Less well-known than the wunderkinds at the other end of the age spectrum, late bloomers’ accomplishments don’t usually grab the public’s attention in quite the same way. (After all, who could compete with a 5-year-old child prodigy playing flawless violin concertos?) I suspect one reason for this more blunted response is that people usually assume that their accomplishments are simply the result of a lifetime of work rather than the emergence of some inborn talent.
Perhaps that’s often the case, but I also think it’s possible for someone in middle age or old age to suddenly discover a new, untapped ability. Years ago, by chance, I shared a breakfast table at a business conference with a man who for most of his working life was a hard-driven, smoking-two-packs-a-day attorney in Chicago. He had no time for exercise so like many of us, he didn’t. But after retiring, he moved to Colorado, bought a business, quit smoking, and—casually at first—took up running. What a shock it must of been for his former colleagues to learn he had become an elite level runner in his age group. Unknown even to himself during all those years of sedentary living, he had discovered in his sixties that he was in fact a world-class athlete, blessed with all the right physical attributes to excel at an activity he had never even considered in his earlier years. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic about face, or a talent more hidden by lifestyle choices.
In a similar story of late-blooming athletic accomplishments, “Grandma” Emma Gatewood became the first woman to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail at the age of 67. She was a pioneer of ultra-light hiking, wearing her Keds tennis shoes and carrying only an army blanket, raincoat and a plastic shower curtain that she used as a bag. She hiked the trail twice more (once in sections) and held the record for the oldest woman to hike the trail until Nancy Gowler hiked it in 2007 at the age of 71. The oldest man was 81 when he broke Earl Shaffer’s record in 2004. Earl Shaffer, the first man to hike the length of the AT in 1948, was also one of the oldest when he hiked it for the third time at the age of 79 in 1998.
Of course, one of the best known stories of this kind is that of Grandma Moses who took up painting at the age of 75 when, according to some accounts, her arthritis made it difficult for her to embroider. (Just as unlikely as her emergence as an artist was the discovery of her work in a drug store window by a prominent collector.) Fortunately, Moses had plenty of time to pursue her new passion as she lived past 100 years of age, producing more than 3,600 paintings during that time. One of her paintings, Sugaring Off, sold for $1.2 million in 2006.
Older still, Harry Bernstein didn’t begin work on his first book until the age of 93 after his wife of 67 years passed away. Published when he was 96, it told of the story of his growing-up years in a Cheshire mill town, including the struggles of his mother to feed her six children, his alcoholic father and the anti-semitism of the era. Bernstein went on to write three more books (one published posthumously) before he died in 2011.
Perhaps more common than the emergence of hidden artistic or athletic prowess, business people sometimes make their mark late in life. Ray Kroc, the man behind McDonalds, and Harlen David Saunders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken Colonel himself, both made their fortunes by franchising food operations. When you look at some of the occupations they did when younger you see little sign of their future business success. Kroc: paper cup salesman, pianist, jazz musician, radio DJ. Saunders: farmer, steamboat captain, insurance salesman, gas station owner.
While these stories are all fairly dramatic, I think they illustrate the simple truth that “an old dog can teach itself new tricks.” But how do you find abilities that you don’t even know that you have? According to Barbara Straugh’s article “How to Train the Aging Brain,” which appeared in the New York Times in 2009, the brain in middle age and later is more likely to grow and develop when we challenge our well-established assumptions. That sounds like a good first step. To discover a new source of experience, a new lens through which to view reality, a new inspiration to fuel our passion is a goal well worth pursuing.