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Confessions of a Late Bloomer

We have fixed notions about the time course of success and the nature of talent that encourage us to write off the very people who are most likely to (eventually) change the world.

"This is you," the elderly school psychologist said as he pushed up his horn-rimmed glasses and pointed to the left side of what looked like the outline of a camel's hump. I sat closer, trying to make sense of what I was being shown. "And this," he said, moving his finger toward the far right of the hump, "is gifted."

Leaning forward, I patiently explained to him that maybe this was me, at age 11, but 6 years later, it was no longer me. "You see," I explained, "by the age of 3, I'd had 21 ear infections. The fluid in my ears kept me zipped up in a cloud, unable to process words. My performance on that IQ test when I was 10 is a reflection of my early learning difficulties." I sat back in my chair trying to calm myself, then continued to explain how I had finally caught up to the rest of the kids and, as my grades now clearly showed, I wasn't the least bit challenged in the "slow" track at school.

"Retest me," I pleaded, desperately wanting to join the "smart" kids in the "gifted" room. Forcing a smile, he explained that one's intelligence just doesn't change all that much, and my intelligence didn't qualify me for gifted education. No retest.

I ran straight to the local library and found a book about human intelligence. One chart caught my eye. It listed what people with different IQs are capable of achieving. I started down the list.

Could I be a Ph.D.? Not a chance. How about a college graduate? Nope. Semiskilled laborer? In my dreams. After some time, I finally found my range. "Lucky to graduate high school," it said. I threw the book down on the table with an audible "F*ck that!" as several librarians rushed over to quiet and, possibly, tackle me.

That was merely the first such experience that led me to realize that we live in a society with peculiar expectations about the time course of success. We think that if a child isn't blossoming as fast as the others in grade school, he or she will be hard-pressed to eventually flourish.

Truth be told, many of those who seriously altered the landscape of our lives—from Charles Darwin to Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin—were individuals who found their groove later in life. Many even started out delayed, only to end up successes beyond expectation.

The later bloom comes in several varieties. There is the classic, such as Grandma Moses, who took up painting in her late 70s to worldwide acclaim, and continued painting into her 90s. Not to be confused with the late-recognized bloomer, such as photographer André Kertész, who, little noticed by the world for his unusual compositions, finally gained public acclaim in his 80s. No less important is the repeat bloomer, such as Ian Fleming, who, after succeeding as a journalist, banker, and stockbroker, went on to create James Bond when he was 45.

Such achievers are only the tip of the rosebush. Late bloomers are actually plentiful, and each has his or her own story and distinctive pathway. Stopping to look at all the paths together calls into question some of society's most cherished beliefs— about the nature of human development, the roles of intelligence and education in creative achievement, and the ingredients of success at any age. All too often, what society thinks is a limiting factor—harsh early life experiences, such as parental loss—may turn out to be the very thing that enables eventual success.

The last century added 30 years of opportunity to our lives, conferring what's been called a second middle age. Especially in light of our extended life span, it's worth confronting the very notion of late blooming to ask: late for what?

Budding Brains

Perhaps the most basic component of success is ability; it's necessary, but not by itself sufficient. And there's no question that ability—often called "gifts" and "talents"—has some basis in the brain. But many—educators, scientists, and laypeople alike—conceptualize ability as a static property, something hard-wired into the brain by genes that are prepackaged and already activated at birth. When tapped, it bursts forth. At every turn, this conception is far too simplistic.

Ability can take time to develop. The contribution that genes make to ability doesn't determine everything; rarely is it laid out in one burst. "The genes don't act all at once, but can take years to unfold," says Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at University of California at Davis. "We know that the genes are partly responsible for brain organization, but we also know that the brain is not completely organized until well into adulthood."

Think of genes as players in an orchestra, with different sections responsible for different traits. Not only do all the individual players have to be in sync, but so do the sections. Just as the percussion section might have trouble getting its rhythm together, the genes that underlie a particular trait might be activated later than the genes for other traits that contribute to an ability. So one trait, like gregariousness, can develop early on while another trait, like speech production, may lag—which can be awkward until the two come into harmony.

The contribution that genes make to ability does not fully determine how the ability will be expressed. Like water to a flower, the environment plays a critical role in the activation of genes. In reality, talent emerges over the course of a lifetime of reciprocal interactions between the developing brain and a stimulating environment.

A complex trait like intelligence is not only partly determined by many interacting genes, it changes across the lifespan as some genes are automatically turned on and some turned off. The most appreciated abilities in society, such as creativity and leadership, rarely fully present themselves early on.

Prodigies certainly exist, but they are notably more common in some domains than others. Chess, musical performance, and pure mathematics are full of prodigies because they draw on relatively delimited knowledge and skills. The dazzling calendar calculation of the childhood savant is likely not a polygenic trait.

Achievements that require complex abilities like creativity or leadership, which comprise many different traits and thus the alignment of many different genes, are years in the making. As Simonton points out, there is only one way of becoming an early bloomer, but there are an infinite number of ways of being a late bloomer. The more complex a trait, the more ways a person can become a late bloomer for that trait.

Although the child prodigy is the one who has the right genes working together early, there is no guarantee that the prodigy will remain one. Other traits can emerge later that may make it difficult for the prodigy to continue his or her success. An initial gift may completely disappear. Once set loose in the world, many child prodigies can no longer display their talents because they don't know how to sell themselves or deal with the rejection they never experienced in grade school.

Indeed, what enables children to be labeled gifted may turn out to be the limiting factor in their lives. Joshua Waitzkin, once a child chess whiz, is captivated by the learning process. In his 20s, he began the study of Tai Chi and, despite his late athletic start, has become an international champion. Waitzkin sees huge disadvantages to being labeled a child prodigy. "If you buy into the label," he says, "the greatest danger, in the language of psychologist Carol Dweck, is that we internalize an entity theory of intelligence. The moment we believe success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, as opposed to resilience and hard work, we will be brittle in the face of adversity. If you tell a kid that she's a winner, which a lot of parents do, then she believes that her winning is because of something ingrained in her. If she wins because she is a winner, then losing makes her a loser."

The fact that genes come online at different times opens the possibility for the tortoise to overtake the hare. Researchers often refer to the "10-year rule," according to which it takes 10 years to master a field. But as Simonton points out, "the rule is an average with variation, not a fixed threshold." What may take the average person 15 years to master may take later bloomers only five once their genes sync up; even though they started later, progress can be rapid and make up for lost time.

Making judgments about a young person's potential at any one moment overlooks the fact that time is needed for complexes of genes to get in tune. And so we write people off. For others, we write the check too soon.

Young brains may be faster at memorizing Backstreet Boys lyrics, but older brains have some clever tricks up their neuronal sleeve that put all the years of ripening to good use. In the brain, information gets passed through wires called axons. Helping the wires deliver the information is a fatty coating called the myelin sheath. Research by neurologist George Bartzokis and his colleagues at UCLA suggests that as we develop, we lay down more of these sheaths, transforming the brain into a high-speed, wide-bandwidth Internet-like system.

Myelin speeds the transmission of information, but knowledge itself, and the proliferation of nerve connections and circuits by which we access it, depend on the acquisition of experience. And that takes time. "We become wise by being able to access information differently with a wider perspective," says Bartzokis.

The increased myelination helps ensure that a lifetime of experiences do not go to waste. Humans don't even reach their peak myelin volume until their 50s. Even then, the brain continues to repair myelin until the very end of our lives. Fields that draw on many different brain circuits benefit greatly from the expanding processing capacity. "The more wide-ranging the field, the greater the contribution of late bloomers," says Bartzokis.

Take the Olympics. World record breakers tend to make their mark at an early age, drawing on only a few brain circuits—motor skills, determination, and the attention circuits required to follow a coach's directions. A coach, on the other hand, requires "myriad other circuits to be a great coach," notes Bartzokis, such as "the circuits needed to design the training that will work with a particular athlete. I know very few great coaches who are really young, even though I know a lot of young people that love a sport beyond words."

Little wonder that the United States requires a minimum age to be President. To manage a country requires all the processing capacity the brain can muster.

While the developing brain contributes to the time course of accomplishment, it's only one factor. To fully bloom at any time, one must also have a direction.

Finding Purpose

"I made a decision that I wanted to be world class at something at a very young age; I just had to find that one thing that made me realize this is my arena, this is where I want to play," says Chris Gardner, founder and CEO of the stock brokerage Gardner Rich & Co.

After a childhood of brutal abuse and an early adulthood as a single parent—homeless and destitute— Gardner eventually found that arena. Seeing a red Ferrari pull into a parking lot, he approached the driver and asked him, "What do you do and how do you do it?" The answer, investment banking, turned out to be a perfect match for the math and people skills Gardner already had.

"This encounter would crystallize in my memory—almost into a mythological moment that I could return to and visit in the present tense whenever I wanted or needed its message," Gardner says in his autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, made into a movie starring Will Smith.

Many highly creative people mention "a moment, an encounter, a book that they read, a performance that they attended, that spoke to them and led them to say, 'This is the real me, this is what I would like to do, to devote my life to, going forward,'" says Harvard professor Howard Gardner (no relation to Chris).

Not all crystallizing experiences are pleasant. I myself felt the shame of being put on the "slow" track and the humiliation of being bullied by my peers for it. But every time I was laughed at, the fire of determination burned brighter.

Angelo Sicilano, later known as Charles Atlas, was the original "97-pound weakling." Bullied incessantly, he decided to take up strength training. If you've ever grazed the back pages of a magazine, you've seen his highly muscled torso touting the body building program that got him named "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man."

Passion burns so brightly, it's clear when one has it. As Chris Gardner puts it, "Passion is the thing that won't let you sleep at night because you want to get up in the morning and go do your thing." By itself it can fuel greatness. "If you're passionate about something, you can develop the abilities," says Gardner. "It can't be taught, it can't be bought. You can't go to Yale and say you want to major in passion. You have to bring it with you."

According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, passion is a component, along with perseverance, of what she calls grit. It particularly enables people to reach for goals that may be a long time in coming, she discovered in interviews with achievers in fields from investment banking to painting. Her studies show that grit and self-discipline predict educational attainment just as well as, if not better than, IQ.

The beautiful thing about crystallizing experiences is that one never knows if purpose is right around the corner, ready to be discovered. And, once stirred, passion has no expiration date.

Breaking Through Brick Walls

Talent and passion may still not be enough. Advancement can grind to a halt against real adversity—a physical handicap, a learning impediment, the death of a parent. Running into a series of brick walls early in life may slow progress, but it also provides opportunities to build inner strength, acquire skills, and, often enough, pave a private path to success.

For some, the roadblock is economic hardship, such as Chris Gardner's stint as a homeless man. It may even be an abusive stepparent, such as the crude one who was jealous of writer Tobias Wolff's ambition, as described in his memoir, This Boy's Life. The brick wall can also be one's field of work. You can be exceedingly brilliant, but if the gatekeepers aren't ready to accept it, or refuse to accept you because of gender or race, there will be no encyclopedia entry.

Systematic studies of highly successful individuals reveal that a history of impediments may actually be more the rule than the exception. Research at the Cass Business School in England found that entrepreneurs are five times more likely to suffer from dyslexia than the average citizen. Virgin Atlantic mogul Richard Branson has dyslexia, as does the CEO of Cisco Systems, John Chambers, who allegedly can't even read his own email.

Entrepreneurs aren't the only ones to reap the benefits (yes, benefits) of dyslexia. "In my day dyslexia didn't exist, merely stupid students," says science fiction writer Piers Anthony. "I may have set a record for stupidity." It took him three years and five schools to get through first grade.

Early loss is another common adversity. In a 1989 study, New York psychologist J. Marvin Eisenstadt scoured the records of 699 eminent Americans and found that 45 percent had lost a parent before age 21. Only two other groups in the general population show that level of orphanhood—juvenile delinquents and depressive or suicidal psychiatric patients.

Running into roadblocks at any age can force psychological growth, and, while that takes time, it ultimately spurs the development of ego strength—the emotional stability, will, and confidence that confer resilience. In wrestling with adversity, individuals learn skills important to success. So those with the greatest challenges can wind up winning from behind. Eisenstadt considered orphanhood part of the price of greatness.

Brick walls may also force a person to take an alternate route. There are many ways to be marginal—through ethnic, religious, sexual, or geographic circumstances—and all are well represented among the eminent, research shows.

Temporary exile from the mainstream may set up an "asynchrony between mind and domain such that the mind encounters significant dissatisfaction with what the domain currently offers," contends David Henry Feldman, a professor of child development at Tufts University. The detour, though time-consuming, may be needed to cultivate one's own "brand" of ideas uninfluenced by the established order. Dissatisfaction with the current conventions of a field may be a key path to revolutionary change. People who are marginalized may excel not in spite of—but because of—experience as an outsider.

For immigrants, success can be delayed because they must take the time to assimilate into a new culture. Nevertheless, they are frequently the major innovators of culture. Composer Irving Berlin was an immigrant, as are filmmaker Ang Lee and Madeline Albright, the first female Secretary of State. In a 1947 study of eminent Americans, statistician Walter Bowerman found that 45 percent were newcomers to the United States—an incidence rate seven times higher than among the native population. Time as an outsider may fuel the fire to succeed and free an individual for the new associations that underlie creative innovation.

Rethinking the Bloom

If in many fields, especially those that draw on many different brain circuits , early achievement is more the exception than the rule, what does it really buy you—aside from a gold star and a kiss from Grandma?

One might assume that such early accomplishments greatly increase an individual's chances for the highest levels of creative achievement. But evidence indicates otherwise. While early ability can certainly increase your chances of becoming an expert, when it comes to the very highest reaches of human potential—that top .00001 percent—it loses its power.

Take William Shockley, transistor co-inventor, Stanford professor, and controversial genetics theorist. As a child, Shockley had his IQ tested by noted psychologist Lewis Terman, but his score kept him out of Terman's famous group of gifted children. No matter. As Terman was following his elite sample of high-IQ (over 140) children, Shockley was earning a Ph.D. from Harvard and winning a Nobel Prize in physics—a distinction not one of Terman's gifted students achieved.

Above a reasonable score (high but not that high), IQ doesn't do a very good job of predicting lifetime creative achievement. There even appears to be an optimal amount of formal schooling after which schooling can deter creative achievement. Beyond that lies the danger of getting too entrenched in the traditional thinking .

For many great minds, passion leads to a great deal of self-teaching that might never show up on a report card, the products of which are only witnessed once the individual is ready to display his achievements to the world. "I consider that all that I have learned of any value has been self-taught," Darwin once wrote. Producing his monumental On the Origin of Species at the age of 50 may automatically qualify Darwin as a late bloomer. In reality, he spent many years carefully observing animals and plants. He needed the time to gather the evidence supporting his revolutionary theory.

Of course, early bloomers should be nurtured. There's no value to squandering ability. But nor should we dismiss the tortoise. At any given time, it's impossible to predict the extent to which a person will eventually blossom—and disastrously naive for "experts" (or parents or teachers) to decree limits on what that person can achieve. This is reason enough to treat everyone as if they have the potential to reach full bloom.