May 20, 2024 | Podcast
The Art of Blooming Late

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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, for a discussion on 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.

Comments are edited excerpts from our podcast, which you can listen to in full below.


What is a late bloomer?

Henry Oliver: Late bloomers are people who achieve something when they are no longer expected to. Age can vary, not only by the discipline and the domain, but also by the individual.

I became interested in late bloomers because I work in employer branding, which is the use of marketing and advertising to attract talent to companies. Late bloomers were being ignored by those looking for talent. The more I dug into it, the more I felt that we didn’t understand what a late bloomer was.

Are there different kinds of late bloomers?

Henry: Yes. The first kind includes people who, for instance, won’t pick up a paint brush until they retire, and then become remarkable artists.

The second kind includes people who work at something for a long time, but don’t flourish until later. Ray Kroc, who turned McDonald’s into a global business in his 50s, didn’t realize he was well prepared to do that job at first. But the more he discovered about the business, the more he realized he could.

The third kind is interesting because it includes double bloomers: people who have a period of accomplishment earlier in life, do something else where they’re not at the top of their game, and then they come back as a late bloomer.

People expect late bloomers to have one clean definition. But people can surprise and flourish later than we expect them to in several different ways.

What are some examples of a late bloomer?

Henry: A good example of a late bloomer is Margaret Thatcher, who became the leader of the Tory party at age 50. While this is the average age that a person becomes a party leader, she was written off by her own supporters just a few weeks before she was elected. No one thought she could do it, and she hadn’t been on that trajectory.

Another example is hedge fund manager John Paulson, who supposedly made the greatest trade of all time. He was not a high-performing individual, and he never felt like he’d lived up to his ambitions. But he kept plugging away. After hiring someone that shared the same unconventional outlook, they were able to see opportunities in the market that other people didn’t.

Similarly, someone like Malcom X, who went to prison at age 20, was not initially on a good trajectory. But in prison, he received structure and discipline. He sat down in the prison library and worked every day and left a different person.

When people are not expected to be successful in a conventional way, it can allow them to put time and energy into unique opportunities. But people who are already successful, or have lived up to expectations, are incentivized to keep going. Late bloomers are often free from that. They remove themselves from the normal success track.

When people are not expected to be successful in a conventional way, it can allow them to put time and energy into unique opportunities.

Do late bloomers have any shared characteristics?

Henry: I think some factors, such as a growth mindset and risk taking, are present in in all late bloomers. They are in an exploring phase. Because late bloomers are not on progressive career tracks, they can look like they’re meandering. But they’re curious, trying different things and exploring different areas.

A recent study investigated why people have a hot streak. Why do artists, scientists, and athletes suddenly experience a 10- or 15-year period when they produce much of their best work? The study found that these people were all in an exploration phase in their careers. And at some point, they decided to switch to an exploitation phase, where they pick something and try and achieve it.

This can often mean going into a different environment, such as a commercial organization, where the structure and setup is about delivery. This is a useful model for late bloomers.

Late bloomers all have similar qualities; but at some point, the wheel of fate turns, and they decide to pull together everything they’ve acquired in their careers and put it to use.

I think the people who want to become late bloomers but don’t make it are stuck in a perpetual exploration phase. They never manage to get into a growth mindset. And that shows us why it’s difficult to identify late bloomers. When you look at someone in an exploration phase, it takes some imagination to think, “If I hire this person, then they could deliver in a significant way.”

Can identifying talent be reduced to an algorithm? Or is it a gut feeling?

Henry: The more you reduce identifying talent to an algorithm, the less able you are to spot interesting people. I don’t know if artificial intelligence (AI) is going to change that, or read resumes and cover letters with more nuance, or lead to more creative recruitment processes. Right now, recruitment processes are very blunt and screen you in binary ways.

But if you work in a small business, you have more time to look through applicants. In a bigger organization, you don’t have time to go through as many applicants, so you don’t know who you’re missing. That may be a good thing. The odd-ball who fits in at marketing agencies, for example, potentially wouldn’t fit into a more corporate organization.

Finding the most interesting talent is a question of human judgment. And what we see again and again is that the people who became late bloomers were overlooked earlier in their career. These people don’t do well in an algorithmic recruitment process.

The more you reduce identifying talent to an algorithm, the less able you are to spot interesting people.

Are prodigies similar to late bloomers?

Henry:  I think they share the trait of being labeled as a distinct group apart from most other people. One aim of talking more about late bloomers, and thus prodigies, is to get people to realize they are just normal groups of people. We should make room for them, encourage them, hire them in our organizations.

What do you think of networks as a source of identifying talent? Do networks better allow late bloomers to emerge? 

Henry: In my book, Second Act: What Late Bloomers Can Tell You About Success and Reinventing Your Life, I discuss how networks are the mechanism in which late bloomers receive opportunities. Networks provide connections, and the more connections you have, the more opportunities you may receive.

More recent network science shows that what matters more is not connections, but influence. The more people you know, the more recommendations you’re getting.

But a result of that is there is less attention paid to each recommendation. If 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.

Will AI disrupt the value of networks? 

Henry: I think AI could enhance networks, as it could potentially sift through connections and determine which are most meaningful. The problem with networks now is the churn. Even your second- and third-degree connections will churn a reasonable amount over a two- to five-year period. AI could also help organizations better manage their networks and help determine the most useful connections.

Are late bloomers valuable to society?

Henry: We want to be able to find talent wherever we can, so the more late bloomers we identify and give the tools for success, the better our society will be.

We are living longer, and we are living healthier. Today, the life of someone over 50 looks very different than it used to; people are more active, they travel more, they continue to work and pursue education. Viewing that stage of life as a period of potential accomplishment is relatively new.

In aging societies, where working populations are shrinking, late bloomers appear to be a great solution. Does this situation call for policy implementation?

AI could enhance networks, as it could potentially sift through connections and determine which are most meaningful.

Henry: I think raising the retirement age has been a relatively successful policy, and there are age discrimination laws. But there are some people who say the large increase in labor-force participation among the 65-and-older age group is a bad thing, that it’s the result of recessions and COVID-19.

But it’s not all bad. Plenty of people choose to continue their careers, to work part-time, to work in different capacities. I think the real change is in attitudes and in people rethinking how they manage their employee base.

In your book, you mention other great examples of late bloomers, such as Katharine Graham, the former CEO of The Washington Post; Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first American dictionary; and Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect. What’s the most resonant story that you came across?

Henry: My favorite story is about Audrey Sutherland. When she was 40, she was a single mother with four children living in Hawaii. One day, she flew over one of the islands, looked down, and thought, “I have to go and explore that bit of coastline.”

The location turned out to be remote and difficult to get to, but Audrey traveled on a submarine and swam the parts of it that she couldn’t access. She undertook something brave and nearly killed herself in the process.

Audrey then spent the next 20 years going on expeditions closer to home and expanding her skillset. And people did not take her seriously. The idea of a 50-year-old woman in a bright orange, inflatable kayak was seen as a joke by some people.

Then, at 60, she decided to quit her job to explore the coast of British Colombia and Alaska. She had never kayaked in cold waters before, so it was a significant challenge. Audrey kept exploring into her 80s, and she became well known in the kayaking community, publishing books and giving talks. Audrey exemplifies the late bloomer spirit.

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