happened to be in the audience and hired him immediately to read on air. From the broadcasting job came his first book deal, and Sedaris has since written for publications such as The New Yorker and Esquire, appeared in sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall, and become one of the best-loved humorists in the world. In 2002, when a journalist asked Sedaris's father, Lou, whether he'd ever expected to see his son performing in Carnegie Hall, he replied wryly, "Well, I expected to see him cleaning Carnegie Hall."

"On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure," writes Malcolm Gladwell. "Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith."

Joanne Fedler, 43, knows just how hard it can get before things turn a corner. Now a best-selling author of four successful novels, the mother of two had to reinvent herself after the end of one career.

Before moving to Australia, Fedler had spent her 20s working as a high-profile lawyer and women's-rights activist in her native South Africa. "When I was 16, a friend of my older sister's was raped in her home. I think that must have been the start of this absolute passion that I have, to make sure that this doesn't happen to other women."

But after five years of working in advocacy, she was getting burnt out. "It all took quite a toll on me emotionally ... but I didn't know what else I was ever going to do and couldn't see a future beyond it."

Eventually, her family decided to move to Australia. With no local qualifications and two young children on her hands, she had a career hiatus of three years. Then, one day, her husband suggested that she finish a manuscript she'd been working on as a hobby for the past 10 years - and the resulting work eventually became her first published novel.

Looking back, she says, "I always wondered if I hadn't left South Africa, if those events would've transpired like that ... [But I guess] whatever path you've taken just becomes the building block to wherever you're meant to go."

It's all very well for those who are committed to their passion or at least feel certain about their life's work. But what about late starters who don't know exactly what they want? Anne-Marie Orrock believes it all comes down to sorting out our "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" values.

In other words, sometimes the things that make us tick psychologically (a sense of challenge, intellectual curiosity, satisfaction from helping others) may clash with the external motivators that drive us (social status or financial rewards) - making it hard to visualise a role that accommodates both areas. "The two kinds of motivators are like the black and white keys on a piano. You need them both but, depending on the way you are hitting the keys, the resulting tune can either be a melody or absolute cacophony."

The best course of action in this instance, says Alison Monroe, co-director of workforce consultants SageCo, is to step away from the concept of a "dream job" and do some serious navel-gazing. "In career planning, people often start with the job they want in mind, when it really should be the last step. The first thing to do is some honest self-assessment. Ask yourself, 'What am I really good at? What will others say I am good at? What is important to me?' The answers can change at different life stages."

Laurie Brotherstone, 52, did some soul-searching at different points of her life. Now running a successful counselling practice, Life Resolutions Bundall, the late-blooming psychologist admitted to taking a "scenic route" for the better part of her career. She has travelled extensively and worked as a barmaid, a courier-van driver, an orchard owner, a property manager and natural-soap manufacturer before finally finding her niche in psychology in her late 40s.

"When I was young I didn't have that clear picture of what I really wanted, but when I decided to [retrain in psychology], I felt far more focused and confident in my ability to do it." For Brotherstone, being a late starter also has its advantages. "I am much clearer now on what is really important to me. I don't feel the need to prove myself any more, and as a psychologist I think people feel reassured by talking to someone who has some life experience to share."

Alison Monroe adds, "At the end of the day, the question it boils down to is: are you really passionate about the end result of your 50 hours a week that you are donating to a project or an organisation?" When in doubt, says Monroe, try applying the 80/20 rule. "There's always going to be things that you may not necessarily enjoy in a job but as long as you feel stimulated and fulfilled 80 per cent of the time, then that's a good outcome."

But how practical is it, really, to believe we can all potentially be late bloomers when the reality is that some people may never bloom at all? To this, Malcolm Gladwell points out a simple but powerful truth about late-blooming geniuses we often forget: some people bloom late "because they simply aren't much good until late in their career".

In other words, "genius" or not, we will be depriving ourselves of the chance to truly master our work if we never fully commit to it in the first place. History is full of masters who didn't hit their stride until much later in life, writes Gladwell. We only need to look to artists like Paul Cézanne, who had his first one-man show at the age of 56, or Alfred Hitchcock, who made his most famous films after he turned 50, to realise what a tragedy it would have been if they had given up before producing their best work.

In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton reminds us that "the most fulfilling human projects [often] appear inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys [often lie] awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains". To reiterate the importance of hard work, de Botton cites an interesting theory about genius by Friedrich Nietzsche. "Don't talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted," wrote Nietzsche. "They acquired greatness, became 'geniuses' through ... [the] diligent seriousness of a craftsman."

It appears that finding fulfilment in our work (or a happy ending to what de Botton calls the "second love story") will invariably require a combination of extreme patience and blunt determination.

"If anyone ever says that pursuing your passion is an easy road to take, it's not," says Alison Monroe. "But I think that those who push past that pain barrier and come out on the other side will be stronger, wiser and more resilient."

In this sense, the importance of finding our passion lies, ironically, not in some lofty creative success or the potential for worldly praise but in the privilege of labouring over something close to our hearts.

To Vivienne Westwood, this means a constant sartorial quest to destroy conformity and make room for self-expression. And for someone who famously said that "fashion is about eventually becoming naked", it doesn't get much more personal than that.

Famous late bloomers

  • Jane Austen didn't publish her first novel until she was 35.
  • Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) spoke barely a word of English until he was 21. His first published work came out at age 37.
  • Julia Child didn't start teaching cooking until she was nearly 40.
  • Leonard Cohen released his first album when he was 33 years old.
  • Clint Eastwood directed his first film at 41.
  • Australian actor Jacki Weaver received her first Oscar nomination - for her performance in Animal Kingdom - at the age of 63.