Written by Jenna Leah
“It’s OK to be a late bloomer as long as you don’t miss the flower show.”
Not living your dream yet? You might just be the coolest person I've never met.
I used to sit behind our high school prom queen in math class. I remember staring at her impossibly shiny hair and the careless way she tossed it over her shoulder. I would study her always impeccable outfits and marvel at the ever-present crowd of admirers around her desk. She was bright enough to get by, but her crowning achievement was beauty and fame of the effervescent all-American cheerleader variety. She made everything look effortless and imbued with magic, and I know for a fact that I would have given up everything that I was for just a second of life in her shoes.
Fast forward 15+ years, and thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I actually know where this girl is now. Her life in small-town USA looks nice enough: she has two kids, a big yard, and a husband with a warm smile—but there is nothing remarkable about how she turned out. On the contrary, from a looks, respect and star quality perspective, a jury would be pretty unanimous in saying that she peaked in high school.
If I wanted to find this girl's antithesis, I would need to look no further than myself. Maybe it was my glasses, braces, pale skin and gangly body that made me unpopular. Or maybe it was the fact that I grew up as an only child and truly didn't understand how to interact with my peers. I chose books over soccer at recess, and I proudly wore plaids with polka dots before clashing was cool.
Yep, I was awkward...and not in the fun way. True to any coming of age story, I wouldn't have forgone a single moment of my awkward adolescence, super sloooow life purpose development, relationship missteps and general extended angst.
But to be honest, over the years something has shifted. I have developed a certain confidence and sassiness that is well beyond anything I would ever have imagined for myself in my younger years. I am finally able to cop to my early days of nerddom, and in doing so admit to myself that I am no longer that frightened wallflower watching life go by around her.
As uncomfortable as it is for me to admit this to myself, somewhere along the way I started to bloom. I'm still a work in progress, but for the first time in a long time, I no longer doubt that I will get there.
Clearly I have a bit of a bias in the late bloomer direction—it serves my soul to feel that it is possible to start off as a cockroach and somehow mystically morph into a bunny. Yet at the heart of the matter, when I cast all of my stubborn beliefs aside, I believe in late bloomerdom because I've heard wonderful, heart opening stories of it from my friends, witnessed it with my own eyes, and delighted in the stories of the movers and shakers of the world (think Van Gogh, Martha Stewart and Julia Child) as they recall their days as struggling peons.
Here are some of my favorite late bloomer facts:
They take a circuitous path.
Many late bloomers have dabbled in not one or two, but a vast multitude of professions that runs far closer to the double digits. Back in the day, we used to call people who were well versed in a myriad of different arenas renaissance people or polymaths. These terms were used to denote people that were both clever and interesting, who also boasted an impressive amount of knowledge that spanned fields and made for some pretty fascinating conversations.
Part of allowing yourself to bloom a bit behind the typical timeframe requires a willingness to get a bit sidetracked and not always understand where your passions are leading you. It involves being willing to get really uncomfortable and wake up in the middle of the night wondering what the f--- you are doing. It requires heaps of blind faith and a willingness to sometimes leap with trust that the net will appear. Late blooming is not for the faint of heart ;)
They tend to be experimental, rather than conceptual.
This means that instead of starting off saying "I want to be a lawyer" and then doggedly pursuing a course of action that makes perfect sense, late bloomers are more likely to say "I'd really like to sign up for this online HR course," and then allow that to seamlessly lead them into the next passion they pursue. They make choices not because there is a clear end goal in mind, but with the bold understanding that they can't yet know where they are being led. Simply put, being a late bloomer often forces people to dig the journey more than the destination—or at least develop a healthy respect for the process.
They are often misunderstood.
To further complicate our societal notions of late bloomers, Malcolm Gladwell tackles the typical late bloomer story by arguing that being a late bloomer is not always synonymous with being a late starter. Although we are all familiar with stories of the famous fashion designers who never sewed a button until age 40, it is equally likely that the late bloomer down the hall from you has been painting or writing screenplays since they were 8.
Why hasn't the world seen them before now? Late bloomers are as complex as any other group of people, and so their decision to wait on revealing their gifts to the world may stem from a variety of sources. Perhaps they are insecure, not ready for the pressures that success will bring, or uncertain if they are chasing the right dream. Whatever the reason, a late bloomer that appears on the scene at 30 may be new to success, but not to the craft for which they are becoming famous. You just never know!
Sometimes they get left in the dust by the new and shiny.
Lately the demise of late bloomerdom has been getting a lot of press, with articles proclaiming that times are changing with the rise of the 24 year old CEO wunderkind. There is certainly a case to be made for the fact that our society is obsessed with the new and shiny, hence the prevalence of "30 under 30" lists heralding the next big thing.
In addition, many of the more lucrative, innovation-driven fields (think technology) tend to be more inclined in the direction of youth. That said, late bloomers have been around since time immemorial, and it seems highly unlikely that even the best laid social conventions can touch them.
Why I get super stoked about working with LBs:
Whether you've never had the chance to be what you might have been, or identify as a mid-career professional wanting to make a radical shift, I LOVE YOUR ADVENTURE. I might be biased, but I believe that the time you've spend developing your identity, observing, and gathering information about the world around you makes you immensely valuable in whatever realm you choose to direct your focus. You don't take anything for granted, because you know what it looks like to feel unsuccessful.
When you DO blossom and achieve success, you truly feel it and have the opportunity to know true gratitude. You are kind-you've learned to have patience with yourself, and that sensitivity translates to holding space for other people as well. Having spent time watching from the sidelines, you understand more about the way other people work, and you are filled with ideas and wisdom as a result of what you've seen.
If this were a fairy tale and we went hunting for the moral, it would probably be something like this: there is no “perfect” journey, and there is no “normal” timeline. Wherever you are is just ducky, and wherever you are going is even better. I say this as someone who fights the good fight against perfectionism and linear thinking almost daily. I’ve outlawed career ladders, pyramids, and just about any other hierarchical model used to mark progress. Real peace for me comes from visualizing growth and progress as a spiral. True success of the lasting variety rarely happens the way we think it will, but it always promises a wild ride, and it is never truly far beyond your reach. <3
Jenna is a Silicon Valley tech gal by day/intrepid adventurer and yogi by night. She believes that everyone is born with a purpose, and that not everyone finds theirs at the same time. She loves to work with late bloomers, mid-career pivoters, and people who are struggling with a vague sense of feeling unfulfilled. It is her deepest joy and calling to help people unwrap their life stories and build awareness around what they offer to the world. She graduated from Smith with a degree in Anthropology more years ago than she cares to admit, and embraces the late bloomer label with pride.You can find her at www.Jennaleahcoaching.com.