If you're an Inc.com you don't need anyone to tell you our culture valorizes whiz kids. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs are icons not only because they built world-changing companies, but also because they did it when most of us are still living off Ramen.
On the flip side, the media is full of dispiriting stories of middle-aged tech workers struggling to stay relevant by wearing hoodies, getting plastic surgery, and supporting each other at retreats for "over the hill" 30-somethings.
Young geniuses get all the glory. Those that take a slower route to success are far less celebrated. That's stupid for a number of reasons.
Whiz kids get WAY too much hype.
First, because it's both factually incorrect and hugely discouraging. The average age of successful tech founders is 47. The average age of scientists when they do work that leads to a Nobel Prize is 39. The average U.S. patent applicant is 47. If you're unaware of these facts, it's easy to think a couple of gray hairs means you've permanently missed the boat on success.
But our obsession with boy (and girl) wonders is harmful for other reasons too. Besides driving young people to record levels of anxiety and contributing to scandals like the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, early success blinds us to the many important advantages of making it later in life.
1. Late bloomers are wiser.
This should be obvious as more years generally leads to more wisdom. Both neurology and experience show that as we get older we get better at planning, decision-making, and keeping things in perspective. When that accumulated wisdom meets a later-in-life career opportunity, magical things can happen. It's a shame many employers are so reluctant to take a chance on late bloomers.
"Today's obsessive drive for early achievement--and the taint of failure for those who do not attain it--has squandered our national talent," Rich Karlgaard, a former Forbes publisher and author of Late Bloomers, a book celebrating the slow route to success, cautions in the Wall Street Journal.
2. Late bloomers have a unique and valuable type of creativity.
The strongest case against late bloomers is that they're creativity has run dry. Isn't it clueless newbies who come up with the breakthroughs ideas that change the world? Many ageist VCs think so, and young people are clearly great at coming up with half-baked ideas and charging wildly at them, sometimes with spectacular results.
But science actually shows creativity comes in two flavors and these two flavors peak at different times. Yes, on average younger folks are better at the single-minded pursuit of big ideas, but older folks are better at tinkering and thoughtfully piecing together the meaning of a lifetime of experiments.
"Our creative yield increases with age," insists Karlgaard. According to new scientific findings "the brain's right and left hemispheres are connected by a 'salience network' that helps us to evaluate novel perceptions from the right side by comparing them to the stored images and patterns on our left side. Thus a child will have greater novel perceptions than a middle-aged adult but will lack the context to turn them into creative insights."
3. Late bloomers are more resilient.
Karlgaard isn't the only author arguing that taking a more winding road to success has big benefits. Harvard business school grad turned Journalist Charles Duhigg makes the same case, though from a slightly different angle. His main point is that those who have taken a few knocks are more resilient.
The "also-rans" of his HBR class, Duhigg writes in the New York Times Magazine, were "passed over by McKinsey & Company and Google, Goldman Sachs and Apple, the big venture-capital firms and prestigious investment houses. Instead, they were forced to scramble for work -- and thus to grapple, earlier in their careers, with the trade-offs that life inevitably demands."
You might think these early setbacks would lead to less success later on, but Duhigg actually observed the opposite. "These late bloomers... learned from their own setbacks. And often they wound up richer, more powerful and more content than everyone else," he contends.
The world may make us feel bad if we haven't demonstrated brilliance by the time we're 25. But a clear-eyed look at the advantages of being a late bloomer is a strong argument against losing hope if you're early resume isn't one big string of accomplishments.
"The critical thing to remember is that we cannot give up on ourselves or others, even--and especially--if society has made it harder to catch up," Karlgaard concludes. Thanks to our culture's worship of youthful achievement that's a message many of us need to hear.