During a baseball world series, the broadcasters extolled the virtues of a 31 year old rookie. He had toiled away in the minor leagues and other professional pursuits to finally break through at least 10 years later than the norm at an age where athletes often retire. Late bloomers are evident in every professional pursuit and they often defy “acting your age”.
That sports reference coincided with a call from a friend we’ll call Lester, who, after a long run in corporate Canada and well into his late 40’s, said he still hadn’t figured out what he wanted to be when he grew up. This was in spite of an impressive career with notable employers and big jobs with great success, or so we thought. Lately it was simply no fun he said, turns out it hadn’t been for quite some time. He is scared about his as yet unknown second act but he is also determined and optimistic. He has reason to be hopeful.
Some late bloomers are mid-lifers who hit their stride later than most through late career changes or return to work after choosing family obligations earlier in life or use the first part of their careers to figure out their strengths and interest in order to go on better things later.
2009 research by Edge, an independent British Educational foundation as quoted by Mark McGraw on the website HR Executive Online found that only a third of us truly figure out our professional path in school while the rest come to their career choices only after first jobs (26%), later in careers (25%), after substantial work experience (18%) or through hobbies (15%).
Employers are realizing that hiring the young who have early career clarity is nice but increasingly and especially in tight employment markets an obsession with youth may not serve them well. The recent past has seen an entire generation who, underemployed or unemployed early in their careers, delay finding “career jobs” as well as other important life decisions much later than their parents did. Many stayed in school rather than take employment outside their chosen field and subsequently enter the job market and begin entry level jobs many years later than previously thought of as the norm. Others “chased the dream” in athletics, the arts, world travel or were education addicts and then with that part of their lives behind them seek out their profession later than most.
In my previous life as a career coach I saw many late debuts and so called re-inventions. Consistent with Marc Freedman’s 2014 Harvard Business Review’s article “The Dangerous Myth of Reinvention” most drew on some of their past experience and knowledge to morph into something apparently completely different.
For Evelyn, (not her real name), she says she simply figured it all out later than most. She plateaued early in her financial career never making it to the top jobs she aspired to. She now admits to a sense of entitlement based on her educational credentials and charisma and fully expected the promotions and accolades would come easily as most things had previously. They didn’t. Frustrated, she eventually struck out on her own after being pushed aside and quickly realized she had lacked self-awareness and discipline. She was great at being busy but only learned to be truly effective much later. Now well into her 50’s she is highly sought after in a field (very) distantly related to her early training and she has developed the grit and insights that many of her early colleagues demonstrated sooner in their careers.
We are all on different career trajectories, some more well-trodden and typical than others. Age, initial educational choices or experiences needn’t be obstacles or limiting in fact it is those very things that often shape or reshape brilliant late starts. Most employers have great stories of hiring someone who was older or later than most or of a long time lackluster performer who really hit stride later in the game.
Neuroscience has now established that our brains can keep learning and improvising well beyond what was previously thought of as our professional best before dates. The key for individuals may be to accept they may indeed be a late bloomer and recognize that late debuts and delayed professional success is prevalent. For employers it is to have the wisdom to nurture and tap into the rich contribution late bloomers of any age can bring.