Give me hope, give me some 'late achiever' stories!
June 19, 2006 1:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm almost 31 and though I have had some achievements in life they're not spectacular. Most of the time when I see a biog in the paper the 'achiever' was already doing well from a very early age. To give me hope that achieving at this stage in life is possible I would like to hear of people who went on to make great achievements relatively late in their life (ie 30+) with not much happening before then. These can be anybody, famous or people you know, in any field, both creative and career wise. I haven't defined great achievement but I mean something rather outstanding (unusual I suppose) rather than 'passed my driving test' or 'got married'.
posted by razzman to Work & Money (73 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
The father of a friend of mine started medical school when my friend was in middle school, when he was in his 40s. He's now a very well-respected anaesthesiologist. He's hardly alone in the nontraditional-medical-student sense. Is that sort of what you mean?
posted by penchant at 1:43 PM on June 19, 2006

You haven't asked a question.
posted by glenwood at 1:43 PM on June 19, 2006

To give me hope that achieving at this stage in life is possible I would like to hear of people who went on to make great achievements relatively late in their life (ie 30+) with not much happening before then.

Oh my god, just rephrase that to "Can you tell me about people who went on..." and you'll have your question.

(sorry razzman, I can't think of anything right now, but I feel your pain)
posted by echo0720 at 1:49 PM on June 19, 2006

glenwood - piffle. You're going to deny there's a question in there just because it's lacking a question mark? Lame.

Here, let me help you:
Do you know of any people (famous or otherwise) who went on to make great achievements relatively late in their life (ie 30+) with not much happening before then? Can you tell me about them, or point me to their stories in order to give me hope that achieving at this stage in life (I'm 31) is possible?
posted by raedyn at 1:50 PM on June 19, 2006

Yes he did: Is it possible for average people to go on to make great achievements relatively late in their life, even if the accomplished relatively little in their early adult life. If it is possible, please cite exapmles . . .
posted by necessitas at 1:50 PM on June 19, 2006

This concept is too abstract to give any range of answers that might satisfy your itch.

Let's face it.. 99.999% of the population of the world go unknown by the masses and were never considered 'great' or famous in their field. Almost no-one reading this site, myself included, is going to be remembered for very long after dying.

Achievement is what you make it. For many people a great achivement is to build and raise a family full of love and have descendents who love them. For many this is the pinnacle of being 'great' and successful. For others, being respected by their peers is the apex.

If you're unfocused, struggling to become generically great and famous is going to be a disappointing endeavor indeed. You first need to frame the question (of which there wasn't really one) in terms of.. how do I want to feel when I consider myself a success? Do you want to be surrounded by people who love you, surrounded by people who are scared of you but revere you, be surrounded by cash alone, or.. what?
posted by wackybrit at 1:53 PM on June 19, 2006

Andy Summers was in his 30s when he joined The Police.
posted by JekPorkins at 1:58 PM on June 19, 2006

Example: Beverly Sills, opera diva, barely eking out a living as a singer until she was almost 40, then launched one of the most spectacular and financially successful careers in musical history.

To go a little afield of your question, though, one point you should keep in mind is that the biographies of the "spectacular achievers" are carefully edited to emphasize the successes. In other words, if the message of the piece is "boy genius," then the details are selected to reinforce that story, and the various failures and so-so moments are suppressed. Which means that, if you do go on to do spectacular things, your PR people will likely rewrite your life to fit the model.
posted by La Cieca at 1:58 PM on June 19, 2006

Grandma Moses started painting in her late 70's or something.
Jesus really didn't do much until he was 30. Kinda peaked at 33 though...
posted by Gungho at 1:59 PM on June 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

Most of the time when I see a biog in the paper the 'achiever' was already doing well from a very early age.

This may in part be hindsight bias. Once someone is seen as exceptional, it becomes easy to look back on their history through that lens and colour things a certain way. If someone invented something remarkable at 42, it's easy to look back as far as their childhood tinkering and say "he started inventing things at 8 years old". But all kinds of people invent things at 8 years old, just nobody bothers to write books about most people that do.
posted by raedyn at 2:00 PM on June 19, 2006

(I wrote my comment before seeing La Cieca's. I think we're essentially saying the same thing.)
posted by raedyn at 2:01 PM on June 19, 2006

Wackybrit, I don't think razman was asking about becoming generically famous. I think his question (correct me if I am wrong, razman) was more about the people who reached 30 or 31 and haven't yet hit their stride. Maybe they are still non-management level employees or just singing in the shower or haven't yet found a satisfying career path. Most people who are judges, or great doctors, musicians, upper level management, etc. have been following a set course since their early adult years (or younger). Is it possible for the people stuck in the middle and haven't found themselves by the time they are 30 to go on and do great things with their life (where great = an accomplishment that makes them happy).

I don't have any answers for you razman, but I plan to stay tuned to this thread. This is an issue that has been really suffocating me since I turned 30 (I'm also 31).
posted by necessitas at 2:04 PM on June 19, 2006

*generically great or famous.
posted by necessitas at 2:06 PM on June 19, 2006

Rodney Dangerfield and Harry S. Truman.
posted by ducksauce at 2:07 PM on June 19, 2006

Starting Late: There's a prize for authors who didn't start writing until after 40, started by James Michener.

There’s Sherwood Anderson who in his early forties managed a paint factory near
Cleveland. One day after work he suffered a nervous breakdown and left the house and
began walking up the railroad tracks toward the big city where he would eventually take
a rented room. There, in a week of furious labor, he wrote the masterly story “Hands”
which served as the opening tale in his great story cycle about small town Midwestern life, “Winesburg, Ohio”. And there’s Henry Miller, who in the fourth decade of his life,
quit Brooklyn for Paris, where he would write his way into literary infamy.

posted by Kirklander at 2:07 PM on June 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

My dad dropped out of college at 21, spent some time in rehab, and worked low-reward day jobs until he was almost thirty. Then, just after I was born, he went back to school and finished his undergraduate degree. He stayed in school for another ten years or so (as our family continued to expand, both my parents were out of work, and we moved overseas) and received his Ph.D. at 41. Now he is a college professor, the head of his department, and planning on taking a sabbatical to write a book. I admit to a great deal of bias here, but I think that's pretty substantial.
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 2:07 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Julia Child didn't learn to cook until she was in her late thirties, and first appeared on television at age 50.
posted by trip and a half at 2:08 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Charles Darwin was pretty much a failure at the things he tried to do. He didn't have the stomach to be a physician, and went on to struggle in clergical studies. He ended up on a boat that set him on a path to conceive his theory of natural selection years later at about 29. He published his first book about it at around age 50. A few hundred years later, plenty of people still know his name and what he achieved.

Do you have any hobbies, which might have developed solutions for a problem in an unconnected, less frivilous field? (As seen in "Connections" by James Burke)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:10 PM on June 19, 2006

Which means that, if you do go on to do spectacular things, your PR people will likely rewrite your life to fit the model.

Strongly agree. Biographies are written backwards with the present in mind. That becomes the focus of this backwards narrative. You have, I am sure, done outstanding things in this regard. Even negatives, such as say not having graduated from high school can be rewritten as "Despite not graduating from high school, razzman went on to....On the outside his life must have looked to others as unremarkable but little did they know that this or that isolated event would later become the seeds of his remarkably fruitful later years...blah blah"

Seriously, if you read those biogs very carefully, you'll see HUGE gaps in which it is not mentioned what they were doing. Most likley it was just nothing interesting or even an embarassing failure everyone would like to forget and in fact is usually forgotten - unless you go into politics.
posted by vacapinta at 2:10 PM on June 19, 2006

There are a few late bloomers mentioned in this wikipedia piece (but not as many as I thought there'd be). Included are Rodney Dangerfield (who was a salesman in his forties when he returned to stand up and began seeing success); Anton Bruckner (also in his forties when he started composing pieces for the public) and Colonel Sanders (in his sixties when he franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken). I don't think Matisse took up painting seriously until his late 30s. And Juli Child entered French cooking late in the game.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 2:12 PM on June 19, 2006

Tim Berners-Lee, born 1955, invented the World-Wide Web at age 34 (or thereabouts). His biography says he came up with a similar concept 10 years earlier, but those concepts were actually many decades old.
posted by mistersix at 2:13 PM on June 19, 2006

Mary Wesley, the author, took up writing at 70.
posted by handee at 2:13 PM on June 19, 2006

Julius Caesar lamented when he was in his early 30s that by his age Alexander had conquered the world, "and I have done nothing."[1]
posted by jefgodesky at 2:14 PM on June 19, 2006

sorry the question was a bit vague, that's kind of how I wanted it though and all the examples so far hit the spot well - thanks.
posted by razzman at 2:16 PM on June 19, 2006

Well, Tim Berners-Lee was already a high energy physisist.
posted by delmoi at 2:17 PM on June 19, 2006

Buckminster Fuller
(from Wikipedia) In 1927 at the age of 32, bankrupt and jobless, living in inferior housing in Chicago, Illinois, he saw his beloved young daughter Alexandra die of pneumonia in winter. He felt responsible, and this drove him to drink and to the verge of suicide. At the last moment he decided instead to embark on "an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity."

and what happened next is history...
posted by horsemuth at 2:17 PM on June 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

Ebenezer Howard launched the Garden City movement, one of the biggest movements in city planning. Several cities were built directly from his blueprint, and it was arguably a strong influence on the creation of the US suburb.

His famous book was published at age 52. He had published the same ideas at age 48 in a book that was largely ignored. Before that, he'd been a court clerk / parliament stenographer for 22 years, after failing at farming in his early twenties.
posted by salvia at 2:20 PM on June 19, 2006

Walt Whitman took up poetry at about your age and published Leaves of Grass (version one) at 36. He did OK for himself. Sure, he was an editor and journalist before that, but he didn't consider himself at all successful.

In the Quantity Over Quality Department: Edgar Rice Burroughs was a failed this and a failed that suffering from poor health and a terrible desk job who didn't publish anything until Tarzan of the Apes at age 37. He ended up cranking out more books than the average person reads in a lifetime.
posted by nflorin at 2:22 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Philip Johnson, the architect, didn't receive his architecture degree until he was 40-ish.
posted by jayder at 2:23 PM on June 19, 2006

What should I do with my life

not a direct answer to your question, but it relates stories about common people who found thier dream jobs late in life, and for many, that in itself is an outstanding achievement.

I wonder if that's a more attainable goal than trying to emulate some of the above-mentioned famous people.
posted by johnstein at 2:26 PM on June 19, 2006

Sheryl Crow was 31 when her first album was released.
posted by JekPorkins at 2:27 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

William S. Burroughs wandered aimlessly through life until he shot his wife in Mexico and started writing at about 32... his first book was published when he was 34.
posted by Benway at 2:30 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Are you interested in being Pope? Almost all the guys destined for the throne of St. Peter have gotten there quite late in life.
posted by jfuller at 2:31 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

John Muir -- sounds like he didn't even see Yosemite until he was 30. "Beginning [when he was 36], a series of articles by Muir entitled 'Studies in the Sierra' launched his successful career as a writer." He went on to become "America's most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist" and help launch the National Park system.
posted by salvia at 2:32 PM on June 19, 2006

Raymond Chandler published his first novel when he was 50. Charles Bronson didn't start acting until he was 30, and didn't make Death Wish until he was 53. Hunter S. Thompson didn't start writing for Rolling Stone until his 40s. Take heart, do what you love, and fuck the history books, they're all lies anyway.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 2:35 PM on June 19, 2006

My dad started undergrad at 39, got a Masters at 46, was a Reverend Deacon at 49 and got his doctorate at 52. I think that is pretty fucking rad. (This after he quit drinking at 35)
posted by tristeza at 2:52 PM on June 19, 2006 [3 favorites]

Phil Hartmann was a graphic designer for several years before getting his "big" acting break via Pee-Wee's Playhouse at age 37.

In truth, your question can be answered by many, many actors who essentially have nothing jobs until they're "discovered." I recall reading about the late John Spencer didn't really get started with an acting career until his late 30s. Hell, Lisa Kudrow had pretty much a zero career-wise until at age 31, she LOST an audition to get on Saturday Night Live (Molly Shannon got the part) and then weeks later won her audition for a little show called Friends, which you may have heard of. She later said losing SNL was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
posted by frogan at 3:13 PM on June 19, 2006

You are laboring under the misconception, that our culture seems to constantly beat into our heads, that one (especially men) must somehow be amazingly successful and wealthy before they hit their 30s (it used to be the 40s, but it just keeps getting younger and younger every year)

It's a very destructive meme. Along the lines of the "eternal beauty" crap women have to endure.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:16 PM on June 19, 2006

The question shouldn't be what have you accomplished so far, but what are you doing right now to accomplish something in the future?
posted by JekPorkins at 3:24 PM on June 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

A little Googling takes me to this book: Late Bloomers by Brendan Gill.

The table of contents lists a bunch of people, here's some of them:
  • Joseph Conrad
  • Charles Darwin
  • Thelonius Monk
  • Buckminster Fuller
  • Mother Theresa
  • Miguel Cervantes
  • Edith Wharton
  • Julia Child
Hey man, no pressure.
posted by Hildago at 3:25 PM on June 19, 2006

I'm surprised that nobody has yet mentioned Penelope Fitzgerald, probably the most famous late-blooming author in English of the past hundred years. After working at the BBC during the war, she got married and worked on and off. She didn't publish her first book until she was 60 and went on to write two of the greatest books of the last few decades, Offshore and The Blue Flower.

(There was also some talk recently about retired civil servant Charles Chadwick's first book It's All Right Now, published at 72.)
posted by j.s.f. at 3:35 PM on June 19, 2006

I believe Leonard Cohen fits in here somewhere, at least as a songwriter. Despite some early literary success, his debut album wasn't released until he was 33 or 34.
posted by mykescipark at 3:38 PM on June 19, 2006

Wondering why the need for social proof on this subject? If nobody else had done anything after 30 of note, does that mean you can't? How many examples does it take before you can believe in yourself?

More importantly, what are you going to do about? Sit around for the next sixty years 'worrying about the things that might have been'? You can mope that you've past a particular chronological milestone without planting your flag on a summit, or you can figure out how to get your butt off the sofa and create the life you wish for.

Passion is the key to greatness. Find out what you are passionate about and pursue that relentlessly.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:46 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

An example that suffices also as a counter-example is di Lampedusa. He suffered a fairly uneventful life and wrote one novel near the end of his life. He died before it was even published.

But that novel, Il Gatopardo, is a work of beauty, a gift to humanity and also one of the more famous novels ever written, certainly one of the most important Italian language works ever.

Is that what you mean by "achievement"? Certainly it seems much more than "I started a dot-com in the mid 90's which nobody now remembers"
posted by vacapinta at 4:05 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have read that in the world of science, if you haven't made the super-breakthrough that turns the scientific community / paradigm on its head by the age of 30, you never will. On top of that, you can pretty much count on never repeating that kind of success ever again. I forget where I read that, but it came as a pat summary of the lives & discoveries of the most influential scientists since the renaissance (?).

Apart from that, I don't think anybody has mentioned F Scott Fitzgerald, who I believe only started writing in his 30s. Kandinsky also may have turned to painting at a similar age.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:25 PM on June 19, 2006

Wikipedia says that Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 24.
posted by jayder at 4:31 PM on June 19, 2006

JK Rowling had her first Harry Potter book published at age 31, after having the manuscript rejected by twelve publishing houses.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:33 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ronald W. Reagan, of course. He did not even get into politics until age 44. He was 56 when elected Governor of California and of course 69 when elected President for the first time.
posted by megatherium at 5:16 PM on June 19, 2006

P D James, the well-known British mystery writer, published her first book at age 42.
posted by Quietgal at 5:17 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

--Ray Kroc - in his 50s before embarking on McDonalds
--Albert Schweitzer - 38 when he switched gears, studied medicine, and went to Africa
--Bill W - wrote Alcoholics Anonymous at 43
--Phyllis Diller - 37 when she started her career
...more at Wilson's Almanac of Late Bloomers
posted by madamjujujive at 5:26 PM on June 19, 2006

(You may find it helpful to fake the sort of hindsight bias that raedyn mentions. Keep track of things you've done or are doing now that will seem like signs of your coming greatness when we're writing your biography 50 years from now. Focus on those things and not the things that strike you as ordinary about yourself.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:41 PM on June 19, 2006

R.L. Burnside was about 60 before he recorded an album that anyone listened to.
posted by Jairus at 5:50 PM on June 19, 2006

UbuRoivas: Erwin Shroedinger did his most important work after 30. As did Max Planck.

So even in perhaps the hardest of the hard sciences being doing things after 30 is possible.

Even in math there are probably examples of people doing their most important work after 30.

In politics, today it's rare that anyone does anything before 30.
posted by sien at 6:15 PM on June 19, 2006

Ronald W. Reagan, of course.

Yeah... except for the whole breaking into movies at the age of 26 thing.

There's a really, really good quote from the Japanese artist Hiroshige that's inspiring and apropos, but I'm having trouble finding it. Maybe later.
posted by furiousthought at 6:33 PM on June 19, 2006

Augustus Caesar.
posted by 517 at 7:14 PM on June 19, 2006

Life is a marathon - not a sprint. To master something means an investment in time. Focus on being better - even just a little bit - than you were yesterday. Do this and given a long enough time line greatness is inevitable.
posted by jopreacher at 7:19 PM on June 19, 2006

I have read that in the world of science, if you haven't made the super-breakthrough that turns the scientific community / paradigm on its head by the age of 30, you never will.

This isn't true anymore; even in math, where that used to be the case, it now takes so long to learn enough math to discover anything that a lot of the best research is being done by mathematicians in their 40's.
posted by transona5 at 7:29 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

I am in that category. I have not yet made it big or become famous, but I will. I am in my early 40's. I just don't know how or in what field yet. But, I give 100% everyday and I know that one day all this hard work will payoff. Already I am a great father, an ok husband and good at my chosen field.

My point is achievement can be measured in so many ways and to believe in yourself and not care what anyone else thinks.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:31 PM on June 19, 2006

Jesus did little before 30 that anyone remembers (though his personal accomplishments have been resoundingly trashed by his successors).

The list of 'late accomplishers' is just too large to dignify with a summary, especially with the 'late' threshold set at such a miniscule level (30!). That's why they make computers and search engines.

The query raises another question... 'What is your definition of accomplishment?' To some, it's just a good life. To others, it's THE "good life". To others, it's power, fame, output, recognition, ad nauseum. I hope you are not in the "I'm worthless unless someone else say's I'm not" camp. That's unfiltered bullshit. Set fashion, don't follow it.

Most all (99%+) of the 'accomplished' people I know are unified by one characteristic... they're dead already.

Soon, you will be, too.

The normal curve pretty much assures that the vast majority of our fellow travellers on this orb will die unrecognized. It's a major preoccupation of those who consider the human condition of toil and death.

Fortunately, it's never too late to reject despair as an option. A good and worthwhile life can be lived starting today. It can be lived even if no one other than you notices, which is fortunate, because it's most likely that no one will. Lots of famous people had to die first. Look up that list for fun!

You might want to read Shelly, 'Ozymandias'. I know it's kind of sophomoric, but it's on point.

"Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
posted by FauxScot at 7:37 PM on June 19, 2006

Harper Lee is one of my favorite examples of this. I expect true genius generally does exhibit early - more often than not, at least. But there is certainly no expiration date on potential, I think.

Better to be thinking about what sort of things you really would like to acheive. You got the proof you're not necessarily past it, now, so get to it.
posted by nanojath at 9:50 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

My mom raised five children (no small accomplishment in itself), then went back to university in her early forties, got a BA, MA, and PhD, wrote two books, taught at a university, and still does substantial research at age 75. My sister was a more or less unknown artist who was discovered in her forties and last year at age 49 won the most lucrative art prize in the UK. I don't think either of them spent much time wondering about being a success: success is something best contemplated in the rear-view mirror.
posted by Rumple at 9:51 PM on June 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

I think Sigmund Freud could be considered a late achiever by this measure. His early work was with anaesthesia, if I recall correctly, and he only turned to private practice and his work with neurotic patients when that was something of a failure.

Anyway, he was born in 1856 and didn't begin the work for which he's famous until 1886.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:25 PM on June 19, 2006

And what about George Dawson, author of Life Is So Good. He learned to read and write when he was ninety-eight and wrote a best-selling autobiography (with a co-author). Whenever you feel you don't have much time left, think about George.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:29 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

When I read this question, this is the first person that I thought of:
INO Tadataka. (From Wikipedia) "(February 11, 1745 - May 17, 1818) was a Japanese surveyor and cartographer. He is known for completing the first map of Japan created using modern surveying techniques. (He) covered the entire coastline and some of the interior of each of the Japanese home islands. During this period Tadataka reportedly spent 3,736 days making measurements (and travelled 34,913 kilometres)". He began his map-making journey when he was 50 years old, and walked the entirety of the Japanese coastline until age 73, right before his death.
posted by misozaki at 12:15 AM on June 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Frederic Goudy designed his first typeface at age 32.
posted by dmo at 2:01 AM on June 20, 2006

I sympathize with you, Razzman. I'm only 26 (well, two months from 27), and I've carried the same fears. I did find solace in the fact that William Faulkner didn't write any of his well known and biggest hits until after the age of 30.
posted by Atreides at 5:08 AM on June 20, 2006

George W. Bush didn't accomplish anything much until he was in his 40s.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:25 AM on June 20, 2006

If yyou're a scientist, you're most likely S.O.L. The vast majority of important scientific results(measured by Nobels, maybe, can't find the citation) were produced by scientists before they turned 30. Most likely this has to do with marriage and family, instead of biological age, though, so you might still be ok.

yes, I'm over 30, a scientist, and no, I haven't published anything ground-breaking. However, I'm having a good life which I enjoy.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:44 AM on June 20, 2006

Tom Robbins published his first novel at 35.

Stan Lee was around 40 when he created the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the rest of the Marvel universe. And Jack Kirby was even older.
posted by COBRA! at 7:09 AM on June 20, 2006

If yyou're a scientist, you're most likely S.O.L. The vast majority of important scientific results(measured by Nobels, maybe, can't find the citation) were produced by scientists before they turned 30.

I hope this isn't a derail, but I think that a lot of this data is from 50 years ago, and things have changed dramatically. Of course, there's no math Nobel, which is the field I'm mainly thinking of. I'm in theoretical computer science, where most of the important results I can think of (Cook's Theorem, the Karp-Edmonds algorithm) were developed by people in at least their thirties.
posted by transona5 at 8:49 AM on June 20, 2006

Ralph Vaughan Williams was a late bloomer. He was 30 when he first had a composition published.
posted by agropyron at 9:38 AM on June 20, 2006

Robert A. Heinlein didn't start writing until age 32.
posted by Mitheral at 11:57 AM on June 20, 2006

Don't take this the wrong way, but people in their 30's have not even reached the prime of their life from a business or professional point of view. Athletes may have reached their prime by then. But there is nothing special about great achievement in your 30's. The achievement may be special, but the age certainly is not. Even in your 40's, this is not very special.

I am more interested in people in people who have achieved success after the age of 50. I am more inspired by people who achieved success with limited resources and limited "ability". For instance, I know of an elderly lady in Mississippi who sold an ice cream topping to people in her small town just to make a few dollars on the side. To make a long story short, she got discovered and went on one of these shopping channels and became an overnight success.
posted by copa2007 at 12:10 PM on January 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

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