It’s never too late to bloom

…sometimes genius is anything but rarified; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table. — from “Late Bloomers” by Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker, October 20 2008.

Thank you, Jennifer, for pointing me to Malcolm Gladwell’s article on “Late Bloomers.” I very much enjoy Gladwell’s work, but I have fallen behind on my reading (and everything else), and so had missed it. (The writer hugs the internet for redefining “behind” to mean well, we’ll just be over here waiting for you to catch up as opposed to gone forever and you missed it, now go sit in the corner and sulk.)

In the article, Gladwell discusses recent ideas of economist David Galenson on creativity: specifically, that the accepted cultural model of the creative prodigy isn’t the only way that creativity expresses itself successfully. There are young people with Big Ideas who burst full-blown onto the scene; they’re the brilliant first novelists, the astonishingly original painters, the people who stand things on their heads and create works of Staggering Genius right out of the box. There are also the experimental artists, the late bloomers, who take a long time to peak because their process and their creative goals are fundamentally different. And — here’s the the really radical notion — genius is found as often in works of late bloomers as it is in works by prodigies.

This may seem totally obvious to you — it certainly does to me — but step back and think about it. Our cultural assumptions about the early manifestation and realization of talent run deep and generally unchallenged. Everyone knows that Real Creative People hit their stride early and make their mark emphatically. I can go on at length about this, but Gladwell has already done so, very well, in this lecture he gave at Columbia University1. I encourage every artist, and anyone who has ever felt like you were in some kind of a “race to produce” that you didn’t sign up for and find somewhat bewildering, to take 52 minutes to listen to the lecture. It’s worth it.

What Gladwell takes to task in the Columbia speech (and I wish he’d gone into this deeper in his article) is that our cultural bias toward the prodigy model of creativity denies many, many potentially good or great or genius artists the chance to reach their peak — simply because we are not willing to be patient. Gladwell cites the music and publishing industries: if a first album doesn’t sell well, the band is seen as not commercially viable; if a first novel doesn’t do well, people assume that the writer is a bad writer, not that this novel didn’t work. And that’s the fallacy in a nutshell: if the first product of an artist is not A Work Of Staggering Fucking Genius, then the artist isn’t a Real Artist after all.

This attitude kills artists.

And we’re aren’t the only ones who suffer. Gladwell shows how the prodigy model underlies our expectation that kids must do well in high school or it means they are done in life. He talks about how the prodigy and late bloomer models play out in the auto and pharmaceutical industries, and in what projects or ventures get funded. This model drives cultural assumptions about what is worth supporting. And when an entire style of creativity — and its results — are unsupported at best and discouraged at worst, then we’re all losing out.

I’ve spent my life seeking, wandering down paths that compel me without always knowing why. What I bring back from those journeys goes into my work, whether it’s my writing or my consulting or the posts on this blog. My work is more than the sum of my curiosities — at its best, it’s an exponentially greater recombination of what I have seen and felt, what I’ve understood and what still mystifies me. A stranger’s private smile over the zucchini in the market, the precise way that a blue sky over Mérida is different from one over Chicago, the vertiginous moment when you know the news is bad, the taste of honeydew melon, what it’s really like to give yourself to art, what’s it’s really like when art gives itself to you…

I’ve always characterized myself as a writer who maps the internal human landscape. That’s not like inventing Cubism or being the youngest person to win a Booker Prize. What it is, in the eyes of many people, is unimpressive, underperforming, not living up to my “promise.” Huh? I don’t remember promising anything.

I’ve recently taken myself out of this game. I wrote that post with no knowledge of Galenson’s theory or Gladwell’s ideas about it, after a year or so of wrestling with the deep discontinuity between my own experience as an artist and the cultural paradigm that defines success in ways that I can never achieve. I am grateful for “Late Bloomers,” and even moreso for the Columbia lecture (again with the hugging through the internet, which is perhaps the best way to hug a stranger, you know? Apart from buying his books…). Malcolm, thank you for strengthening the foundation of this place where I am trying to stand.

You can bet I’ll be reading the Galenson book, as well as the Charles Tilly book referenced in the lecture. I’ll let you know what I think.

We have to expand our definition of what greatness is, and we have to be patient. It’s not over at 22; it’s not even over at 42…. I find it such a wonderfully liberating thought… — Malcolm Gladwell, speaking in a New Yorker podcast about his article on creativity.

Me too.

1 — I’ve blatantly swiped this audio from the New Yorker website, where it was cut into three files and presented on player technology so frustrating to use that I nearly put my keyboard through my screen a couple of times. They can come and get me for making it easier for people to listen if they want to.

If you’re interested, there’s also a 30-minute Q&A that follows the lecture.

5 thoughts on “It’s never too late to bloom”

  1. I’m one of those people who look forward to being sixty. My life has only gotten better with age. Same goes for my attempts at creating stuff—they’ve gotten slightly more successful and much more satisfying. I don’t think I could have written even the beginner poetry and stories I’m working on right now when I was fifteen or twenty or even twenty five. My thoughts were so alive and restless, pulling one way and another in a cacophony of voices. I feel I’ll never be as mentally active as I was when I was fifteen, my neurons teeming with math and physics and biology and literature and English and Spanish and sports and hormones and discovering the whole wide world and myself at once. But it was a useless goop whenever I tried to make art out of it. I sense I’ve still got at least one or two more decades to go before my mind settles into its ideal rhythm and I can finally create something worthy of bragging about.

    Gladwell’s article is excellent. I remember reading it when Jennifer first posted the link to it. And today I chuckled @ your gone forever and you missed it, now go sit in the corner and sulk line. You’re funny. I enjoy your blog and our Pixel Pal relationship. And your work challenges me in many ways. I can also understand and identify with the curiosity that compelled you to explore a number of career paths and experiences, I can see how it has all become part of the stories you wrote and that I now so totally adore. I’ll help you hold the place where you stand as best I can.

    This quote probably reflects how you’ve used those years that lead you here, to this fruitful time and Dangerous Space:

    “Where the world ceases to be the scene of our personal hopes and wishes, where we face it as free beings admiring, asking and observing, there we enter the realm of Art and Science.” —Albert Einstein

  2. I listened to Gladwell’s audio and I was sure I’d heard about Old Masters and Young Geniuses before, not just through the article or the lecture. Then I remembered the source: one of PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge shows I’ve got on my iPod. It’s called “The Fine Art of Aging”.

    Here’s the synopsis:
    “David Galenson talks about Old Masters and Young Geniuses. Nick Lowe has been making music for 40 years. Amy Gorman collected the stories of women artists between the ages of 85 and 105. Millard Kaufman started a new career as a novelist at age 90.”

    You can download the program here. I think you will enjoy it. 😉

  3. I’ll probably have to comment more on this later, but I wanted to say something now. This stuff is great.

    And thanks for that NPR link too Karina. I’m listening to it now.

    I’m just glad I didn’t peak too early. 🙂

  4. Hey Kelly,

    Great posts. I’m one of Nicola’s CW ’97 students, and I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t think I have that much to show for the last 10+ years but that’s how it goes. For a three- or four-year period in there I had at least a story a year published… I think us late bloomers will be around longer (as long as we keep at it of course). If I can write half as much post age 80 as Carol Emshwiller I’ll be happy.


  5. Hey Robert, nice to see you here.

    I taught CW last year, and really enjoyed it. And I tried to tell the writers at the workshop that they would not all come blazing out of the box after week 6, no matter how much they wrote while they were there. That’s just not how it works for everyone.

    Of course, most of us (myself included, from my Clarion experience back in the Stone Age) believe that the instructor is talking about the person next to us… it can be a hard realization that we might be among the late bloomers, because it can look so much like “we will never be successful.” But I don’t think that’s true. I hope you don’t either.

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