It's Never Too Late to Start a Brilliant Career

It's Never Too Late to Start a Brilliant Career
Scott Kelly/NASA via AP

In 1980, I was 25 and hadn't yet bloomed. This hit home one night while I was working as a security guard in San Jose, Calif. Just after dark, as I started my perimeter patrol of a fenced rent-a-truck yard, I heard barking from the lumber yard next door. I swung my flashlight around and came face-to-face with my counterpart on the other side of the fence: a guard dog. The implication was sobering. I was a Stanford graduate, and my professional peer was a Rottweiler.

In a few months, Steve Jobs, also 25 at the time, would take Apple public, change the computer industry and become fabulously rich. I, on the other hand, was poor and stuck. My story is embarrassing, but is it that unusual?

Today we are madly obsessed with early achievement. We celebrate those who explode out of the gates, who scorch the SAT, get straight A's in AP courses, win a spot at Harvard or Stanford, get a first job at Google or Goldman Sachs , and headline those ubiquitous 30-under-30 lists. In 2014, Time magazine started an annual list of “Most Influential Teens.” Yes, teens.

But precocious achievement is the exception, not the norm. The fact is, we mature and develop at different rates. All of us will have multiple cognitive peaks throughout our lives, and the talents and passions that we have to offer can emerge across a range of personal circumstances, not just in formal educational settings focused on a few narrow criteria of achievement. Late bloomers are everywhere once you know to look for them.

Shifting our attention in this way can spare us much of the unhappiness generated by our worship of youthful success. How we evaluate young people places needless emotional burdens on families and has helped to spur an epidemic of anxiety and depression among teens and young adults. The effort to forge young people into wunderkinds is making them fragile and filling them with self-doubt: It suggests that if you haven't become famous, reinvented an industry or banked seven figures while you're still in your 20s, you've somehow off track. But the basic premise is wrong: Early blooming is not a requirement for lifelong accomplishment and fulfillment.

Recent research suggests that we need to modify our understanding of how people mature from adolescence to adulthood. Between the ages of 18 and 25, most people are still living in a volatile post-adolescence. In both adolescent and young adult brains, the prefrontal cortex—the processing center of our frontal lobe—is the last part to fully develop, and it is responsible for complex functions such as planning and organizing, problem solving, memory, attention and inhibition.

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