Are you a late bloomer?
Maybe you haven’t found your calling yet, but don’t beat yourself up, says author Rich Karlgaard. Career success often takes time.
Rich Karlgaard got into Stanford University in the late ’70s “on a fluke,” he says now, and then “squandered the opportunity. I barely studied, and got ‘gentleman’s Cs.’” After graduation, he bounced around a lot, working for short stints as a dishwasher, night watchman, and temporary typist: “In my 20s, I had trouble holding down a job.”
Hardly a promising start.
But then, he relates in his new book Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, something big happened. He stumbled across his passion: magazines. In the mid-’80s, Karlgaard and a friend started one called Upside that quickly became such a must-read in the nascent Silicon Valley tech industry that Steve Forbes offered to buy it.
Instead, he ended up hiring Karlgaard, who has been the publisher of Forbes for the past 27 years. Karlgaard is also “publisher and futurist” at Forbes Media, co-founder of a couple of other thriving ventures, and has written three previous books.
Late Bloomers is peppered with examples of people who achieved big things later in life, like Raymond Chandler, who wrote his first of many bestsellers, The Big Sleep, at age 52, and Morgan Freeman, whose Hollywood breakthrough came at age 58 with Driving Miss Daisy. Martha Stewart was 42 when her first cookbook came out. “Creativity is not the sole province of the young,” Karlgaard writes. “Some of us simply need more time, experience, and experimentation to develop a path and realize our talents.”
In fact, Karlgaard’s extensive research—including hundreds of interviews with non-celebrity late bloomers in many different fields—shows that “we get smarter and more creative” as we go along in life, because “our brain’s anatomy, neural networks, and cognitive abilities can actually improve with age and experiences.”
Monster recently spoke with Karlgaard about finding your true vocation whether you’re looking at 25 or 45 in the rearview mirror.
Q. Why did you decide to write this book? Was it because of your own experience?
A. Partly, yes, but also in part because I read an article in The Atlantic about the shocking rise in teen suicide in the U.S. and what has caused it. We as a society are so focused on early success—high SAT scores, getting into the “right” college, idolizing very young billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, and so on—that it puts people just starting out in life under an amount of pressure that can literally become unbearable.
At the same time, when I started gathering information about achieving success later on, I found almost no formal research had been done on it. And any reference to young people stepping off the conveyor belt and taking their time to explore different careers and experiences was always negative, like the expression “failure to launch.” So I was intrigued.
Q. Let’s suppose you’re in a job or career you know is just not right for you. How can you be sure when to quit?
A. That’s a question with no easy answer. Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, once said, “I’ve pretty much quit everything I’m bad at.” Personally, I believe you should quit when you have a clear idea of your Plan B—that is, a definite plan in your mind for exactly how you’re going to move forward. Like stopping a bad habit, quitting an unsuccessful or unfulfilling path in life is easier if you have something to replace it with.
Q. You point out that late bloomers often have at least six distinct advantages over younger people. What are they, and which one is most important in a job hunt?
A. The six strengths I came across most often that take time to develop are curiosity, compassion, resilience, insight, wisdom, and equanimity, meaning the ability to keep things in perspective.
They’re all important in a job search, but I’d say curiosity matters the most. CEOs at Intuit, Genentech, and other companies told Fortune a couple of years ago that it’s the number one quality they look for in new hires and current employees. And curiosity is what prepares people best for job interviews, because it leads to really doing your homework and finding out all about an employer, its industry, its markets, its strengths and weaknesses. If you go in knowing all that, you have a much better chance of being able to explain why that organization should hire you, and where you would fit in.
Q. Does that work even in a total career change, where you have zero experience at the kind of work you really want to do?
A. It can. Whatever you’ve done so far, you’ve gained some skills and experience that are transferable. Maybe you have great technical skills, or the proven ability to lead a team. Think about your skills and talents now and how you would build on them in a new role.
There’s so much information available now. If you’ve looked up the company’s CEO on YouTube talking about where the company is headed, for instance, you can usually make a strong case on why they need what you’ve already demonstrated that you’re good at in a previous job.
Q. You write about “self-compassion”—that is, not beating oneself up after, say, a bad interview. Why is self-compassion important?
A. It boosts your motivation. People who are self-compassionate—meaning as forgiving and encouraging toward themselves as they would be toward a friend or a loved on—are much less afraid of failure. Because self-compassion helps create the sense that it’s okay to make mistakes, it motivates us to try again.
Some people think self-compassion is soft or weak, but it’s just the opposite. As Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist who has done a lot of research in this area, puts it, “When you’re in the trenches, who would you rather have beside you—an enemy or an ally?”
It's never too late
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Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1996. She is a columnist for Fortune.com and author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?