Do you remember what you were doing at age 25? At 30? At 25, I was a clueless graduate student not knowing why I was in graduate school. At 30, I was still testing the waters with my multiple degrees.
We are madly obsessed with early achievement. Youthful success is something to be celebrated and put on a pedestal in the museum of human achievement. We glorify child prodigies who dazzle us with Beethoven before they learn to read and write. Later, we extol the brilliance of college drop-outs who keep rolling out the next mobile app to fulfill some human desire. What about Steve Jobs? He founded Apple in his 20s. Zuckerberg took Facebook public at 28. Apple has transformed the way humans interact with technology. And Facebook’s social media platform has turned the world into a gold mine of data.
At workplaces, we encounter colleagues whose credentials and titles far belie their years. It’s not uncommon to have 30-year-olds leading teams of middle-aged people who have far greater life experience. Isn’t Sheryl a lot older than Mark? For a long time, I always wondered: how do the Zuckerbergs in the world do it and what sets them apart from the rest of us? Is there any hope for those of us who failed to achieve a certain measure of success by our 20’s and 30’s?
The answer to my last inquiry came in a Wall Street Journal article by Rich Karlgaard. Many of us can take solace in his very thoughtful essay. Society has created an environment in which we are forced to play catch-up because we have a love affair with people who have “made it” early in life. The people who seem to have it all by age 30 are what Karlgaard terms “early bloomers”. An example is F. Scott Fitzgerald, most famous for “The Great Gatsby”, who attended Princeton and achieved literary success in his 20s.
Karlgaard argues that many of us will be better served by discovering and embracing our true talents instead of of focusing on high test scores, accolades or PhDs in math, computer science or engineering. Those inner talents may take years to emerge. Creativity and inspiration actually increase with age. And there is no particular age at which we are peak on most things. Sometimes, creativity and your best work may come later. He cites many examples of people whose best work came later in life. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel at 39 and won the Pulitzer at 56. Andrea Bocelli and Martha Stewart really came to the world’s attention in their mid-30s. Even Tom Brady, the star quarterback of the Patriots, was overlooked in his early years. And just because some of us do not meet standard expectations by a certain age does not mean we have somehow failed. In some cultures like mine, not meeting standard expectations may be viewed as a disgrace. But nobody is running your life except you. In my 30’s, I am no longer a fresh grad waiting to please everyone at their every beck and call. Due to a variety of circumstances, some of us may be at jobs where our talents are overlooked or underappreciated. Talents will emerge with time, and those years of life experience provide a context in which novel perceptions will turn into creative insights.
And what happened to Mr. Fitzgerald? He died a bitter man at age 44. As Karlgaard wrote, all around Fitzgerald, there were “second acts” and late bloomers on their way up while he was on his way down.
In addition to Karlgaard’s insight, it is also important to remember to learn from failures. I am sure that any middle-aged Pulitzer winner or a NY Times best-selling author has failed more than they have succeeded. But without failure, they would not be where they are today.
I am going to conclude with this quote taken from my Facebook feed. The author is unknown.
Obama retired at 55, Trump started at 70.
Sydney is 3 hours ahead of Perth, but that doesn’t make Perth slow.
Someone graduated at the age of 22, but waited 5 years before securing a good job.
Someone became a CEO at 25 and died at 50.
While another became a CEO at 50 and lived to 90 years.
Someone is still single, while someone else got married.
Everyone in this world works based on their time zone.
People around you might seem to be ahead of you and some might seem to be behind you.
But everyone is running their own race, in their own time.
Do not envy them and do not mock them.
They are in their time zone, and you are in yours.
Life is about waiting for the right moment to act.
You’re not early.
You’re not late.
You are very much on time.