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The world belongs to late bloomers Every human can have a second act

"It wasn’t only Eisenhower who began his second act in the midst of war." (Getty)

"It wasn’t only Eisenhower who began his second act in the midst of war." (Getty)


May 20, 2024   6 mins

Lots of people don’t believe in second acts, second lives, mid-life resurrections. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in The Last Tycoon, published in 1941: “There are no second acts in American lives.” But his absolutism was being embarrassed at that very moment: 1941 was also the year that Dwight D. Eisenhower became a late bloomer. Before the war came to America, Eisenhower had thought he would retire, without ever having seen either war service or getting a chance to exercise his talents. He wasn’t very senior, having spent 16 years between the wars without a promotion.

Now, suddenly, after Pearl Harbour, he was in Washington, writing memos and proposals for the conduct of the Allies. He was being marked out by the most senior generals as one of the most capable men in the American army. His ascent was incredible. In 1936 he was a Lieutenant Colonel, having been a Major since 1924. Six years later, in 1942, he became Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in North Africa. Two years after that, he became a five-star general. And after the war, of course, he became the President. So much for Eisenhower’s retirement.

This story ought to make us pause. Because the self-help industry around life-changes generally divides into two poles. On the one hand, there’s the easy optimism of American-style self-help and its relentless belief that anything is possible — change yourself, whenever, however. On the other, there are the gloomy determinists, who glower that we shouldn’t sell false hope to easy targets. A few weeks ago, Janan Ganesh gave voice to the latter view, attacking self-optimism as a false dream that major life decisions can be corrected. Instead, Ganesh says, the truth is more like an Ian McEwan novel: make a bad marriage or pick the wrong career, and you are unlikely to recover. “Life is path-dependent: each mistake narrows the next round of choices. A big one, or just an early one, can foreclose all hope of the life you wanted.” But this is far too binary. What Eisenhower’s story shows is that the truth is often messier and more complicated than anything you can fit into a pithy line. This is not a subject about which we can make happy generalisations, as I show in my new book Second Act.

Look around and you will see late bloomers everywhere in modern culture. David Nicholls, promoting his new novel, recently told The Times that his favourite writer is Penelope Fitzgerald, who published her first literary novel aged 62. The book that many consider to be her masterpiece, The Blue Flower, was published when she was 80. The American footballer Jalyx Hunt recently described himself as a late bloomer when talking about his acquisition by the Philadelphia Eagles after a steady rise through the ranks. Jerry Seinfeld is making his directorial debut aged 70. At this year’s Brit awards the singer Raye became the surprise star, a late-blooming sensation. And whatever you think of Joe Biden’s age, he is a symbol of a workforce that is more and more active as it gets older. Nearly one in five Americans over the age of 65 are in work — nearly double what it was 35 years ago.

This list is not supposed to make you feel like anything is possible. The self-helpists are too credulous. What these later achievements prove instead is that you do not simply wake up one day and discover that you are Toni Morrison. Late blooming is a long, hard slog. But it’s also true that we simply don’t know how many people could change things for themselves — given the opportunity, put in the right circumstances. Instead of polarising between self-help platitudes and cynical epigrams, we need a new mindset about talent, potential, and flourishing in the second half of our lives. And the pervasive spirit of this mindset must be the word “perhaps”. There is no law of late blooming. I am not presenting the biographical examples as incontrovertible, pure, or morally exceptional. What I can argue is that in all fields — including mathematics, where late blooming seems unfeasible — we underrate the potential of hidden talent. And the success stories are remarkably contingent on the chaos of the life lived. Past is prologue, not prediction.

As John Stuart Mill said, the main lesson of history is “the extraordinary susceptibility of human nature to external influences”. And it wasn’t only Eisenhower who began his second act in the midst of war. Looking at a sample of men born during the Great Depression who served throughout the Second World War and the Korean War, the sociologist Glen Elder found that men from disadvantaged backgrounds became more socially competent and had improved psychological health after military service. They also improved their occupation outcomes as a result of skills gained in the army. As well as going to college on the G.I. Bill, many army veterans completed high school and undertook craft or vocational training. The army was a bridge from one sort of life to another, often coming at a time when their prospects seemed settled. They went from being school leavers with poor prospects to veterans with the chance of a decent life. It had seemed too late to change, but it wasn’t.

For men already established in jobs and families, the military was more likely to be disruptive. But for those who were on the route to a disappointing life, military service improved their trajectory. There were many negative impacts of army service: mobilised men were more likely to divorce, particularly those who saw battle action and were in their 30s when the war started. But this goes to show the same thing — changing your life path is possible, whatever your age or current experiences. The more you change your circumstances, the more you can change yourself. In the United States, delinquent men who were given overseas service, for example, were much more likely to use training opportunities provided by the 1944 G.I. Bill. As one pair of sociologists said: “Overseas duty, which embodies radical change, provides a unique stepping stone to eventual turn-around among those stigmatized with a criminal conviction.” It changed the way people thought of them and changed the way they thought about themselves.

“The more you change your circumstances, the more you can change yourself.”

For a lot of people, mid-life is the time when a second act becomes possible or desirable. We find ourselves lost on the path in the middle of a dark wood, as Dante said, or in Robert Frost’s terms, life itself becomes too much like a pathless wood. In these circumstances, anyone would like to get away from earth awhile. The theory of the “happiness curve” will tell you this period of dissatisfaction is normal, biological, nothing to do with your life or your work or your lost dreams, just mere hormones. Apes have the same dips. Don’t try to get away, this theory says. Stick it out. The feeling will pass.

But not only is the data around that claim looking less and less certain, with new studies finding that the happiness curve might not exist at all, it also places everyone too neatly onto an average line. You are the person you are; you are not a statistical event. This is where self-help can be helpful. Aspiration and ambition are how we change the world. Focusing on the outlier success stories isn’t a way of selling a hollow dream to unsuspecting dupes. It’s part of a culture of aspiration of which we have become sceptical through overexposure. But while the transformation we’re too often promised is rare, change is very possible — as long as we get past culture war divides and be open to the immense range of ways an individual life can flourish.

But self-help lets us down when it comes to how we make a change in our lives. There are no simple solutions to help you leapfrog yourself into a new life. Instead, we can take some advice from a great late bloomer, Audrey Sutherland.

Sutherland was a Hawaiian kayaker. She started exploring Hawaiian coastlines in her forties, and purchased an inflatable kayak, which was mocked by more experienced (and male) explorers. But she persisted and became competent and well-regarded. Then, when Sutherland turned 60, she looked herself in the mirror and said: “Getting older, aren’t you lady? Better do the physical things now. You can work at a desk later.” She quit her job and went on her first solo exploration in Artic waters.

This was a remarkable change. Capsizing meant risk of death. Camping involved bear encounters, alone in the woods. The coastline was ragged from logging. Cabins often required repair before she could sleep in them. But for the next 20 years, into her eighties, she undertook solo kayak explorations of the Alaskan and British Columbian coast.

Sutherland used to give talks at kayaking associations. At the end, she would tell the audience to close their eyes and think about the one big thing they wanted to do with their lives if they were given $5 million dollars tomorrow. Now, she would say, open your eyes and ask yourself: “What’s stopping me?”

At one event, a man stood up and told her exactly what was stopping him. A job. A mortgage. Children. Elderly parents. A wife to support. This hardly elicited much sympathy from Sutherland, who had been a single, working, mother to four children, living on a moderate income. She replied: “Then you need to ask yourself: What part of my goal can I achieve now? What can I do now to achieve my goal later?”

That was how she did it. One step at a time. Read maps. Acquire cheap gear. Practice capsizing. Do preparatory treks in local terrain. Anything that gets you closer.

The stockbroker Chris Gardner said the same thing. He had gone from being a young black man with no degree, no connections, and no qualifications — with no access, that is, to the white, patrician finance world of the Eighties — to running his own firm. He was homeless for a short period and only got his break aged 27. For anyone who wants to be a late bloomer, he offered this most important piece of advice: “While you’re brushing your teeth, ask yourself: If tomorrow morning you could be doing anything in the world, what would it be? Second, what did you do today to make that tomorrow possible?”


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Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago

Inspirational! Thank you UH ( for one on the cusp of making such a decision) to provide this encouraging article.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

I would add though that Janan is not entirely incorrect. In my case an unfortunate choice of career led to a definite loss of momentum in many of the interests and passions one had.
Even if one tries to recover those in later life, the ” lost decades” can only be made up in far more limited terrains than could have been originally achievable.
Somehow the ” edit” option isn’t working, so had to add as a comment again.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

As you suggest, there’s truth on both sides of the equation. Certain paths narrow or become blocked to us according to our choices, circumstances, and stage of life. But that doesn’t make us hopelessly trapped in the ruts, bubbles, or caves we might awaken to find ourselves situated in.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

True, but as Janan points out options close out if you make early mistakes. One of my deep interests used to be in torch light ballads of the 1930s and 1940s. While I can still hear that music avidly, can no longer think of pursuing it as a singer..
Life changes, so do circumstances…

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

Of course. Only a illusion-drunk person at the left extreme of the false binary the author explodes–all choice vs. no choice–would think otherwise.
We’ll have to settle for being able to hear nearly any song ever recorded at a click.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
1 month ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I agree, I was talking to my partner about this as he is about to turn 40 (and I already did). I remember we both had more existential trouble with 30 than we had/are having with 40. I think because 30 felt like the end of something (being truly young) while 40 actually just feels like the middle of something. You aren’t really too old, but you are old enough that you should think more seriously about anything you may be missing, as while you do still have a lot of time to find it – you just have less of a feeling of infinite time. Somehow that actually seems to bother both of us a lot less than the end of being truly young did. It doesn’t feel like anything is ending – moreso a reminder to make good use of the most likely still ample time you have left, and not to take it for granted.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago

I’ve been having a better time of it since I hit 40 too. But much of the richer realization you describe (though apparent to my logical side) has only settled into my heart more recently–so I congratulate you and your partner on such an “early start”!

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

It’s worth bearing in mind that the life experience gained during those seemingly ‘fallow’ years will likely prove to be invaluable now, in whatever endeavour you set for yourself.

Personally, i’d advise anyone to throw away self-help books or aids. Just live, and if your own motivations are sufficient, you’ll make your own changes.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Agree on that. The experience gained through ” giving up” can be far more valuable than any self help tomes!

Charles Farrar
Charles Farrar
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Reluctantly I agree with you We are used to formula for most things and research helps but self help books and motivational speakers are a bit of a rabbit hole

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
1 month ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

I would add that most of us are a bit like this. My brother in law always wanted to be a vet, and became a very successful one. He is the exception though. Most of us I think get on the best we can.
It’s easy to condemn aspects of your past as some kind of error – I know I do it – but everyone has to do something in order to put food on the table, and most of us lack a vocation.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

My personal opinion is that the Internet has made information so freely available that the kind of asymmetries leading to wrong decisions would most probably not arise today.
It has also given rise to a host of new professions which broadens the choices available.
In that sense millennials and Gen Z are luckier than Gen X ers like me.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

Is there a word for the mirror image of nostalgia? Posterophoria?
I agree that information access has helped and will guide and liberate some, perhaps most younger people. But that volume of information also comes with a huge risk of overload and of more widespread isolation across society.
When a click in one direction or the other can mean the difference between a path of erudition or one of soul-sick error, our technology is really testing the limits of our biology. Especially for a young person.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I agree that information overload has created a whole new set of issues. But overall it has been a liberation from the structures of inequality which hitherto existed in accessing information.
In my campus days the American Center library used to be a refuge as our Leftist dominated library never allowed access to books published in the US!
Imagine how different things are now.
Mirror image or counter of nostalgia? Your coinage is indeed unique!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

Must be nice to have enough time as a single mother to head off kayaking whenever the mood takes you.
I’m not single but if I’d tried to go missing for hours on end on a boat while the kids were little I very soon would have been.
The rest of the article while well meaning doesn’t really say much. Some people get a second lease of life later on, for most of us circumstances dictate that it’s all rather unlikely

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 month ago

Thank you.
As an elderly (as classified by the NHS)widower who would’ve retired already had my wife lived, I’m not ready to give up yet. I keep making incremental improvements that seem to be taking me … somewhere.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago

Better than nowhere. Moving in a good direction for our own hearts and minds can be destination enough.

Charles Farrar
Charles Farrar
1 month ago

Good on you !

Peter Hall
Peter Hall
1 month ago

Excellent positive article. I love music and have fooled around with guitars since I was 10. Now at 63 I am going to try to sing and compose and reach deep within myself and learn all my favourite songs and learn how to play the electric guitar. You don’t have to change everything about your life but you can and must try to do the things you love. Don’t give up.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter Hall

Keep at it yourself! Success doesn’t have to be defined by any particular result, let alone fame or notoriety. I’m a 52-year-old who’s made uneven progress on guitar since I was 12, but more so in recent years. I’ve gone “all the way” from backyard/garage to public space/family-gathering player and hope to go further. But I’m glad I’ve kept at it in my sincere, pretty undisciplined way. Hope your efforts bring more and more enjoyment to you and those who hear or play music with you.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago

I like how the article tries to cut a middle path between navel-gazing magical thinking and humorless determinism. It’s not a deep dive but I thought the case was pleasantly made and well-supported by examples. There are many varieties and seasons of potential bloom.
I tend to appreciate and definitely see no harm in the occasional fun or hopeful articles that we see here. Thanks Mr. Oliver!

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

The article doesn’t seem to be about this, but some people mature earlier than others. They are more confident, more aware, more driven, or more something, when young. Those people get on earlier and to an extent edge the later bloomers out of the way, who are then at a disadvantage. Eventually, if they stick at it, they can catch up, but they start from the back of the grid and many will not be able to fight their way through.

The footballer Wayne Rooney is an example of an early developer. Huge promise when young, got himself in a good position and then stayed there. Although he was obviously a good player, he never lived up to his early promise, but did live off it for a long time.

Queen’s Park FC, who have languished near the bottom of the Scottish league for as long as I remember, started a deliberate policy a few years ago of looking for late developers and are now in the second flight. I do not know if they still have the policy (and they also turned pro at some point), but it did seem to work for them.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

How did Rooney not live up to his promise? He is United’s record goal scorer and was Englands until recently. He won just about every trophy he could win in club football so I’m not sure what more he could have done

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

As I said he was good, but his promise was that he would be a world great. He wasn’t – he peaked early. But the mindset that he would be a great remained (arguably even to his management career) and that allowed him to stay at the top and become record goal scorer etc. Early developer privilege you could call it.

Rooney is just 15th in terms of goals per game for England.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

And… he never scored an England goal that made a difference in a major tournament. The player whose records he took at both club and country level, Bobby Charlton, did so and without any of the histrionics.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

Doors do close in your life and things are no longer possible which once were. Women stop being able to have children; marathon runners stop being able to run personal bests. That’s life, you have to say goodbye.
But new starts are always possible, even if certain avenues are closed off and you’ve already made some bad decisions.
Another factor which could go into midlife bloomers’ success is the accumulation of life experience and generally getting more relaxed about things. After going round the block a few times, you realise that things are hardly ever as bad as they seem – you’ve been through a good amount already – and stop sweating the small stuff. That confidence opens doors and possibilities.
When my parents hit their 40s in the late 80s, I remember them getting cards which said “Over the hill now!” on them – and consequently dreaded entering my 5th decade. I shouldn’t have worried. I got to 40 and thought “Time to set up a new career (my 3rd) and finally go to a Rammstein concert.”
Who cares about the hill?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I would also like to share the work of a late bloomer I discovered this year: the American writer Ellen Gilchrist. She only got her break in her 40s but then wrote a number of acclaimed books, including “Victory Over Japan” which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1984. She was a wonderful writer.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 month ago

Nice to start the week with such a postive article. Some types of late blooming are actually the norm, at least according to studies. Vocabulary tends to peak at about 65, while ‘out of the box’ thinking can peak in ones 50s. For more, search for “Science has discovered when we hit our physical and mental peaks”

Sandy Henderson
Sandy Henderson
1 month ago

This view depends upon its framing: that our choices are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, that we have an unachieved ‘desire’ and are getting in our own way of achieving it and (most seductively of all) that we can begin to achieve it by doing something now that does not disrupt the order of our current way of life. In other words, we can change without really changing anything. I wonder how true this really is. It does rather gloss over the many reasons why we might live as we do and not as we desire. I tend to the view that we are what we do not what we say: our identity derives from our actions not our words. So yes, get on and do today that thing you want to do but do it (and find a way to enjoy it) for its own sake and don’t be seduced into thinking that it has an exaggerated significance as the first step on the road to something bigger because, in 9 out of 10 cases, it won’t be. It’s just another New Year’s resolution.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago

Thank you for this interesting and inspiring article!

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

The same wind that blows one door shut often blows another door open ………..

George West
George West
1 month ago

In my experience, people will line up for free to tell you that you can’t do something. Leave that job to them. Once you set your goal, pursue it, even if others tell you that it’s impossible, that you lack the skills or experience, that you should simply sit on the couch and watch TV with them and stop making a fuss.
Rumi said, “Know a moth by the beauty of its candle.” Stay faithful to the goal you set for yourself. Even if it consumes you, you will be known by its light, not your ashes.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

The more you change your circumstances, the more you can change yourself. 
And sometimes circumstances provide the change. My eldest is an example. One day he was killing himself to sell insurance to people who would never buy it, to the point of having his car repossessed. Not long after that, he was making six figures at a major technology company. The difference? A college classmate vouched for him to that company. A door was unexpectedly opened.
I’m all for second acts, feeling a bit like I am part of one as it is. The closed door will lead to the open window and all that, and this time has created some opportunities that would have been far more difficult to pursue in my previous life.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 month ago

What the article doesn’t grapple with is the avenues closed off to the young by “late bloomers” and (ma-)lingerers in the workforce who, through “experience” deny the opportunities for advancement or even a start to younger cohorts. Could the Democrats not find someone better than a lingering Joe Biden or the GOP a “second wind” Donald Trump? (no pun intended). No matter, one of them will be the American president for a second term. The chap in the last paragraph would be less likely to get that “break” today.

Tom K
Tom K
1 month ago

Agree wholeheartedly with this. Packed work in at 60. Now doing a research degree in early music. Yes I doubt I’d have done exactly this if the mortgage wasn’t already paid off and the wife – an academic – didn’t love her job so much, with no intention to pack it in. But the reality is I’ve been preparing for this for years, practising instruments, reading books and articles, participating in specialist groups of interested amateurs, travelling to archives as an independent reader to look at manuscripts and related documents. It was a small jump in the end to doing it more ‘professionally’.

Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
1 month ago

This sounds like yet another justification for the boomers to make it all about them. Again.