You are not behind

Jun 16, 2024


Late bloomers gain wisdom, resilience, and unique insights, proving there’s no fixed timeline for achievement.

One of my guilty pleasures is scrolling on Instagram after a long day – with a timer of course. I caught an interesting post by Viola Davis, asking people in their 40s (and beyond) for advice for those in their 20s. Someone posted the phrase “you are not behind.” This post and the reply were something I absolutely needed to hear. Sometimes life wants you to learn a lesson and will sneak it in like a mom sneaks spinach into spaghetti sauce.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m always behind. Every year, I’m inundated with the age awards (30 under 30, 40 under 40). I swear I saw one for teens. Don’t get me wrong – I love celebrating these amazing people who do incredible things at a young age. But I can’t be the only one who gets reflective about it.

For every 30 under 30 list, I find great inspiration in hearing from people who found success later in life. Did you know that famed wedding dress designer Vera Wang was 40 when she started? Ariana Grande’s grandmother Marjorie just became the oldest person to chart on Billboard’s Hot 100 at age 98! Julia Child launched her cooking career at 50. As a boy-mom, I am well versed in the Marvel universe. I was surprised to learn that Stan Lee started his comic book career in his teens but didn’t create his first superhero until 39. It’s not all 30 or bust.

If you’re like me and haven’t made that list – don’t worry. We rest safely in camp “late bloomer,” and it seems there are some unexpected benefits to that. Rich Karlgaard wrote a book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, and just the tagline alone had me hooked. Naturally his book has us reexamine the timeline and definition of “success.”

Karlgaard’s work doesn’t just give us late bloomers a pass; he argues that our blooming later is an advantage. Namely, we have wisdom, self-awareness, and resiliency. Late bloomers aren’t hitting homeruns out of the gate. We are learning what works through trial and error, we are discovering our passions, and we are much more patient with bloomers of all stages. I’d argue that late bloomers tend to follow that African proverb of, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

I reach back to the work of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. Dweck’s work focuses on the idea that a growth mindset embraces mistakes as a pathway for development and does not see talent as a fixed quantity. Additionally comparison is irrelevant since growth is an individual endeavor. Late bloomers illustrate that meandering paths can bring important lessons that make later ventures successful. The glamor of the wunderkind comes from their innate ability and seemingly straight path to success. The “youngest” (fill in the title) leads one to believe that these people are ordained for greatness. Maybe. But the pressure of perfection coupled with a self-imposed due date could mean that a successful person gives up too quickly or fails to explore a path later on in life. Karlgaard addresses our culture’s obsession with the wunderkind (or “wunderkid” for fellow Ted Lasso fans). While it’s great when a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg can create successful businesses as teenagers, this obsession is causing some harm. As a mom who survived one child’s gauntlet through the college admissions process, I saw firsthand the unrealistic pressure of excellence for kids. The “success formula” now includes perfect scores and grades, multiple sports, and even industry research! It can make a kid feel like they are a “has-been” if they haven’t published a research paper by age 16. What happened to college being a place for self-discovery?

I wanted to share a story from my own life. I was a very academic kid – think all AP classes, honor roll, president of the speech club. It’s cringy how much of my identity was wrapped in being a “smart kid.” Years after high school, I reconnected with some classmates and was surprised to know that one of them earned her Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard. That’s impressive, but the surprising thing was that she wasn’t in any of my honors or AP classes in high school. She wasn’t what we (as kids) thought of as “a smart kid.” Turns out, she didn’t hit her stride until college, where she blossomed. It’s easy to put ourselves in a box when it comes to how we see ourselves. I think about how lucky the world is that she didn’t let her high school sense of self hinder her from pursuing her passions.

To be a successful late bloomer means you have to overcome a voice that says, “Is it too late?” Everyone has the right to be successful, no matter how old we are. Or as Karlgaard says “blossoming has no timeline.” So how do we keep moving forward in a world that tells us that we are a “has-been”?

  1. Create growth opportunities that aren’t linear (think climbing a wall versus a ladder). Most companies view growth as a ladder. Since late bloomers leverage life lessons, perhaps a climbing a wall is a better analogy – one where you reach up and over. The skills learned in another industry or department should help you rise to the top. I also urge managers not to overlook life skills – raising a family is basically a master-level course in project management, finance, and negotiation!
  2. Mentoring for all. I love mentorship. I love learning from books and especially from people. However, I found that many industry organizations and companies have age-restricted leadership programs – as if somehow once I turned 36 I had it all figured out. Attention company leaders – please expand the definition of “rising star” and include more of us.
  3. Watch what you praise. I’m part of a Facebook group for parents of college-age kids. I posted the question of “late bloomers” to the group and one of the members, Stuart Jenner, mentioned a key lesson: watch what you praise. Knowing that we are a culture obsessed with early wins, it’s extra valuable for managers to acknowledge the outliers. Praise the value of the candidate with an alternative path – including military, time off to care for family, or a career change. Same thing for us parents; not every kid needs to go to a “name brand” school to be successful. Pay attention to subtle ways you may be feeding this comparative mindset.
  4. Let it go! Now that I’ve placed that earworm back in your brain, follow Elsa’s advice and just let it go. Forty came and went for me without any awards. I survived. My career didn’t end. And while I love that many of my friends did make those lists, a part of me is glad to be blooming quietly on my own. “Too old” is a mindset I choose not to believe.

I will admit that being a late bloomer isn’t always easy. But I find solace in two specific things. One: the timeline of success is arbitrary. Forty isn’t fatal. I still have life in me. Two: “success” isn’t always measurable. Shedding that comparative aspect is hard but know that the energy spent on learning, failing, and growing is never wasted. It makes us who we are. For my fellow late-bloomers remember that there is still time to blossom. 

Janki DePalma, LEED AP, CPSM is director of business development at W.E. O’Neil. Contact her at

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