Book Review: Rich Karlgaard's "Late Bloomers"
As he drove a school bus carrying his junior high school basketball team back to school after a loss, Dale Brown turned on the windshield wipers. The rain was heavy. With each swipe of the wipers against glass, the dejected Brown heard failure…failure…failure…
It’s literally been decades since I read a Sports Illustrated (SI) feature on then-LSU basketball coach Dale Brown. By then he was a Final Four, SEC Champion, college basketball coaching legend, but in the SI story Brown recalled the old days when he wasn’t much of anything. Failure...failure...failure…
Brown’s story came to mind while reading Rich Karlgaard’s inspiring new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. Not only is Karlgaard a big fan of the world’s greatest magazine (after Forbes, of course), not only did Sports Illustrated’s layout inform his creation of the first magazine meant to chronicle the rise of a nascent Silicon Valley, but Brown’s ascent from the depths of school-bus failure would very much fit what he’s talking about in Late Bloomers.
By now many readers are already familiar with Karlgaard’s well-publicized thesis, that for many of us our brain truly begins to develop later than others. Because it does, because most of us discover ourselves after our frequently aimless twenties, Karlgaard decries an “early twenty-first-century society” that “has conspired to make us feel shame” for not racing out of life’s proverbial gates. Karlgaard is making a case for late bloomers like himself, like the late Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh, the brilliant investor Ken Fisher, the endlessly entertaining and imaginative author J.K. Rowling, and countless others who took a while to soar.
As a late bloomer myself, as someone still hopeful about seriously blooming, Karlgaard’s book resonated with me. For so long I looked longingly at the early achievements of friends, colleagues, and famous people only to wonder what was wrong with me. Karlgaard experienced much the same, and in a Dale Brown-like moment he discovered the nowhere of his career late one evening while working the night security shift at a northern California business. It wasn’t windshield wipers that awakened the Stanford grad from his career slumber, but instead it was the realization that his fellow watchman that night was a dog….
Karlgaard worries that what has some of us late bloomers depressed has had the effect of creating “a trickle-down societal madness for early achievement” that has manifested itself in $20,000 (tuition) ‘”full immersion second language”’ programs “for three-year-olds” in Atlanta, $37,000 annual tuition pre-schools in New York, along with an overall mania among parents to do seemingly everything in order to give their kids a leg up in the race for admittance to the best colleges and universities. The normally optimistic Karlgaard is a pessimist about what’s happening societally, and at first glance it’s perhaps hard not to disagree.
Why, particularly when technology relentlessly dates much of what’s taught in school, do parents put so much emphasis on getting in? It’s easy to see why people are pessimistic, but I’ll make an optimistic case that all this nonsensical parenting is arguably a sign of progress. Opposite the latchkey kid phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, parents nowadays hover over their kids in helicopter fashion. So prosperous has the U.S. become, so advanced has technology (more on this in a bit) created by “early bloomers” become, that parents increasingly have time to be parents. I say it’s all a positive tradeoff.
My sense is that Karlgaard would ultimately agree. While he’s frustrated by a “new system of snobbery based on IQ scores and elite university degrees,” he acknowledges that the latter replaced “hereditary titles” as a source of status, not to mention that Harvard president James Conant viewed (on p. 52 of Late Bloomers) “the SAT as a weapon against the lazy aristocracy.” We Americans are a competitive bunch, so a rush to achieve and be judged quantitatively has to be an improvement over what it replaced. Indeed, it arguably explains why the U.S. is the richest, most dynamic country in the world; a country that people have routinely risked their lives to get to. The meritocracy has been a lure, a market signal of sorts that speaks to what an improvement merit is over title or pull.
Better yet, there’s a case to be made that the economic and career chances for late bloomers are in many ways enhanced by early bloomers of the Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs variety. No doubt they achieved in staggering fashion, and did so at ages when most of their counterparts were still finding themselves to varying degrees, but these early bloomers shrank the world in a figurative sense.
Whereas it used to require enormous sums for a world-leading business to flower, Peter Thiel at one point owned 10% of Facebook after having put up just $500,000. Kylie Jenner, according to Forbes, was able to build a billion dollar business with 12 employees, five of them part-time. Thanks to Jenner’s million+ followers on early bloomer creations like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, she was able to reach exponentially more people in a very short time.
So while Jenner and Mark Zuckerberg are young, and arguably the picture definition of “early bloomer,” their achievements speak to the opportunities that await those of us who, in the words of Karlgaard, “simply need more time.” These early bloomers who have once again shrunk the figurative world have given us much more time to try different professions, test all sorts of ideas, and we’ve been able to do just that thanks to technology that greatly speeds up the process of turning an idea into something tangible in concert with lower costs related to transforming an idea into something real.
In short, there’s an argument to be made that early bloomers, though they may unsettle those of us who are slow to sort ourselves out, have ultimately helped improve the odds of late bloomer achievement. This column regularly argues that Main Street and Wall Street can’t exist without the other, and perhaps there’s a similarly optimistic scenario unfolding here. Those early achievers make our late-in-life reinventions much more of a possibility. Furthermore, discomfort is a good thing at times. The early achievers arguably spur us to betterment, or greatness. Karlgaard seems to agree.
As he notes about a 3rd of the way through Late Bloomers, “most award-winning scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs are getting older.” He cites a Kauffman Foundation study showing that “the average age of entrepreneurship is forty-seven.” In his 2018 book Burn the Business Plan, former Kauffman president Carl Schramm confirmed the stat cited by Karlgaard. He noted that the “young, mostly male, high-tech wizard accounts for the smallest constellation in the universe of entrepreneurs – only about five to seven percent.” A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of 493 S&P 500 companies found that only 6% of the CEOs of these blue chips were under 50 years of age. It’s a reminder that we in a sense celebrate early achievement precisely because it’s so rare.
Still, we can at least be hopeful about what the achievements of the very few mean. It seems they once again create time for those who “simply need more time.” This may explain why people seemingly mature later and later. Because they can. Which speaks to a very happy story that’s unfolding before our eyes.
Indeed, late in the book Karlgaard writes that when “we force ourselves to do things we’re not naturally inclined to do, or that don’t fit our passion or purpose in life, we pay for it with reduced motivation and drive.” So true. We’re not inherently lazy people as much as we’re likely in the wrong job. Thanks to immense prosperity that’s long been the rule in a United States that celebrates achievement like no other country, more and more people lucky enough to live here get to migrate toward work that is commensurate with their unique skills, and that frees them to showcase their skills and intelligence in the workplace.
That Americans are so free to try, fail, and try again at all manner of things, that Americans are so free to bloom late is what unearthed a few quibbles with the author. Karlgaard cited a study put together by Lawrence Summers which predicts quite a bit of unemployment for American men between the ages of 25-54 by mid-century. Not surprisingly, the endlessly downcast Nicholas Eberstadt shares Summers's fear; in Eberstadt's case he refers to what's not unfolding as ‘”America’s invisible crisis.”’ Sorry, I’m not buying it. While I feel sorry for many individuals, I don’t broadly wring my hands for those lucky enough to be able to live and work in the United States. Furthermore, I’m not buying the pessimism of Summers and Eberstadt, and sense Karlgaard doesn’t either. Or he shouldn’t. As prosperity grows, and yes, as automation becomes even more of a thing, the richness and variety of work will become more, not less apparent. My sense is that with time Karlgaard will turn away from his argument that early achievement has caused those who haven’t soared early to migrate toward “binge drinking and opioid addiction.” No, we’re very lucky to be here. We're not victimized by a nation so free that people can realize their genius at various stages of life, all the while enjoying living standards that are the envy of the world as they "fail."
About a quarter of the way through, Karlgaard seems to lament how that “bits companies” (think Silicon Valley) “are barely regulated at all” compared to the “atoms companies” (think the more physical economy) of old. Ok, but why is this a problem? If the bits had been regulated in the way that the atoms are now, there would arguably not be much of a book to write. Thank goodness Silicon Valley has been free to (in the words of Karlgaard on p. 159) ‘” Fail often to succeed faster.”’ Absent the monumental achievements that have been hatched there with very little regulation, early and late bloomers would be few and far between relative to the abundant present. Once again, early and late need one another.
Still, those are just quibbles. Rich Karlgaard’s book will surely inspire many people who feel stuck, and who wonder what’s next. A read of Late Bloomers will remind those wracked by uncertainty that opportunity is endless, and it often reveals itself late in life.