Late Bloomer

ugly duckling by Heng Swee Lim

late bloomer is a person whose talents or capabilities are not visible to others or do not manifest until later than usual. The term is used metaphorically to describe a child or adolescent who develops slower than others in their age group, but eventually catches up and in some cases overtakes their peers, or an adult whose talent or genius in a particular field only appears later in life than is normal – in some cases only in old age.

A notable example of a child who overcame early developmental problems is Albert Einstein, who suffered from speech difficulties as a young child. Other late-talking children who became highly successful engineers, mathematicians, and scientists include physicists Richard Feynman and Edward Teller. Neuroscientist Steven Pinker postulates that a certain form of language delay may in fact be associated with exceptional and innate analytical prowess in some individuals.

There are many theories of the way in which children develop. Although there is disagreement about how stages of development should be defined, and about the primary influences on development, most agree that a child’s development can be measured as a predictable series of advances in physical, intellectual and social skills which almost always occur in the same sequence, although the rate may vary from one child to another.

When a child falls behind their peers at some stage of development, their teacher may perceive that the child is ‘backward.’ There is strong evidence that this perception may become self-fulfilling: although the child catches up, the teacher may continue to rate their performance poorly, imposing a long-term handicap. Thomas Edison’s mind often wandered and his teacher was overheard calling him ‘addled.’ This ended Edison’s three months of official schooling. His mother then home schooled him.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that may affect 3–10% of children. It is thought to be the result of a genetically inherited neurological abnormality, and has been diagnosed in people of all levels of intelligence. Studies indicate that 20% to 35% of U.S. and British entrepreneurs have the condition: by definition, late bloomers. Researchers theorize that dyslexic entrepreneurs may attain success by delegating responsibilities and excelling at verbal communication. Richard Branson, known for his Virgin brand of over 360 companies is a notable example, as is Charles R. Schwab the founder and CEO of the Charles Schwab Corporation. Pablo Picasso, Tom Cruise, and Whoopi Goldberg are other examples of dyslexics, considered ‘slow’ as children.

The autism spectrum of psychological conditions affects about 0.6% of children, characterized by widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication, severely restricted interests, and highly repetitive behavior. Notable individuals with autism spectrum disorders include Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author, and Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel Laureate in economics.

During adolescence a child goes through physical and mental changes that lead to them becoming an adult. Adolescence is usually considered to start with the first stages of puberty and to continue until physical growth is complete, although the World Health Organization defines adolescence simply as the period between ages 10 and 20. There is a wide range of normal ages, but generally girls begin the process of puberty between the ages of 9 to 14, reaching adult height and reproductive maturity within four years, while boys usually start between the ages of 10 to 17, and continue to grow for about six years after the first visible pubertal changes. Adolescence is often a period of turbulent emotions and mood swings combined with rapid intellectual development. ‘Late bloomer’ can also refer to children who suffer from delayed puberty, who are late in reaching their full height. W. B. Yeats (age 30), Pierre Trudeau (age at least 28), Mark Twain (age 34), and Johann von Goethe (age 39) are all ‘late bloomers’ in this sense.

In most public educational systems, children and adolescents of the same age are put in the same classes. Because of the wide variance in the onset of adolescence, this means that one class may include individuals who have not yet started puberty, others who are sexually mature but not fully grown and yet others who are effectively adult. During this period, there is a high risk of an adolescent dropping out of formal education (due most commonly to laziness, intellectual boredom, bullying, or rebellion) without having achieved their full learning potential. The term ‘late-bloomer’ may refer to such an individual who develops serious intellectual interests in their 20’s or 30’s and enrolls in college, where he or she performs particularly well and subsequently establishes a professional career.

A late blooming adult is a person who does not discover their talents and abilities until later than normally expected. In certain cases retirement may lead to this discovery. Although there is a common perception that intellectual development peaks in a young adult and then slowly declines with increasing age, this may be simplistic. The ability to form new memories and concepts may indeed diminish, but the older person has the advantage of accumulated knowledge, associations between concepts, and mental techniques that may give them an edge in some fields.

It was common for many actors to not get their big ‘break’ in the film industry until their late 20s or well into their 30s. Meryl Streep did not graduate Yale School of Drama until the age of 27. Actor Alan Rickman did not begin his career until he was 28, having operated a graphic design company before then. He did not get his first big theatrical tole until he was in his 40s. Danny Aiello did not start acting until he was 40. Peg Phillips might be one of the best examples as she first pursued acting as a professional after her retirement from accounting; she started acting professionally in her late 60s. Rodney Dangerfield was an actor/comedian who did not really start until he was 42. He had done clubs when he was younger, but stopped in order to work as a salesman.

Danny Glover had a brief stint in the career of politics before he had involved himself in acting at 28. Television star Judd Hirsch from ‘Taxi’ became active at the age of 36. George Wendt who played Norm on ‘Cheers’ became active at the age of 32. Brian Dennehy had dreams of stage and screen at an early age, but chose to first pursue other interests such as service in the US Marine Corps prior to becoming active at the age of 38. Sylvester Stallone was 30 when he wrote and starred in the first ‘Rocky.’ All throughout his life he has pushed his body through rigorous training routines for his film roles. Most notably at age 43 he developed his now famous ‘Rambo 3’ physique which got him named as ‘body of the ’80s.’

In the fine arts ‘late bloomers’ are most often associated with naïve art. This term is used for untrained artists, those who start late in life without artistic training. Hence the classic late bloomer is Grandma Moses whose painting career began in her seventies after abandoning a career in embroidery because of arthritis. An even older example is Bill Traylor who started drawing at age 83. Another painter who started late in life is Alfred Wallis, who began painting after his wife’s death in his 60s. Mary Delany produced her ‘paper mosaiks [sic]’ from the age of 71 to 88.

In business Irene Wells Pennington became best known in her nineties when she helped straighten out irregularities in her husband’s oil business after he went senile in his own 90s. Colonel Sanders began his franchise in his sixties and can also be deemed a late in life financial success. In his mid-50s Taikichiro Mori founded the business that made him, for a year or two, the richest man in the world. He came from a merchant family, but had been a business professor before his 50s.

In professional sports, an athlete’s career usually ends in the mid-to-late 30s, so a player who breaks through in their late 20s/early 30s would be considered a late bloomer. One such example is Kurt Warner, who entered the NFL at age 28, and went on to become a two-time MVP and Super Bowl champion. Baseball pitcher Randy Johnson, who made his Major League debut at 25, but didn’t reach superstar status until he was 30. Former NBA star, Hakeem Olajuwon did not touch a basketball until he was 15, but his athleticism and fundamentals from the sports, football and handball, helped him advance as one of the greatest big men to ever play in the NBA.

Musical ability is inherent in almost all people, to a greater or lesser extent. However, those who develop it to a high level are generally encouraged to play an instrument or to sing at an early age. Late bloomers in music are generally composers or artists who became prominent later in life, but had displayed musical ability much earlier. Anton Bruckner is an example of a musical late bloomer. Although he played church organ some in his twenties he did not become a composer until his 40s. Singer K. T. Oslin released her first album at age 47 which was a major country music success. Al Jarreau released his first album at age 35. Iannis Xenakis did not even begin studying composition until 30, with Messiaen. Leonard Cohen did not release his first album until he was 32 years old.

It is common for politicians to achieve prominence late in life, often after a career in business, law or academia. For example, in the United States Congress as of January 2009, of 540 elected officials, 215 had worked in the legal profession, and 189 had worked in private sector business. The average age of senators was 62. A lawyer or businessperson who moves into politics later in life is presumably putting existing skills to a new use, and should not be considered a late bloomer. However, some highly successful politicians come from unusual backgrounds. Václav Havel, born in 1936, was a playwright and writer with an interest in human rights. He became the voice of the opposition in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s and President of Czechoslovakia at age 53 after the collapse of the communist regime in 1989. Ronald Reagan, a former actor, union leader, and corporate spokesman, was first elected to public office at 55 when he became Governor of California and remains the oldest man to have served as U.S. President.

Many writers have published their first major work late in life. Mary Wesley might be a classic example. She wrote two children’s books in her late fifties, but her writing career did not gain note until her first novel at 70, written after the death of her husband. At the age of 74, Norman Maclean published his first and only novel, the 1976 best-selling book ‘A River Runs Through It,’ which fictionalizes Maclean’s memories of the early twentieth century in Montana. Laura Ingalls Wilder became a columnist in her forties, but did not publish her first novel in the ‘Little House’ series of children’s books until her sixties. Charles Bukowski wrote his first novel in 1971, when he was 51 years old.

Memoirist and novelist Flora Thompson was first published in her thirties but is most famous for the semi-autobiographical ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ trilogy, the first volume of which was published when she was 63. Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ which he later won the Pulitzer Prize for, until he was 66. Children’s author Mary Alice Fontenot wrote her first book at 51 and wrote almost thirty additional books, publishing multiple volumes in her eighties and nineties. Kenneth Grahame was born in 1859 and joined the Bank of England in 1879, rising through the ranks to become its secretary. Although he had written various short stories while working at the bank, it was only after his retirement in 1908 that he published his masterpiece and final work ‘The Wind in the Willows.’

Richard Adams’s first novel, the bestseller ‘Watership Down,’ was published when he was in his fifties. The Marquis de Sade published his first novel, ‘Justine,’ after turning 51. Raymond Chandler published his first short story at 45, and his first novel, ‘The Big Sleep’ at 51. Paul Torday published his debut novel ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ at the age of 59, after a career in the engineering industry. Jean Rhys is best known for her novel ‘Wide Sargasso Sea,’ which was published in 1966, when she was 76.

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