We're all late bloomers

Why 'blooming late' may be the new badge of honor

Hello to the 413 incredibly smart, talented, and good-looking Intentional Wisdom subscribers! I appreciate every one of you. If you’re not one of them, what are you waiting for?

One big idea for you this week:

It takes time and lots of life experience to truly understand our own strengths and interests.
In a sense, we are all late bloomers.
And that’s a very good thing.
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What do you think of when you hear the term "late bloomer"?

Chances are, if you have any type of association at all, it's not a positive one.

And while our minds may conjure up images of unshaven couch-surfers enjoying mom's home-cooked meals for just a few too many years, the reality is that this characterization falls short on many levels.

In fact, there is a growing case to be made that "blooming late" may not be all that bad after all—whether it be a twenty-something spending more time 'sampling' various careers, or a sixty-something pouring herself into a new venture.

It's important to understand the structural changes taking place all around us to realize why late bloomers may be the ones with the advantage in the years ahead. But before we do that, we need to remember where we're coming from.

The industrialized path

Traditionally, the path for us was clear. Do well enough in school to get into a good college. Do well enough in college to get into a good company. Do well enough at the company to avoid getting fired for 40 years.

And... that's pretty much it. Call it a career. Maybe there's even a watch and a party for you on the way out.

Nice lawn, white picket fence, 2.5 kids, maybe a dog. The American Dream. Not too complicated.

That arrangement worked incredibly well for the industrialized and institutionalized world of the 19th and 20th centuries—especially the post-WWII period, which saw a massive boom in job growth and homeownership.

Employers did not require employees to necessarily be creative, adaptable, or even particularly good problem solvers. And they certainly didn't focus on whether or not they were happy, fulfilled, or inspired by the mission of the company.

So our schools were created to produce the types of employees that these companies required:

  • those who were good at following orders

  • those who could complete repetitive tasks

  • and those who didn't cause trouble

Hence the model for Western education: Sit down and be quiet. Raise your hand if you need to go to the bathroom.

It worked in the classroom. It worked on the assembly line. And for the most part, it worked in the cubical.

The wheel spins faster and faster

Sure this model started to show some cracks in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, but then, about 20 years ago, things started to get more intense.

A greater share of the economic pie started to be captured by corporations, including leading companies in fields like technology and finance. And this trickled down to their employees. So getting in the door guaranteed not only the white picket fence, but also a three-car garage, a Beamer, and maybe even a place in Florida.

Naturally, it got tougher to get into these companies. They only took kids from the best universities.

So the best universities got more competitive and more expensive and harder to get into.

So the high school kids got more competitive, too. And more serious. And more specialized. And, of course, more stressed.

  • Hanging out at the pool over the summer was no longer an option. You needed an internship. In 10th grade.

  • Taking that elective art class was not going to fly. There was another level of AP physics that some of your peers were taking—and you couldn’t fall behind!

  • It wasn’t okay to just play video games. You needed proof on your resumé that you had built one of your own. Oh, and you needed a resumé.

  • You also needed to pick your sport by eight years old, or you'd be too late—falling too far behind the kids who specialized.

And the wheel kept spinning, faster and faster and faster until...

Some things started to go very wrong

  • We saw teen anxiety rates go through the roof.

  • We saw collegiate athletes who showed up on campus with bodies that were effectively already burned out from the constant wear & tear of single-sport play.

  • And we even saw crazy things happening like millionaire parents paying big bucks (and going to jail) for trying to cheat the college admissions process. (Watch this Netflix documentary if you haven't already).

And increasingly, as we looked at the adults that this system had created, the picture wasn't all that pretty. These early-career professionals often had the following traits:

  • Impressive technological skills paired with an inability to 'see the big picture’

  • Stellar individual academic credentials paired with surprisingly undeveloped social skills

  • A single-minded focus on achievement paired with an inability to understand if they were solving the right problem or even playing the right game (or, indeed, pursuing the right career path)

The new late bloomers

We may have unwittingly just raised a generation (or two) that is too focused on achievement and specialization to wander or experiment or even fail now and then.

In retrospect, a more perfect script could not have been written for the emergence of a new generation of late bloomers.

Actually, I take that back. Yes, it could have. You could have included a major global event that basically caused the entire world to come to a screeching halt, forcing people to sit quietly in their homes and think "What the hell am I actually doing with my life?"

If it didn't just happen, I would have said "no way, too unrealistic." But here we are.

I wrote back in the depths of the COVID crisis about my hope that some of the silver linings of the pandemic—like an increased focus on family—might live on in its wake.

And I think one of those silver linings will be (and already is) the emergence of many late bloomers.

They come in all shapes and sizes—and ages.

I've already witnessed friends and relatives launching new businesses or pursuing lifelong interests. Maybe they were down the wrong path, or maybe just way too full of obligations—financial and otherwise—to make a pivot.

But the long period of reflection changed them.

Maybe it shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to nudge people to change, but there’s no denying that it was a powerful catalyst.

Why we’re all going to bloom late—whether we like it or not

Even zooming out from the current moment, there is a very strong case to be made in favor of being a late bloomer.

From a purely scientific perspective, our brains are not even fully developed until age 25. So how is it that we’re supposed to be able to forecast our future interests and desires before that when we are quite literally not even ourselves yet?

It reminds me of this tweet from Rich Karlgaard, author of the book Late Bloomers, and one of the main inspirations for this article.

Similarly, it is the experiences that we have—and what we learn from them—that actually shape our identities. To a large extent, we are what we do. But again, at 20 or 30 or even 40, have we really done enough to truly even know ourselves yet?

And of course, our identities are not static. I am certainly not the same person I was at 20, nor would I want to be.

Then there are the forces that are specific to this moment we are living in right now.

I’ve written before about the massive and accelerating technological change that is taking place before our eyes. Just last week, Bank of America put out a report saying that "65% of children in school today will work at jobs not even invented yet."

If we are what we do, and we have no idea what the career options will even be in 10 or 20 years, how the hell can we possibly have a fixed or rigid view of our own identity?

And by the way, if you think you’re escaping all of this change because of your current age, you might need to rethink that. If Harvard geneticist, Dr. David Sinclair, and others in the ‘life extension’ community are right, we very well may be on the precipice of some incredible advancements in both life and health spans. Are you ready to live to 150 or 200 or 500? It's becoming less far-fetched by the day.

What these changes likely mean is that we're heading toward a world where late bloomers will not be the exception, but rather the rule.

The nimble mindset

I wrote not long ago about how adaptability is the top skill we need to cultivate to survive and thrive in this new world, and about how the very concept of retirement is looking more like a flawed relic of an age that seems to be coming to end.

That's not depressing, by the way. It's ridiculously exciting.

Depressing is working at the same monotonous 9-5 job for 40 years—or if Sinclair and others are right—maybe 100 or more years

Being able to have one, two, three.... ten careers in a lifetime would be amazing. I mean you might be a great accountant today, but would you want to do it for 100 years? The same goes for any profession.

David Epstein, in his book, Range, put forth the notion that increasingly generalists will win over specialists. That's directly contradictory to ideas like the famed 10,000-hour rule, and of course, to the ridiculous focus we've had on forcing our children to specialize at young ages.

It makes sense though. As we age, we get better at seeing connections, particularly if we have broad enough experience. When we’ve seen a story play out in one setting, we can easily identify it in another.

The curious win

In this new world, those with rigid identities will suffer. As industries fall and jobs that previously were plentiful give way to ones we never even imagined, those pining for yesterday will frankly find it tough.

Again, this isn't depressing if you've got the right mindset. If the world is being reshaped before your eyes, it means by definition, that no one is an entrenched expert. That means the opportunity is there for you—if you've got the will, the motivation, and the curiosity to take it.

Think about the internet 25 years ago, or social media 10 years ago. Think about technologies and fields emerging today—blockchains, genomics, renewable energy, space exploration, and on and on. Even stodgy old industries are being completely reinvented virtually overnight. Again, it means no one is an entrenched expert.

So how can you take advantage of all of this?

  • Stay curious — I probably sound like a broken record point on this as I've written plenty about it before, but the experts across every industry are giving away free educations every day to anyone with the motivation to pay attention. Twitter, YouTube, podcasts, you name it. You want to learn finance, science, coding, or… literally anything? I can almost guarantee that you can get a world-class education on the subject today, online, for free—if you want it.

  • Stay adaptable — The top skill over the next 25 years will be adaptability. How can you continue to change and adapt yourself to not only 'stay current' but to actually capitalize, and dare I say profit, from the shifting sands beneath your feet? This doesn't have to mean radical change. It doesn't even have to mean leaving your job. It could simply mean finding better and more effective ways of doing what you already love to do.

  • Focus on 'the adjacent possible' — Even if we do live to 150 or 200, it still may be too big a leap to go from accountant to racecar driver. The easiest jumps and maybe even the most fulfilling ones are those that allow us to leverage what we’ve already learned but in a slightly different—or adjacent—space. A journalist going into PR, a doctor becoming a healthcare investor, etc.

  • Skill-stack — The cool thing about your unique set of skills and experiences is that only you have them. This is a superpower if wielded correctly. And this superpower only gets stronger the more experiences you've had. Your skills and interests allowed you to succeed in one career—but if applied slightly differently, they can almost always be applied in many other fields—especially the adjacent ones.

  • Be fearless — One of the hardest things about reinventing yourself or even just pursuing something slightly different than you've done in the past is the social pressure you'll receive from friends, family, and colleagues to stick with the status quo. The pressure to conform is intense. When we step out of the mold that is expected of us, we can almost be assured that in some way, shape, or form, we will be ridiculed or shunned. Often the ridiculers aren't necessarily ill-intentioned but they've been conditioned by millennia of human experience to be suspicious of change. When they see their friend, colleague, or relative stepping outside the norm, they fall back on those instincts. And that force is powerful. So powerful that it keeps most of us from ever stepping out from the group in the first place. Incidentally, I think it's why this is one of my most popular articles ever—it's an idea that touches a nerve.

  • Forget about sunk costs — The fact that you spent a certain amount of money or time pursuing one path should not influence the next turn you take. Future decisions should be based on potential future outcomes, not past decisions.

There’s something about a late bloomer that I just love. Maybe they're seen as underdogs, or maybe it's just fun to root for people who are trying new things—especially when those things are deeply important to them and where you just know they will thrive.

So let's get this idea out of our heads that late bloomers are in some way failures. Upon closer inspection, it appears that the opposite may be closer to the truth. Often late bloomers are the ones who have seen the light. They've consciously decided to reject fear and criticism and judgment to intentionally pursue a new path. That's pretty admirable in my book.

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That’s it for this week. I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know what you think!

See you next week! — Greg


Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/18fU4HAFjR8

Extra credit: A new feature, and some nutrition for your content diet

I included a new feature at the top of the newsletter this week: The one big idea. I'm thinking of how busy you are and how you might not have time to read all of these crazy thoughts running through my head. So I thought I better just give you the punchline right from the get-go. What do you think?

A few people and pieces of content really inspired today's newsletter, and I'd point you to these resources if you want to dive further into this topic.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World — by David Epstein. Don't have time to read the book? Listen to this awesome conversation Epstein had with one of my regular favorites, Rich Roll.

Late Bloomers: The Hidden Strengths of Learning and Succeeding at Your Own Pace — by Rich Karlgaard. Don't have time to read it? Check out this great conversation he had with another long-time favorite, James Altucher.

Have a great week! — Greg