Modern society is in awe of young trailblazers. We idolize young founders who have started new high-tech companies, subsequently becoming multimillionaires and billionaires. In sports and entertainment, media fawn over young athletes and celebrities who have skyrocketed to the top of the food chain with their astronomical incomes.
All of which has spawned the cult of early success. Forbes has its “30 Under 30” list. The New Yorker has its “20 under 40” list. Even Time magazine has its 25 most influential teens.
In our obsession with youth and early success, we now completely overlook that we don’t always have to hurry to get to our appointed moment to shine. Sometimes, we need to wait for the right time, letting the moment come as naturally as the ripening of a banana, papaya, apple or an orange.
Let’s not forget that many great leaders and artists achieved success when they were in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Playwright George Bernard Shaw and novelist Joseph Conrad are some of the famous late bloomers. J.K. Rowling was 32 when Harry Potter was published. Julia Child was 49 years old when her first cookbook was published.
What about us in our 60s and 70s? Is it already too late for us to shine?
My answer is whether you’re 60, 70, or 80, it’s never too late to find the right inspiration and start giving in to your passion.
But I can’t guarantee you will become a billionaire like the young high tech wizards or sports and entertainment celebrities. What is certain is your life will draw to a more fulfilling epilogue. Look at it as your swan song, so to speak, because according to folklore, swans sing most beautifully before they softly go into the night.
I’m 71 and I’m having a blast composing think pieces. My age-mate and friend Del is painting landscapes as if there’s no tomorrow. It seems that we are giving release to ideas and feelings that have been dammed inside us for so long.
Frank Sulloway, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that one important factor that often increases with age is the freedom to take risks. No wonder I am no longer shy or afraid to voice out my ideas no matter how crazy they seem to others. As an independent creative consultant, I can now give free rein to my imagination. All of which I never had the time, inclination and the freedom to do as an overstressed 9 to 6 clock puncher, which I continued to be as a desk-bound executive in my late 50s.
The common notion that creativity declines as we age is a just a myth. It explodes in the face of a list of famous seniors in various fields who achieved great things even in the late, late stage of their lives.
No age is too late for us to bloom and shine. At the age of 83, the French painter, Henri Matisse created “The Snail,” now considered as one of the world’s masterpieces. His fellow Impressionist painter Claude Monet produced some of his most famous work in his 70s and beyond.
At 63, Tanzanian-born artist Lubaina Himid won the Turner Prize, which is the most prestigious contemporary art prize in Britain. Not only was she the first woman of color to win the prize, more significantly, she was the oldest person ever to win it! Until the year before, eligibility had been capped at age 50. She broke the gender and age ceiling and made history.
Consider another late bloomer, a man named Peter. At age 61, after retiring from his medical career, he began working on his newfound passion as a way to battle depression: a book that is now on every desk. His full name was Peter Mark Roget and he gave the world “Roget’s Thesaurus,” first printed in 1852, when he was 73.
Helen Mirren snagged an Oscar at 61, a breakthrough in her career, which boosted her climb to the peak as a major stage and film talent in her late 60s, an age when most actresses struggle to find roles.
Sculptor and previous Turner Prize winner Anish Kapoor said: “We have had a long, long, long obsession with youth…and I think it is good to recognize that it often takes a lifetime to really have the work recognized, to be an artist.”
The same thing can be said for the fields of business and science, with some groundbreaking innovations only coming with experience.
For instance, if you think entrepreneurship is mainly for the risk-taking youth, think again. It turns out entrepreneurs are mostly late bloomers. According to a study, it turns out that the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to the 55-64 age group.
Ray Kroc was 52 years old when he bought McDonald’s and turned it into what it is today. Colonel Sanders (Harland David Sanders) opened his first franchise of the famous Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952, when he was 62.
It’s the same thing in the field of science. Consider a few of the renowned scientists who continue to make important contributions to our world in their 90s. Now 96 years old, David Attenborough English broadcaster, biologist, natural historian is still doing field trips shooting documentaries. Noam Chomsky, father of modern linguistics, and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science is still making waves at 93. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and a best-selling author, is still at it, making scientific concepts such as string theory understandable to laypeople at age 75.
Even the sky is no longer the limit for seniors. At age 77, Glenn flew on Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-95 mission on October 29, 1998, making him the oldest person to enter Earth orbit. He also was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1960.
Prior to that, Franklin S. Musgrave held the title of oldest astronaut. His first mission took place in 1983 and his final spaceflight was in 1996 at the age of 61.
Peggy Whitson is the oldest female astronaut and the first female commander of the International Space Station. She celebrated her 57th birthday in space on the ISS. Over her career, Whitson accrued a total of 665 days in space, making her NASA’s most experienced astronaut to date.
This only shows that when it comes to making an impact, age really is just a number.
What, then, is holding you back?
There is still time to make a mark. Let’s not allow our culture’s obsession with early success to discourage us from pursuing our passions even at this late, late stage. Rage against being set aside and marginalized. Let’s prove to the young that we are not a burden but an untapped opportunity.
Remember the song by Frank Sinatra? “The best is yet to come, and won’t that be fine?”