Late Bloomers: A book review by Bob Morris

Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement
Rich Karlgaard
Currency (April 16, 2019)

Some ugly ducklings become beautiful swans just as some clumsy swans become high-flying ducks

Rich Karlgaard defines a late bloomer “as a person who fulfills their potential later than expected; often their talents aren’t even visible to others initially [and they may not even be aware of them]. The key word here is expected. And second, they fulfill their potential while marching to their own drummer. They don’t grit their teeth to try to meet the expectations of their parents or society.”

In his classic work, Denial of Death, Ernest Becker acknowledges that no one can deny physical death but there is another form of death that can be denied: The death that occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us.”

For example, Karlgaard makes frequent references to the “early achievement obsession” and the damage it can do the late bloomers. They are judged according to the Wonder Child Ideal as exemplified by early bloomers — including, listed in alpha order, Magnus Carlsen, Madame Curie, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, John Stuart Mill, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Blaise PASCAL, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud, and John von Neumann — who achieved peak performance in one or more fields while in childhood.

Late bloomers suffer many of the same frustrations, aggravations, and anxieties that people with undiagnosed learning disabilities encounter, beginning in childhood. They are constantly the victims of unfair and usually humiliating comparisons and contrasts with family members and friends. Karlgaard identifies the major factors that can — and often do, in combination — delay blooming and perhaps even preclude it. His conclusions are driven by the latest neuroscience and cognition research. “That means our current obsession with early blooming is a human construct, not supported by science.” That’s a key point.

In Chapter 9, Kalgaard makes several other key points while explaining “the keys to late bloomer persistence” by taking a closer look at the power of stories, the plasticity of persistence, and how they’re linked. “Stories don’t just describe what’s happened — they help determine what will happen. The stories we tell ourselves help shape our attitudes and enhance our well-being. For late bloomers this is terrific news….if we late bloomers change our story [over time], we can change our behavior and even our life.”

Then Karlgaard points out that, “While plenty of Freud’s work has been discounted, part of his genius was in his ability to work with individuals to make sense of their otherwise messy lives. The key insight that Freudian psychoanalysts came up with was that their patients somehow couldn’t keep the story of themselves straight — or they had no story at all. They had the task of repairing essentially broken stories, like a script doctor. In other words, the real value in psychoanalysis was in working with patients to dissect or sift through random memories and events that on their own made little sense, to construct a coherent narrative. The story would be about how a patient got from point A somewhere in the past, to the present, then oriented themselves toward the future in a meaningful way.

“In a sense, constructing a narrative did more than just help individuals see their life events in a new way. It shaped their reality by making it manageable.”

Here’s a question to consider. Who had the greatest impact on your personal growth and professional development? However different they may be in most respects, I’ll bet all of them cared so deeply about helping you to succeed that they challenged you to meet (if not exceed) very high standards, then did everything they could to help you succeed. They cared enough to tell you what you needed to know and it was not always what you wanted to hear. Late bloomers need the same sustained support, encouragement, and reassurance.

Every human life is a work in progress. Obviously, some take much longer to “bloom” than do others. Some never “bloom” or at least fulfill a few expectations. Fortunately, Rich Karlgaard’s book wholly repudiates the early-blooming madness. “We all have a supreme destiny: to discover our gifts [and help others to discover theirs] however long it takes, to pursue our deepest purposes, and to bloom.”


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