Late Bloomers, Experimental Innovators, and Ulyssean Adults

During the Great Depression, a struggling Irish Catholic family living in Brooklyn decided to return to Ireland in hopes of improving their financial situation.

The alcoholic father could not find steady work in Dublin or Belfast, however, so the family ended up in a slum in Limerick, where the parents and four children all shared a single bed.

Before the family left Brooklyn, one of the children (a baby girl) died a few weeks after birth. Two more children (twin boys) would die in early childhood in the slums of Limerick, and two more boys would be born there. Another boy, Frank, nearly died of typhoid fever in adolescence.

Eventually the father abandoned the family, and Frank would work odd jobs and occasionally steal to help support the family.

When he was 19, Frank returned to New York. A priest got him a room and a job at the Biltmore hotel. During the Korean War, Frank was drafted and sent to Germany, where he trained dogs for an Army K-9 unit.

After his military discharge, Frank held a variety of jobs, mostly working on docks and in warehouses. He used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend New York University, and he graduated with a degree in English.

He would go on to teach English in the New York public schools for nearly three decades before eventually writing his first book, which was published when he was 66 years old.

A memoir of his life, Angela’s Ashes would become a New York Times number one bestseller, and would win Frank McCourt a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

“I’m a late bloomer,” McCourt once said.

“F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I’ve proven him wrong,” McCourt would later say. “And all because I refused to settle for a one-act existence, the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools.”[1]

To be sure, Frank McCourt is not alone on the long list of literary late bloomers. Here are just a few others:

  • Norman Maclean published his first and only novel, A River Runs Through It, at age 74.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first of her Little House series of books at age 65.
  • Paul Torday’s debut novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was published at age 59.
  • Richard Adams’ bestselling first novel Watership Down was published at age 52.
  • Charles Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office, was published at age 51.
  • Raymond Chandler’s first Novel, The Big Sleep, was published at age 51.

Late bloomers abound in other fields, too. For example:

  • Grandma Moses began her painting career at age 78.
  • Harland Sanders began franchising his Kentucky Fried Chicken concept at age 65.
  • Ray Kroc stopped selling milkshake mixers and opened his first McDonald’s franchise at age 52.
  • Emmy-winning actress Kathryn Joosten first moved to Hollywood to begin her television acting career at age 56.
  • Julia Child’s first cookbook was published when she was 49.
  • Momofuku Ando developed instant ramen noodles at age 48.
  • Tim and Nina Zagat were in their 40s when they published their first restaurant guide.
  • Bernie Marcus co-founded The Home Depot at age 50.
  • Wally Blume started Denali Flavors (and its Moose Tracks brand) at age 57.
  • Duncan Hines was 55 when he published his first restaurant guides for travelers. He was 73 when he licensed his name for cake mixes.

Those are just a handful of examples of people who didn’t experience success or realize their true talent or potential until later in life. They are people who might typically be described as late bloomers.

What it means to be a late bloomer

Sometimes the term “late bloomer” is used to describe delayed physical or cognitive maturation in childhood or adolescence.

But here we are interested in the term as it applies to adults who display some talent, skill, or ability – or achieve success in some field – later in life than would normally be expected.

Sometimes the late bloomer simply does not discover and develop their potential until later in life. Sometimes they make a personal or professional change later in life that significantly boosts their creativity. And sometimes it just takes the influence of other people or a new environment to unleash the late bloomer’s latent capacities.[2]

Also, the idea of what constitutes a truly “late” bloomer may vary from one domain to the next.

It’s one thing for Kathryn Joosten to start a television acting career at age 56. It would be something else entirely if she started playing in the WNBA at 56.

Age is not quite the barrier to entry in fields such as the arts or politics as it is in sports or tech. Sports due to the obvious physical demands, tech due to rampant ageism.

“Live your life and forget your age,” advised Norman Vincent Peale. But cultural constraints such as ageism can hinder advancement in some fields.

And it might be considered that there are different “types” of late bloomers. Some late bloomers don’t pursue a particular interest at all until later in life, while others may have been honing their talent or skill for some time before achieving any notable success.

Although Grandma Moses had an interest in art even as a child, she did not begin painting until her late 70s.

Carmen Herrera, however, began taking private art lessons at age eight. At age 14 she attended the Marymount School in Paris. Herrera then studied architecture in her native Havana, and moved to New York in the 1950s. She exhibited in Paris and New York for decades without selling anything.

In 2004, aged 89, Herrera sold her first painting. She soon became more widely recognized, and in 2016 (at age 101) she had exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Lisson Gallery.

Herrera is now 105, and she is currently designing a large outdoor mural (adapted from one of her earlier paintings) for the Manhattan East School for Arts and Academics in East Harlem.

Similar to the late bloomer, John A. B. McLeish wrote of the “Ulyssean adult,” someone who maintains the “questing spirit” later in life, and who does so “with courage and resourcefulness in a wide variety of circumstances.”[3]

McLeish used the term “Ulyssean” as an homage to Ulysses (Odysseus), who engaged in a series of heroic adventures later in life.

Ulysseans maintain an adventurous spirit, pursue new enterprises, and are always “inquiring, searching, questioning, dreaming, and growing.” They accept change and embrace the excitement of new life journeys, rather than seeking quiet comfort. They believe that their age gives them a wealth of valuable experience, more fully developed capacities, an enhanced life vision, and greater freedom to experiment.[4]

Economic historian David Galenson distinguishes between two types of innovators:[5]

  • Conceptual innovators, who make their greatest contributions early in their careers.
  • Experimental innovators, who produce their most notable work later in life.

Experimental innovators, Galenson explains, like to work by trial and error, making discoveries in the process of their work. They tend to be late bloomers, because they gain a deeper understanding of their subject and their technical mastery improves with long periods of study and practice.[6]

These different life cycles of creativity results in a division between experimental late bloomers and conceptual young geniuses that is evident across many different disciplines.

While the brash young conceptual innovators make dramatic leaps at a young age, the later-blooming experimental innovators tend to work gradually and inductively, accumulating wisdom and judgment along the way.[7]

Of course, it’s not always an either-or proposition. We can have early success that continues throughout our lives. We can have early success, then a relatively uneventful period followed by later success. We could have success in different fields at different times, or have little success in one field and notable success in another.

Whether someone meets the criteria for being considered a textbook late bloomer is largely academic.

What should matter to us is whether late bloomers display any particular tendencies that we can emulate or cultivate that can help us stay active and productive throughout all stages of life.

Characteristics, conditions, and considerations

However we choose to categorize or label them, there are a significant number of people who achieve at a high level later in life.

If we can identify some of the reasons for this, it can help us, too.

In his book Late Bloomers, author Rich Karlgaard identifies six core strengths of late bloomers:[8]

  • Curiosity. Late bloomers retain their childhood curiosity. Curiosity demonstrates independence of mind, drives innovation, and fuels motivation. Curiosity also helps maintain cognitive function and mental health.
  • Compassion. Compassion goes beyond mere empathy, and generates action that benefits someone else. Over time, late bloomers have gained connective insights and perspectives that they use to understand and help others.
  • Resilience. Resilience is the continuing process of responding to diversity with intentional action. Mature people are generally better at emotional regulation than young people, which may give late bloomers an advantage in developing the learnable behaviors that foster resilience.
  • Equanimity. Equanimity is a mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in difficult situations. When we are calm, we are better leaders, listeners, and problem solvers.
  • Insight. Insight allows us to access our complete mental repository of context, experience, and patterns. Our mental models improve with age. We become better judges of which novel perceptions are actually useful.
  • Wisdom. Wisdom is the sum of our knowledge, experience, and intuition. Wisdom is earned over time, and increases with age as we become more adept at bilateralizing brain functions across hemispheres. Wisdom makes us better able to manage ambiguity.

Similarly, John McLeish identified five key elements that factor into the development of the Ulyssean adult:[9]

  • Learning, insight, and creativity
  • Exploration of the self
  • Growth and development in the later years
  • Meeting change proactively
  • A zest for living

And Charles MacKinnon Brown also suggested several characteristics that late bloomers seem to share, including:[10]

  • A keen and persistent desire to learn
  • A high capacity for growth and personal development
  • An ability to overcome adversity, disappointment, and failure
  • Self-reliance
  • Resiliency
  • An ability to seize opportunity
  • A willingness to take risks
  • Gratitude
  • A sense of obligation to society
  • A desire to make a significant contribution

Brown also stressed that an element of chance and being in the right place at the right time often factored into later-in-life success. Additionally, the most significant growth and development occurred when the personal resources of late bloomers were combined with community resources and supportive networks.

When considering whether creativity declines with age, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton cautions us to regard the following:[11]

  • The exact correlation between age and creativity is domain dependent. For example, Simonton says, poets and mathematicians may peak early and decline rapidly, while historians and philosophers may tend to peak later and show more gradual declines.
  • Creative people vary significantly in terms of lifetime productivity. Some people are one-hit wonders who peak early and flame out, while other people are prolific creators who continue to be strong producers even very late in life.
  • Career age correlates more strongly to creative trajectory than chronological age. Early bloomers who experience success while young may see their creative peak shifted forward, while late bloomers will see their pinnacle delayed. Some people simply drudge away in meaningless jobs for some time before discovering their true purpose.

Many late bloomers, Simonton explains, peak creatively when many early bloomers are already declining. So, it’s possible to remain creative and productive through every stage of life.

Better late than never

There are early bloomers and late bloomers. Really, though, most people could probably be considered never bloomers.

“No star is ever lost we once have seen, we always may be what we might have been,” is a couplet from an Adelaide Anne Procter poem.

But how many people truly believe it? Practice it?

After all, many people lead contented, fulfilling, and even successful lives without ever realizing their full potential, finding an overarching purpose, or pursuing a dream.

And that’s fine, too. For some people, contentment is their dream.

But many of us want more.

We might not want great wealth or fame, or even high achievement. We might just want to live a life of continuous exploration, discovery, and growth.

We want to live life as we see fit, on our own terms. We want to map our own journey. And if it takes us a little longer to get where we’re going than other people think it should, that’s their problem, not ours.

If we cultivate the characteristics of successful late bloomers, we won’t have to worry about losing our way. We might not achieve everything we set out to do, but we will never regret not trying.

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