Many oak trees wait 50 years before, in a burst of creative power, they produce their first crop of hundreds of acorns.
It’s the same for many people: nothing major happens for several decades, and then it all happens. We use the phrases ‘late starters’ and ‘late bloomers’ as if there was some problem or delay in a person’s flourishing, but surely this is a tautology. The point of ripening is that it happens when it does, and not before.
Our fifties see us running on full speed!
To use another analogy, if the forties are the decade in which people gather steam, the fifties see them on their full speed run. In this decade many find they are at the height of their powers, combining good health with heightened skills and wisdom. A career can be crowned, or equally something new started. Age itself, we come to realise, matters little next to readiness and enthusiasm. With many people now living in reasonable health until their nineties, it is no longer ridiculous for a person to say to themselves, on turning 50, ‘Now for my next half-century.’
When we become an expert in our field, often we do not realise at the time just how many generic skills we have developed along with specialised knowledge, and that these can be put to good use in a totally different area. You may not like everything about your current job, but a particular skill or knowledge it gives you may become the key to your success in something else.
What are you doing now that is setting you up for your real glory? What ‘extra project’ might you begin in the next year or so that draws on already honed skills? What idea, excitedly scrawled on the back of a napkin late one night in a restaurant, may end up as your defining achievement? The simplest ideas are often the most powerful, and what may seem too obvious to you could, with proper execution, powerfully affect many others. Equally, do not dismiss proposals that come to you which could totally change your course.
Finally, take the time to dream, muse, meditate or just play around. When work becomes play, it can have surprising power. A mind consists of millions of memories, thoughts and impressions, all of them unique to you. Don’t waste them. In the years you have, find something that draws together everything you have ever seen, done and learned. ‘Gather up the fragments, so that nothing is lost.’
When fearful or in doubt about the rate of your progress, remember the stories above. Recall the oak tree, biding its time and drawing up its energies for a summer explosion of acorns, decades after its initial sprouting.
Famous people who have achieved success in later life
Below are some examples of well known people still achieving later in life:
Leonardo da Vinci began the Mona Lisa in his fifties and was still painting well into his sixties. Charles Darwin, spurred into action by Alfred Wallace’s paper on the introduction of new species, hurriedly wrote up his own ideas, publishing The Origin of the Species in his 50th year.
Taikichiro Mori grew up in pre-war Japan, and became an economics professor at Yokohama City University. When his father, a rice farmer, merchant and landlord died, Mori inherited two buildings in central Tokyo and at 55 launched himself on a second career as a property developer, replacing thousands of wooden structures with earthquake-resistant steel and glass buildings. When Mori died in 1993 he was the richest man in the world.
Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he helped draft the Declaration of Independence, and 78 when he invented the bifocal lens.
Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of over 50 London churches including the great St Paul’s, retired at 86.
Tom Butler-Bowdon is the author of Never Too Late To Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long, published by Virgin Books (£11.99) this month.