February 2009

In Praise of the Late Bloomer

February 27, 2009 12:44


I work part-time at a library and last Monday afternoon found me there, putting away recently checked-in magazines. My eye caught the title of an article from the Psychology Today magazine in my hand. “Confessions of a Late Bloomer,” by Scott Barry Kaufman. Intrigued, I paged through the magazine to the article and quickly discovered that not only was the article enjoyable and interesting, but it helped explain me to me. Job duties faded into the periphery as I eased myself into a hidden corner and continued to read.

Here’s a portion of the article (following a hilarious opening section) that explores why some of us seemed to miss the mark in our early years:

“A complex trait like intelligence is not only partly determined by many interacting genes, it changes across the lifespan as some genes are automatically turned on and some turned off. The most appreciated abilities in society, such as creativity and leadership, rarely fully present themselves early on.

Prodigies certainly exist, but they are notably more common in some domains than others. Chess, musical performance, and pure mathematics are full of prodigies because they draw on relatively delimited knowledge and skills. The dazzling calendar calculation of the childhood savant is likely not a polygenic trait.

Achievements that require complex abilities like creativity or leadership, which comprise many different traits and thus the alignment of many different genes, are years in the making. As Simonton points out, there is only one way of becoming an early bloomer, but there are an infinite number of ways of being a late bloomer. The more complex a trait, the more ways a person can become a late bloomer for that trait.”

I certainly qualify into the Late Bloomer Club. I am not necessarily proud of this, but at least I’m not as ashamed of it as I was in my mid-twenties, looking around the furniture rental showroom where I worked as a outside sales rep, muttering to myself, “I just know I was meant to do Something Bigger. And as soon as I find what it is, well, look out, world.” Two years later, living in London as an expatriate wife, I wasn’t sure whether to feel proud or ashamed when my husband’s boss, observing me entertain her eleven-year-old daughter at a dinner party by spraying pressurized whipped cream onto my head, voiced this very thought. “When Terez figures out what it is she wants to do,” she murmured to my husband, “she’s going to really come alive.” Which, given my culinary antics of the night, which had our inebriated British guests highly entertained (or maybe just fearful), was really saying something. I’m not sure what. But I clung to this quasi-complimentary prophecy. It was all I had to go on.

Back to the unbloomed, untapped maybe-genius of my youth. I couldn’t have played the violin as a kid; I didn’t have the discipline, the motivation. I was dreamy, introverted, liked to read, ponder big thoughts, big concepts and then not do a thing about them. My grades, mostly Bs and Cs were “good enough.” They kept me off the radar screen, while at the same time confirming I did not share my six older siblings’ academic acumen. Few expectations were made of me, and this seemed for work for everyone—my parents, my teachers, myself. Low expectations meant more time to drift off, to dream, to vaguely plot how to do Something Big in my future, more glamorous life (an actress? A famed explorer?) before pushing aside homework in favor of reading trashy romantic novels that fired my imagination, if not my intelligence.

I finally began to bloom at age thirty-three, during the whipped-cream-hairspray expatriate-in-London period. I’d quit my despised sales job back in the U.S. and now happily tagged along with my husband as he flew to meetings in Milan, Paris, Frankfurt, Lausanne, Valencia, Amsterdam. It was a great life, rife with adventures, new sights and sounds, eye-opening experiences. I soon began to write about them, personal-essay style, which made three hours pass in the blink of an eye. And like that, I realized I was a writer. A week before my fortieth birthday, now based back in the U.S., a fictional character leapt into my head while I was struggling with a dull-but-marketable travel essay. He wouldn’t go away so I wrote a story about him that wouldn’t end, even after 30,000 words. Like a gong to my head it hit me that I was meant to write novels (a gong that hasn’t stopped reverberating through me, six years later, much as I’d like it to leave me alone, at least temporarily, please). Three years into novel-writing came the obsession with the violin and its music. A sweet obsession, a second wake-up gong much like the novel-writing one, that hasn’t, and probably won’t ever go away.

This, then, is the gift the late bloomer receives. After spending your life stumbling, feeling like everyone else received an operating manual and map at birth while you were out on a cigarette break, when you finally arrive at that right place, there’s this explosion of energy and motivation, along with crystalline clarity. Your sloppy, meandering journey of life now reveals its purpose to you and it all makes sense, even the stumbling. And what you have now, in addition to this insight, is a sense of dedication, of eternal affection and loyalty toward this vocation you finally unearthed.

The violin music that so nourishes me now—this is a more baffling one to ponder. How could I not have needed this? I loved classical music as a kid; it has always touched my soul. Had I been given the opportunity to play the violin as a child, might the instrument have called my name, turned me around?

I’m inclined to say no. And I must admit, I’m glad the opportunity didn’t present itself. I think I was always meant to be an adult beginner, a late bloomer. And the discovery of such a world, a door opening to you in your forties, is like being given a chance at a second life, one where you’re on the ball, you know what it is you want, there’s this sweet urgency to gobble down more, learn more, experience more. It’s a great feeling, albeit an exhausting one.

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all, this late bloomer business.


PS: Check out the rest of Scott Barry Kaufman's article here. It's worth a peek.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/index.php?term=20081027-000002&page=1


© 2009 Terez Rose 

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