Discover more from Robert’s Newsletter
It’s Never Too Late: An Ode to Late Bloomers and Personal Reinvention
I love basketball, always have, always will. Facebook knows this because my daily feed consists of videos of Grayson Boucher -- aka “The Professor” – destroying the latest victims from around the world, of all ages, skills and height, in “one on one” basketball. The Professor is incredible, clearly one of the greatest one-on-one players you will ever see. Look him up on Facebook and you’ll see what I mean (this is one virtue of Facebook, amidst all the bad stuff you may have been reading in The Wall Street Journal lately; but if Facebook didn’t know about my passion, I probably never would see or heard of The Professor).
If the Professor is so great, then why isn’t he in the NBA? In fact, many of the commenters on his videos (and he has millions of followers) have asked precisely this question. He does have some formal basketball credentials: Boucher played college ball and in a minor professional basketball league for some time. But never went beyond that.
So, what’s the reason? It’s not his short height: he’s only 5’ 10” that’s not enough to explain why he’s not in the NBA. Exhibit A: Fred Van Vleet is barely 6 foot, and he’s now an NBA star, and my favorite player (largely because he played at Wichita State, where my wife and I got to see him in person many times there, at the college level and later in the pros when the Raptors played in OK City. I even have a selfie with him on my phone).
It’s also not because he’s a ball hog, he can play team basketball (there are other videos proving this). His dribbling and ball handling skills easily translate into passing wizardry.
This is the reason Boucher provides and I believe him. Boucher is now in his late 30s and readily admits he didn’t really become “The Professor” with the full repertoire of incredible one-on-one skills until his late 20s or early 30s. By that age, NBA teams, which focus overwhelmingly on getting young talent (especially “one-and-dones” from US college or very young players like Luka Doncic from abroad) aren’t interested.
In short, the Professor, by his own admission, was a “late bloomer” – but it wasn’t good enough for the NBA, nor was his timing right (see my earlier column about this). Nonetheless, Boucher has reinvented, or maybe refined, himself as not only a Facebook star (which he is very good at), but also a budding actor, appearing in several movies, including Ball Don’t Lie.
Boucher’s story got me thinking, and then doing some quick research on other late bloomers, and more broadly about the importance of personal reinvention throughout life.
It turns out that there are a lot of late bloomers, and you can find lots of references to them and the phenomenon of late blooming by just plugging “late bloomers” into any search engine. Here’s a good list from this site, https://www.susangabriel.com/artists-writers-and-writing/famous-late-bloomers/, which I crib in full, only because readers surely will recognize many of the names:
Toni Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, at age 40 as a single mom.
Dorothy Allison was 42 when Bastard Out of Carolina came out.
George Eliot published her first novel at 40.
Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn at age 49.
Chef, Julia Child, didn’t learn how to cook until her 40s, and didn’t have her television show until her 50s.
Actor, Alan Rickman, who played Snape in the Harry Potter films, got his first film role at 46.
Singer, Susan Boyle, was 46 when she got discovered on Britain’s Got Talent.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses (Grandma Moses) started painting when she was 75 and became a famous painter
Filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, made Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho between his 54th and 61st birthdays.
Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at 58.
The works Cezanne created in his mid-60s are valued 15 times higher than those he created as a young man.
Painter, Carmen Herrera, sold her first artwork in 2004 when she was 89 years old, after six decades of private painting. (I did a blog post on her in 2009 called Perseverance. You can find it here.)
At the age of 74, Norman Maclean published his first and only novel, the 1976 best-selling book, A River Runs Through It.
Laura Ingalls Wilder became a columnist in her 40s, but did not publish her first novel in the Little House series of children’s books until her 60s.
Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book Angela’s Ashes (he won the Pulitzer Prize for this book) until he was 66.
Sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, reached her greatest artistic success in her 70s and 80s. She died at 98, having finished another one of the sculptures the week before.
Job and career reinvention is another close cousin to late blooming (maybe call it “forced late blooming”). It is something that many, probably most workers, in the 21st century will have to do, as technology and consumer demand keep changing. When I was at the Kauffman Foundation during the 2000s, we were fond of repeating the line, which I won’t claim to be precisely true, but you get the gist: unlike the past, be prepared in the 21st century to switch jobs or careers at least ten times or more.
Throw in hugely disruptive events like the pandemic, which has already forced many workers to rethink their jobs and careers, and to act on that rethinking, and the need for continuous personal reinvention may be greater than this.
The bottom line: lifelong jobs at a single firm most of one’s life with a gold watch at retirement are essentially gone.
David Epstein’s Range provides wonderful examples of how successful people often make transitions in their careers, moving from one narrow specialty to another. Those who navigate these transitions most successfully are those, which he reports, are those who were skilled in “taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another.” Epstein cites as the basis for this finding the research of psychologist Christopher Connally, himself an example of this phenomenon: Connally began his professional career as a musician (becoming world class in the process), switched to running an orchestra, and then thirty years into his music career went back to school to earn his PhD in psychology, practicing psychological consulting after that.
A related finding by Epstein (author of another great book, The Sports Gene): that Nobel laureates in science, rather than being the archetypical “science nerds” were 22 times more likely to have strong interests and even expertise in a wide range of other fields – as actors, dancers, painters, sculptors and writers of fiction and non-fiction. Hence the title of his book Range.
I find all this encouraging. There is always hope for everyone as they age, even as the world changes tumultuously around them. The key is to continue learning and not to be afraid to try new things. And to convey that philosophy to your kids, who hopefully will make this world a better place.
PS — I included this edit in the other version (Again) but will add here. Courtesy of Paula Stern, a personal reinventor extraordinaire (from policy wonk/high ranking government official to superstar sculptor). Most of the women on the list cited above are women. The almost certain reason: women have kids and delay their reentry into the labor force, and when they do, that’s when they make their mark, sometimes very different from the one for which they w.ere retrained. It may also be that women are more willing to take career risks and more open minded than men. Thanks to correcting this oversight, which demonstrates that I’m still making mistakes, and learning