Henry Oliver
Author, Brand Consultant

The Art of Blooming Late

April 2, 2024 | 28:14

Finding success later in life requires a growth mindset—but also the ability to capture the right opportunity at the right time. In this episode of The Active Share, join Hugo and guest Henry Oliver, a London-based author and brand consultant, for a discussion of what it means to bloom late, how pushing past others’ expectations can foster curiosity and self-exploration, and why it’s critical, for businesses and organizations, to look beyond algorithms to identify talent.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner

00:36 Host Hugo Scott-Gall introduces today’s guest, Raghuram Rajan.
01:43 What is your growth algorithm for India?
06:44 How does India produce world-class services?
11:58 Does agriculture hold the country back?
16:45 Who will India take market shares from?
20:21 Does India have the institutions it needs to compete with international markets?
25:31 Should India use that soft power dividend wisely?
31:08 Do you think optimism has a role in making change?

Hugo Scott-Gall: Today I am delighted to have with me Henry Oliver. Henry studied biography at the University of Buckingham and is a talented writer based in London. His book, Second Act: What Late Bloomers Can Tell You About Success and Reinventing Your Life, is a study of late blooming talents that is scheduled to be released on May 9th of this year. He also writes the Common Reader, a substack publication that explores literature, talent, biography, and other topics. Henry, welcome to the Active Share. Thank you for joining us.

Henry Oliver: Thank you very much for having me.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, I’m going to go straight into the core of your cannon, your book on late bloomers. What is a late bloomer? Why are you interested in late bloomers? Why did you write about them? And have you changed your mind since you wrote it?

Henry Oliver: A late bloomer is someone who achieves something after the point when they are no longer expected to. So, I don’t have a number where I say, “Oh, if you’re 45 and you make some kind of success in your life, you’re a late bloomer.” I think it varies not only by the discipline and the domain, like if you’re a tennis player maybe you can be a late bloomer at age 20, but it also varies by the individual.

So, one of the people in my book is Margaret Thatcher who became the leader of the Tory party, the leader of the opposition in the UK aged 50. Which is the average age that you do become a party leader, but just a few weeks before that happened, she had not only been written off by her own supporters who were making a list of who would stand in the election and they said, “Oh, no we can’t have Margaret,” she was 50 to 1 against the Bookies. So, she sort of came from this place where no one thought she could do it, and she did it. She hadn’t been on that trajectory, she hadn’t been on that career path. So, that’s what a late bloomer is.

I got interested in it because I work in what’s called employer branding, which is essentially the use of marketing, advertising, and those sorts of disciplines to attract talent into companies. I work in the research side of that. And so, my clients were always asking me, “Where can we find talent? The labor market is so difficult. We need to find more people. We need to find good people.” And I came to feel that late bloomers of all descriptions were being ignored by people who were looking for talent. And the more I dug into it, the more I felt that we didn’t understand what a late bloomer was and that someone should write a book about it, and eventually I did.

Hugo Scott-Gall: We’re not talking about outsiders, we’re talking about late bloomers, not the same thing.

Henry Oliver: Well, a late bloomer will sometimes be an outsider though, right. I think you have to have quite a Catholic view of where talent can come from.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, we are talking about people who change midstream. They were doing something else, and now they’re doing the new thing, and they’ve proven to be very good at the new thing.

Henry Oliver: There are different groups. So, in one group, you’ve got people who they don’t pick up a paint brush until they retire, and then suddenly they become a remarkable artist. In another group, you’ve got people who work away at something for a long time, and they don’t flourish until later on.

Now, that might be because it takes them a long time to master what they’re doing. Or it might be as in the case of Ray Kroc, who turned McDonald’s into a global business, he didn’t drive into the car park of McDonald’s until he was 53. And he didn’t realize that he was perfectly well-prepared to do that job. But the more he discovered about the business, the more he realized he was the one who could turn it global.

And then you have a third group, which is a particularly interesting group, of double bloomers; people who have a sort of period of accomplishment earlier in their life, and then they go and do something else and they’re not at the top of their game. They’re doing fine, but they’re not exceptional, and then they come back and they have sort of a second period of blooming later on.

So, there are different ways in which you can be a late bloomer. And I think one problem that dogs this subject is people expect it to be this one clean definition. But actually, people surprise us and flourish later than we expect them to in several different ways.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, I hear you, there isn’t a precise definition, but if you were to list common characteristics, what would it be? And maybe split that into kind of what is it they’ve been doing, and then their personality traits or their character.

Henry Oliver: So, if you think that a late bloomer is someone who flourishes after the point when no one expects them to, this is going to edge you more towards people who have not been successful.

So, there are people who’ve set up hedge funds mid-career. John Paulson I think his name is, the guy who supposedly made the greatest trade of all time, he was not highly performing. His hedge fund, because it was quite small, he was talked of as someone who hadn’t really made it, he never felt like he’d lived up to his ambitions, and he kept plugging away, and he hired someone else who was in a very similar position to him. And because they shared that kind of unconventional outlook, they weren’t incentivized to keep performing in the same way that they had been for the last few years because it’s not like they were out performing. They were able to see opportunities in the market that other people weren’t.

Similarly, if you think about someone like Malcom X, he went into prison aged 20, and he was not on a good trajectory. But when he was in prison, he got a kind of structure and a discipline. And he sat down in the prison library and worked every day, and he came out as a totally different person.

So, I think there’s something about you’re not expected to be successful in a conventional way, and this can free you up to put your time and energy into opportunities that other people aren’t looking at. Whereas if you are already successful, if you’re already doing really well in your job, if you’re already earning a good salary, or you’ve lived up to the expectations people had of you in a general way, you’re quite strongly incentivized to keep going. And late bloomers are very often free from that. They remove themselves from the normal success track.

Now, obviously that can go wrong, right. That can just lead to almost like you’ve grown out, but that is quite a common pattern. And the reason why it’s difficult to spot them is that it’s very difficult to know how long will that take, when will the payoff be. If the opportunity doesn’t come along, what will that person turn into? So, you have to take a bit of a bet on late bloomers sometimes.

Hugo Scott-Gall: I said before, are they outsiders, but it’s clearly some attitude to risk. It’s clearly perhaps—I’m saying clearly, maybe that’s too strong. Maybe you disagree. It is perhaps a multidisciplinary skill set, maybe it is curiosity, maybe it’s the growth mindset versus fixed mindset that somehow if you’re not burdened by your own high expectations or others expectation of you it’s easier to switch. Are those some things you’ve observed?

I guess one of the challenges for you has been to build up the data set. There isn’t a premade, prepacked data set of, “Here is the official list of late bloomers,” so you’ve got to find them first before you analyze them. But is there something in the things I listed there, growth mindset, outsider, risk taking, multi-disciplinary evidence of that, therefore curiosity?

Henry Oliver: I think those factors are all present in some combination in late bloomers. The way I’ve framed this is to put all of that under the heading of being in an exploring phase. So, because late bloomers, they’re often not on these kind of progressive career tracks and sort of going up and up and up, they look a bit like they’re meandering. But actually they are curious, they’ve got the growth mindset. They’re trying different things, they’re exploring different areas.

There’s a wonderful study, I think it was done at Northwestern, looking into why people have a hot streak. So, why is it that artists, scientists, sports people suddenly have this kind of 10- or 15-year period when they just produce so much of their best work, right, so many hits? And they said, “These people were all in an explore phase in their career. Looking at different things, trying different things out, looking for new ideas, new techniques. And at some point, they decide that they’re going to switch into an exploit phase.” And they’re no longer primarily looking around and trying things out and sort of meandering in their career. They pick something, and they go and try and achieve it.

Now, this will often mean going into a different environment, maybe leaving academia and going into a commercial organization where the structure and the setup is much more about delivery, shifting something. And this is a very, very useful model for late bloomers. They have all those qualities that you described, but at some point, the wheel of fate turns, some opportunity comes along to them, and they decide to pull together all these things they have acquired early on in their career and put them to use.

And this is much more speculative; I think the people who want to become late bloomers but don’t quite make it are stuck in a perpetual explore phase. They never manage to convert it and say, “Actually, from now on the job is not to be curious, have a growth mindset, discover new things. The job is to now get the output done, find the team I’m going to work with, focus on delivery, whenever that is.” So, I think that paper and that model is quite useful.

And that shows us why it’s difficult to spot late bloomers because when you look at someone in an explore phase, it takes a bit more imagination on your part as the talent spotter to think, “You know what? If I took that person, if I put them in this team, if I gave them the resources, then yes they could actually deliver quite significantly.” Because what you’re looking at is someone who is curious and exploratory and not focused on delivery, right. So, the trick is find those people who you think, “Yeah, if I had dropped them on the 23rd floor of my office, I reckon they could do interesting work.”

Hugo Scott-Gall: There are two things I want to pursue with you now. One is really around talent identification, spotting talent, and the second is the role of society and its’ attitudes and the benefits of late bloomers to society. So, let’s talk a little bit about talent. It’s a bit of a common theme, a common thread running through the podcasts we’ve done historically, even the very first one we did with David Epstein talking about his book Range.

Are we good, we being those who are trying to hire talent, whether that is university admissions, whether that is employers, whether that is sporting teams, wherever that is. Wherever organizations need talent, are we good at identifying and spotting talent given that it is clearly a big part of your thesis around being a late bloomer, and also part of your broader life? So, how to spot talent, how to identify talent, is this just an art, is it just gut feel, can it be reduced to just algorithms, should we live somewhere in between? What are your thoughts?

Henry Oliver: The more you reduce it to an algorithm, the less able you are to spot the most interesting people. Now, I don’t know if AI is going to change that. I don’t know if we’re going to see the possibility for more creative recruitment processes. Because at the moment, a recruitment process is very kind of blunt. It screens you in very binary ways. I don’t know whether AI is going to have the ability to read CVs and covering letters with more nuance, and therefore make recruitment screening less of a kind of blunt tool. But at the moment, the more you optimize in that sense, the less able you are to pick someone up off the pile and say, “This person looks interesting.”

Now, if you work in a small business, my career has mostly been in marketing agencies so they tend to be up to 100, 150 people in one room somewhere even if the global business is bigger, you have much more time to look through the people who applied to you and say, “Well, this person doesn’t look exceptional, but weird and interesting in the ways that might be good here.”

Whereas in a bigger organization, you don’t have time to go through all the CVs and do that, right. So, you don’t know who you’re missing. Now, that might be a good thing. It might be that the odd ball who wins in the marketing agencies simply wouldn’t fit very easily into a bigger, more corporate organization and that it would be not very productive for everyone.

But I do think that finding the most interesting talent is always a question of human judgment. And what you see again and again in this book is that the people who became late bloomers were overlooked earlier in their career because you had to pay quite attention to them to know that they were talented people. And it’s just always going to be true that those people won’t do well in a sort of algorithm style recruitment process. But as I say, I’m optimistic that AI might readdress the balance there somewhat.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Can you talk a little bit more about the importance of networks, that networks are pretty good sourcing systems for talent, that usually how many key hires come through networks, either direct or indirect? What’s your view on networks as a source of identifying talent, or a process for identifying talent? And indeed you touched on it in your book, the role of networks in allowing late bloomers to emerge.

Henry Oliver: So, in the book I talked about how networks are the mechanism by which late bloomers get their opportunities. There was a lot I didn’t put in the book as networks as talent selection processes, so I’ll talk about both.

What I say in the book, which I think is quite interesting, is that we think of networks about being about connections. And we all know about the connector from Malcolm Gladwell, and that’s based on the early research about the more connections you have, the more opportunities you get through your network. And this has become standard career advice, that your next job will come from your network.

The more recent network science though shows us that what really matters is not connections, but influence. The more people you know, the more recommendations you’re getting from those people, right. And therefore, the less attention you pay to each recommendation.

What you really need, if you’re thinking like, “How do I use my network to get an opportunity?” you don’t need to think, “Who is the best connecting person I know? Who are the people I know right at the heart of the networks I’m trying to get into?” right? What you need to think is, “Who is the most influential person? If I’m trying to get a job with Hugo, who is the person he’s really going to listen to?” And try and use your network in that way.

Because if you think that someone is one or two degrees removed from you, you’re much more likely to take a recommendation from them than you are from someone who is three degrees removed. My direct report has recommended that I hire someone. That’s going to get much more attention that my direct report’s wife’s friend. Which maybe that’ll work, but maybe it won’t. So, you really need to think about influence in networks, and I think that’s become much more central to network science in recent years.

Hugo Scott-Gall: I wonder if AI disrupts the value of networks.

Henry Oliver: I don’t think so. I think it probably only enhances it because it helps you sift through the connections and workout who you’re really connected to. Because the problem with networks, when it comes to influence, is the churn. Even your second- and third-degree connections will churn quite a reasonable amount over a two- to five-year period. And so, having that connection becomes a much weaker thing. Probably AI will help organizations manage their networks much better and think much more specifically about who are the people we’re connected to who are still actually useful in our network. Because I don’t know at the moment that we’re very good at measuring the churning on it.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Let’s move on to society. So, I think you’re going to say yes when I ask you this question, which is surely late bloomers, either those who do bloom or those who could bloom, are hugely valuable to society in a number of different ways for what they produce as late bloomers, but the messaging, the signaling that it’s possible to be a late bloomer. I think you agree with that.

Henry Oliver: Of course. If you think that talent is the binding constraint on high performance and on what an organization can do, then you want to find talent wherever you can, right. And the more late bloomers we can discover and enable, the better that will be for all of us.

But I think there’s a second point which is that we are living longer, and we are living healthier as we live longer. And so, what someone’s life over the age of 50, 60, and 70 looks like today is very different than what it used to be. People are much more active, they stay in work, they stay in education. The labor force participation rate for over 65 is way up, even from the 90s. People are traveling much more. And so, just the sense that actually you should see that as like a stage in your life when you should be doing more and doing different, and not letting go of the idea of accomplishment, I think that’s relatively new. And I think that’s going to be a part of late blooming in the years to come.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Does it require actual policy to shift practices and societal attitudes?

Henry Oliver: I don’t think policy is the most important thing here. I think that a lot of this is just about how people choose to live their lives, how they manage their careers, and how we run our organizations. You might be able to make a case that we should change the way we do pensions or something, but I think that this is outside of policy. This is about the choices we’re all making.

Hugo Scott-Gall: But in aging societies, there are many countries who are facing the prospects of, and this is true for most of the western hemisphere, shrinking working age populations. So, clearly if you have a shrinking working age population, that is burdensome on the workers, they likely face higher taxes, that’s problematic.

Henry Oliver: Yeah.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Anyway, you would have thought late bloomers is a great solution to that problem of aging populations, and particularly aging of the working age population, shrinkage of the working age population. I hear what you’re saying that this is best to happen organically but doesn’t that really call for government direct involvement to really shift, whether that is through legislation, antiaging age discrimination would be illegal, or frowned upon, whatever. Do you follow?

Henry Oliver: I think we have age discrimination laws. As I said, you might be able to do something with pensions. I think raising the retirement age has been a relatively successful policy. To me, it’s very notable. But there’s been these large increases in labor force participation among the 65+ age. Now, some people might say that’s a bad thing, it’s the result of the recessions and COVID and so on, but it’s not all a bad thing. And plenty of people actually choose to continue their career, to work part-time, to work in a different capacity.

So, I think that the real change is in attitudes and in people rethinking how they manage their employee base. I don’t think there are very many barriers to late blooming that have been imposed by policy that we need to handle.

Hugo Scott-Gall: I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this. What does your research say about the difference between prodigies and late bloomers? Do you see them as different ends of the distribution curve? And if late bloomers are important, maybe not easy to spot, what about prodigies? How have you changed your view around prodigies from thinking about late bloomers?

Henry Oliver: Some people see the work I’ve done as being in kind of opposition to prodigies. So, we shouldn’t have 30 under 30. We live in this youth obsessed culture. I say let’s have both. Let’s have it all, right? We want all talent to flourish, we want to find talent wherever we can.

I do think there’s an interesting comparison to be made, which is many prodigies, they don’t remain super successful as adults. So, when they’re children and teenagers, they are outliers in distribution. But as adults, they’re not always. Now, I don’t know if it’s fair to say that they don’t live up to their potential, but this is something of a conundrum when you’re looking into research on prodigies.

And I think that’s the question I was trying to answer about late bloomers, which is why don’t we have more of them? It’s clearly the case that there’s hidden potential out there. No one thinks that we’re at maximum human potential here. So, I think there’s an interesting comparison there.

I think also they share this trait that they get named like this. You and I are not part of some group of, “Oh, we’re late bloomers,” or, “We’re prodigies.” We’re just people who are in our careers. And I think one aim of talking more about late bloomers is to get people to realize this is just another normal group of people like everyone else, and we should just make room for them and encourage it and go out and spot them and make use of them in our organizations. I don’t think being called a prodigy does many people a great favor.

Hugo Scott-Gall: In the book, here are some of the people you mentioned. So, there’s Katharine Graham who became CEO of Washington Post, there’s Ray Kroc, McDonald’s, there’s Margaret Thatcher, the UK prime minister, there’s Samuel Johnson, famous for his dictionary, there’s Frank Lloyd Wright, famous architect.

Of those and others you looked at, you talked about Grandma Moses, what are your favorite stories? What’s the kind of most inspiring or surprising or most resonant story that you came across in the book?

Henry Oliver: My favorite story is Audrey Sutherland who was a kayaker. And I loved Audrey Sutherland’s story so much I gave her her own chapter. She was a remarkable woman.

When she was about 40, she was a single mother with four children, and she lived in Hawaii. And she flew over one of the islands one day and she looked down out of the plane and she thought, “I have to go and explore that bit of coastline I’ve just seen.” And it turned out to be very remote and difficult to get to. And she decided to take a sub on an expedition and to swim the parts of it that she couldn’t access. So, she flew on a plane to a former leprosy hospital and set out on her expedition on her own.

Now, you’ve got to remember, this is in the days before mobile phones. And so, if she slips and twists her ankle or something, no one is going to worry about her for like three or four days when she’s supposed to get back. So, she’s undertaking something quite brave, and she nearly killed herself doing this. She got very dehydrated and had to jump off a cliff at a sort of difficult moment and could have easily killed herself, and she was very lucky. And she then spent the next 20 years having sort of caught this bug that she had to do this exploration, gradually expanding her skill set, going on expeditions closer to home before she worked up several years before going back to that coastline. She got an inflatable canoe. And people did not take her seriously. The idea of a 50-year-old woman going around in a bright orange inflatable kayak was seen as kind of a joke by some people.

But when she was 60, she decided that she would quit her job and go and explore the coast of British Colombia and Alaska. Because she said to herself, “If you don’t go now, you’re going to get old and you’re not going to do it.” And she had never kayaked in cold waters before. She’s in Hawaii, so going up to British Colombia and Alaska is really a significant new level of challenge, and she’s doing it solo. So, she’s having bear encounters on her own, and she’s out in remote parts of the country.

And she kept doing that into her 80s, which is quite a remarkable level of accomplishment. And she became very well known in the kayaking community. She published books, she was constantly giving talks. But she is not as well-known as some other modern explorers.

I like her a lot because to me, she really exemplifies that spirit that you’re 40 when you start doing this, and then you just gradually expand your competence until you find yourself facing down a bear in the Alaskan woods on your own in your 60s or your 70s. I spoke to one of her children and friends they had on the island, and they said, “None of us had any idea when she started doing these expeditions that she was going to end up kayaking British Colombia and facing down bears. It was amazing that she ended up doing that.” So, she’s my favorite story. She has the real attitude of a late bloomer.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Well, with that, let’s draw to a close, that’s a good story, I like it, and say Henry, thank you very much for coming on the show. Let’s both hope we are set to become late bloomers. Thank you for taking the time. It was a pleasure.

Henry Oliver: Thank you for having me. This was great.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner

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