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Our Obsession With Early Achievement And Why “Late Blooming” Is Better For Everyone

Rich Karlgaard, Late Bloomers

With Rich Karlgaard, Forbes Publisher, Author of Late Bloomers – The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement

Steve recently spoke with Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard, about his new book, Late Bloomers – The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. Rich explained why it’s really quite natural that more of us are “late bloomers” in life rather than instant successes, and how to prepare your children to succeed in life.

Two Late Bloomer Success Stories

Steve and Rich opened their discussion of “Late Bloomers” by acknowledging that they were both late bloomers themselves. Following a mediocre performance at university, Rich worked as a dishwasher, a night watchman, and a typing temp before finally starting on the path that ultimately led him to become a successful and sought-after speaker, the author of several books, and the publisher of Forbes. Steve can easily relate to Rich’s story—he worked as a short-order cook and as a lawn sprayer for a pesticide company before finally finding his niche in the investment world in the financial services industry.

The Expectation Of Instant Success

Rich was working as a security guard at the same age that Steve Jobs was when he took Apple public. He was struck by the stark difference between the accomplishments of 25-year-old Rich Karlgaard and those of 25-year-old Steve Jobs. And he admits that at that time in his life, he was embarrassed when he compared his career progress (not that he really even had a career yet) to that of some of his friends who were zooming up the ladder at prestigious law firms or designing the latest software in Silicon Valley.

As a society, we seem more and more to expect instant, or at least very early, success in life. Rich thinks that part of the reason for this comes from recent economic trends, the fact that virtually all the big business success stories of the past few decades seem to be either about billionaire hedge fund managers in their 20s or about some new cutting-edge technology. This seems to have led to parents getting the idea that they have to groom their kids toward becoming one of these high-tech 20-year-old geniuses. So, they’re doing things like spending $50,000 to send their three-year-olds to special pre-k schools to get them started on that fast track to success. But this increasing focus on the STEM track (science, technology, engineering, and math) works against the development of creative abilities like curiosity and discovery, and it works against the success of the 95% of us who aren’t going to be computer whizzes or hedge fund managers.

And, of course, recently we’ve seen how over-eager parents can cross the line, with the SAT and college admissions scandals.

An Alternative View

As a counterbalance to this tendency to coerce our children toward the pressurized pursuit of success at very tender ages, Rich has penned his latest book that—as the subtitle states—is about “the power of patience in a world obsessed with early achievement”. The plain fact of the matter is that most people’s life stories unfold more like Steve’s or Rich’s, that is, they don’t “bloom” and begin creating their success stories until later in life. They’re not Silicon Valley geniuses at age 20. Instead, they’re people who perhaps just get started on their personal path of success in life in their late 20s, early 30s, or maybe even at an older age.

We need to communicate the idea that that’s okay. We don’t want to be putting this mindset in our kids that makes them think of themselves as failures in life if they haven’t reached the peak of their career by the time they’re 22.

Multiple Times Of Blooming

Steve and Rich might not have been 25-year-old billionaires, but they are both notably successful now. In researching his book, Rich looked at a couple of interesting scientific studies. The first, a 2015 Harvard study done by Laura Germine, aimed to answer the question: “At what age do we cognitively peak?” The answer turned out to be rather complex and mostly dependent on what kind of cognitive ability you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the cognitive skills that make somebody a great computer programmer, those indeed peak in our teens and 20s. But there are different kinds of cognitive abilities that don’t usually peak until we’re in our 30s, 40s, or 50s, things like leadership skills, emotional IQ, and equanimity, the ability to stay calm under pressure.

And things don’t stop there. Even into our 60s and 70s, still more cognitive abilities just begin to bloom in some people, the kind of mental maturity that makes us commonly associate wisdom with old age.

Other studies being done by Professor Elkhonon Goldberg at NYU have focused on the interaction between our intuitive abilities and logical reasoning powers. Professor Goldberg believes that as we age, these two abilities keep developing connections, keep creating new neural pathways in the brain as the intuitive side of our thinking and the logical reasoning side seem to learn to work together more and more effectively. We’re able to be more effective or efficient in our creative thinking because we’re able to better see how we can put our creative inspirations to practical use.

Steve concurred with these ideas, thinking of his own personal experience, observing that, “I notice certain things I’m able to understand and connections from my life and other people’s lives that, as an advisor, enable me to see the larger picture and put things together in creative ways that I don’t think I could have done when I was in my 20s and 30s.”

Late Life Creativity

There’s a lot of real-world evidence to support Dr. Goldberg’s thinking on creativity as an ability that continues to develop and improve as we age. If you look at the world of writers, a lot of the best writers of spy novels, mysteries, and thrillers either didn’t even start writing until they were older or their writing noticeably improved as they aged. John Sandford, a very successful thriller writer, is in his mid-70s. Lee Child, the creator of the Jack Reacher series, is in his mid-60s. Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt didn’t write his first book until he was 63. Ian Fleming essentially wrote the whole James Bond series of novels in the last 10 years of his life.

There are plenty of examples of late blooming in areas other than writing as well. Bill Walsh, the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the San Francisco 49ers, didn’t get his first head coaching job till he was 36 and even then, he was still years away from leading the 49ers to such great success in the NFL.

The bottom line is that there are multiple times of “blooming” that occur during our lives. We need to refocus our educational system on recognizing this fact and encouraging lifetime development rather than pressuring children to achieve instant success because that’s just not a realistic view of life.

To learn more about multiple times and the ways of creating your personal success story, visit Rich Karlgaard’s website and take a look at his new book, Late Bloomers.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: I’m sure you’ve read about the recent SAT scandals, the one in which parents were caught bribing officials and paying test-takers to game the system. Now, perhaps it’s a foregone conclusion that if so much energy and resources are concentrated around the outcome of tests like the SAT and the ACT, corruption would inevitably occur. This story, however, is not about the SAT. It’s about how we’re coercing our children toward the relentless pursuit of success at very tender ages. To further understand this problem, I’ve invited Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard, to talk about his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. In this book, Rich offers us an incisive critique of a culture that has caved to the pressure to produce prodigies. Rich is also a late bloomer like myself, I might add. Hey, Rich, welcome to the show.

Rich Karlgaard: Thank you for having me, Steve.

Steve Pomeranz: You had a mediocre academic career and after graduating you worked as a dishwasher, a night-watchman, a typing temp before finally finding your inner motivation. You’re now a pilot, a lecturer, author of four books, and publisher of Forbes, which I mentioned earlier. How did your own background as a self-proclaimed late bloomer ignite your research?

Rich Karlgaard: Well, I was a late bloomer. I grew up in North Dakota. I was a B student in high school. I went to my local junior college. I raised my grades to B+, basically As in the easy courses, Bs in the hard courses, and then a truly hard course like organic chemistry I’d drop after the first practice test. Through a combination of factors who would never repeat again, I was able to transfer to Stanford. I was a pretty good runner but not a scholarship level runner. Just from being from North Dakota, being the kind of runner who could fill out a squad, I was able to get into the university. If anybody’s feeling jealous about that, let me reassure you justice prevailed because I barely got through. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I took easy classes with names like Sleep and Dreams and Human Sex, and even those were too hard. I would retreat into the library. How do you screw up Human Sex?

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I know, exactly.

Rich Karlgaard: I would retreat into the library and read old issues of Sports Illustrated. No graduate school wanted me. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do. In my mid-20s, I had the jobs you described while my roommates were off doing fabulous things, beginning great legal careers, working on the Space Shuttle program. I was a security guard who discovered one night when I was making my rounds and I heard a dog barking that I had a colleague, a professional colleague was a Rottweiler. He was probably provided more bang for the buck. He was a better deal than I was as a security guard.

Steve Pomeranz: I know that had to be a low moment for you.

Rich Karlgaard: I did feel ashamed of it. It sounds comical now, but a few months later Steve Jobs, also 25, would take Apple public. It was on the temp typing assignment maybe 18 months after that low point happened that I was at Research Institute in Palo Alto. They had a dressing room and shower facility. Some people would run at noon, and there were some good paths, so then I started running. Some of the scientists and engineers said, “Rich, why are you in the temp typing pool?” I actually got kind of tearful and I said, “I don’t know.” I said, “I haven’t found what I wanted to do at all.”

They gave me a chance at being a technical writer and technical editor. It was the first time in my adult life that I actually leaned into the job. More than that, working with scientists and engineers opened up a whole territory of my brain that I didn’t even know was there, the logical process side. Then I began to bloom. I was very conscious of the fact that a new day had dawned. It seemed like a dramatic thing to me to be taking on an adult job, dressing appropriately as an adult, and learning to think like engineers and scientists.

Steve Pomeranz: I think that story is probably the story of millions of us around the world really, all finding our niches when it’s time to. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, that kind of thing. I know for myself that I was very misdirected. I had a troubled childhood. It took me a long time to get out of myself and to try a lot of different things. I sprayed lawns for an insecticide company. I short-order cooked. I was a musician for a while until I got married and had a child and realized that that wasn’t going to support my family. Eventually got into the investment business and learned from the ground up there, and then as the years progressed, learned my craft. I know that’s a common story. Why do you think our culture has this misguided obsession with early achievement?

Rich Karlgaard: I think it has to do somewhat or quite a bit with the economy. The only sure bet in the US economy over the last 20 years have been in cutting edge technology, Silicon Valley kinds of technology, and in high finance, investment banks, hedge funds, things like that. Other industries have been lucrative like real estate and oil and gas, but they’ve been a little more boom and bust in nature. When you look at Silicon Valley and when you look at Wall Street, you see two clubs. These are clubs where the door is open to people who went to Harvard Business School, Stanford Engineering School, MIT, a few schools like that. It’s a harder door to open if you’re coming from a state school in the Midwest or maybe one of the lower-middle ranked colleges in the US from anywhere.

People kind of get the message, they get the message, parents get the message that, my gosh, as we hurtle into this technology-driven, artificial intelligence-driven future, to give my kid the best chance maybe they have to get into that club. We’ve erected this conveyor belt designed to take people into that club. Wealthy parents in New York are spending $50,000 for their three-year-olds at pre-K schools now. The pre-K schools talk about a multi-building campus, exposure to different languages, all of this kind of stuff. But what they’re really saying if you read the literature, they’re saying, “Hey, if you want to maximize your kid’s chances of getting into Harvard 15 years later, you better start now, right here.”

Steve Pomeranz: I’m sure they’re saying that my three-year-old’s got to learn Chinese.

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, probably, and then they’ve got to learn how to code AI algorithms when they’re six or something. Well, look, some people respond to that, they really do. If you’re a parent and your kids are responding to that, then God bless you. You’re fortunate, and keep it up. But if your kid starts to exhibit signs of anxiety and depression or saying scary things on social media, then plan B shouldn’t be to double down on plan A.

Steve Pomeranz: I see, yeah, yeah. I follow Warren Buffett a lot. He says that he had a particular set of skills that were ideal for his chosen profession and interest. Had he been born in a different country or a different period of time, he may have been an abject failure. He says if sports or athletic abilities were important, he would’ve been a failure, and other things, I’m sure. His particular set of talents fit with his particular field. I think what you’re saying is that a lot of these children who excel in these narrow programs that are able to get into these institutions like Stanford and Harvard, it’s a small percentage of people, but they have those kinds of innate talents, the rest of us don’t.

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, and so consequently this conveyor belt reveals their strengths, and it doesn’t reveal the strengths of the majority of people. In fact, what it does is it strips them bare and shows their weaknesses. Look what we do in the United States. We’re so quick to apply the ADHD diagnosis to some kid who can’t sit still. I just was reading a few weeks ago that the person who first came up with the ADHD concept, I’m forgetting his name, but he’s now greatly distressed that this has been way over applied. Well, not only do we do that, that 95% of the Ritalin prescriptions in the world are written in the United States.

We’ve turned the youthful inability to sit still and focus, in other words, we’ve turned normal kids into some clinical problem. That’s a disaster. The kid who can’t pay attention because their real skills, let’s say they have spatial skills that make them really good carpenters or artists or sculptors, things like that. Rather than their strengths being revealed, only their weaknesses are revealed. They go out into the world feeling like second class citizens. Their parents are now wondering whether they did them a disservice. That’s, I think, the big flaw out there.

By the way, Warren Buffett, I’m sure he would fall right into line with all these 800 math SAT scores that create companies like Microsoft and Amazon, etc. But when I read Warren Buffett’s biography, I think it was a setback that was the greatest gift to him. It was a setback when Benjamin Graham told him, “No, you can’t join my firm. I, a Jewish man, Benjamin Graham, need to reserve spots for Jews,” because at the time Wall Street was pretty anti-semitic and doors were closed, and so Warren went back to Omaha and built his own firm and stayed really close to Ben Graham, of course. Ben Graham, out of love, did him the best thing that he could’ve done.

Steve Pomeranz: Well, he also got rebuffed from Harvard.

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.

Steve Pomeranz: That was another important-

Rich Karlgaard: He went to Columbia Business School, right.

Steve Pomeranz: That’s right. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have met Ben Graham and so on.

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, yeah, there you go.

Steve Pomeranz: Interesting. My guest is Rich Karlgaard. His book is Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. You write that this relentless pursuit of achievement at an early age works against some of our human characteristics for those who don’t fit so narrowly into that space. It works against curiosity and discovery and other factors that are missed out in this drive for science, technology, engineering, and math. Can you take us a little further in that?

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, it does. I think pushing people onto the STEM track, first of all, I think everybody should have fluency with science and technology. But a STEM track for everybody as a notion might be overdone in the same way that the SAT as a weapon of meritocracy against the entrenched aristocracy was a good idea, but it was overdone because any job that is rules-based is in danger of being wiped out by AI. Sometimes the most creative eclectic backgrounds will produce the best results. Somebody in your field, since you know the investment field well, Ken Fisher, Fisher Investments, $100 billion under management.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I’ve interviewed him.

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, yeah. He’s a quirky character. Ken struggled to get his financial advisory service going throughout his 20s. He had to supplement his income with construction jobs. He played steel guitar in a bar band, and not some froo froo bar band, it was a Harley rider bar. But along the way, as he said, he read all kinds of investment books. I’m sure he read The Intelligent Investor.

Steve Pomeranz: Oh, his dad was-

Rich Karlgaard: He read all kinds of tricks. His dad was a legendary thinker, but as Ken said, today his dad would’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s. He tried working for his dad, and it didn’t work out at all. His dad had a hard time keeping people. Ken launched Fisher Investments without help from his dad. In fact, he didn’t even have his dad, particularly, as a role model. Ken wanted to be a forester before he went into what has become known for. Anyway, back to his 20s. Even when he was appearing to struggle, he was learning in his own creative way because he was reading all these investment books, and then, as he said, about 30 trade magazines a week. As he likes to say, “I developed some unconventional ways of how to value companies.”

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah. Who are some of the other notables that have been late bloomers?

Rich Karlgaard: Well, there are the famous ones in our culture that I decided not to write about because you could’ve read about them before the book, people like Colonel Sanders, and Ray Kroc, and so on. One of my favorites is one of my personal heroes. He died about a dozen years ago, but I got to know him quite well, Bill Walsh, the football coach, who won three Super Bowls for the 49ers back in the day. At age 36, he finally got his first head coaching job, and it was the dregs of organized football. It was a semipro team called the San Jose Apaches. They played on the junior college field. They practiced on a lumpy high school field. He was 36 years old. The year before, he’d been running back coach for the Oakland Raiders, and so he was going downhill in his 30s.

It was there while watching a high school basketball practice after his own practice where he saw the team practicing inbounding the ball against the full-court press that it suddenly occurred to him, what if he designed a football offense like that with a lot of pick and rolls and short passes? Then he got chance to apply that at the Cincinnati Bengals when he was offensive coordinator, and then of course to a celebrated level when he had a point guard basically. Joe Montana was a great high school basketball player. He’d been offered a full ride at North Carolina State under Jim Valvano. People forget that about Montana because the rap on Montana is that he didn’t have an “NFL arm” coming out of Notre Dame. But Walsh saw exactly what he needed, the guy with peripheral vision, the point guard.

Steve Pomeranz: You had Frank McCourt, who wrote his first book at age 63, Angela’s Ashes, which was a wonderful book. He won a Pulitzer Prize.

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, and more recently, Daniel J. Brown, The Boys in the Boat.

Steve Pomeranz: I don’t know that.

Rich Karlgaard: Which is in the New York Times. Do you know that book?

Steve Pomeranz: No, I don’t.

Rich Karlgaard: Oh, that was on the New York Times Bestseller List for about two years straight maybe in 2015, 2016. That was the story about the Depression era kids who made up the University of Washington eight-man crew team. They were poor, desperate kids. They had an unconventional coach. First, they beat the aristocratic schools in the East Coast, and then they went on as a unit to win the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics, beating Germany under Hitler’s nose. He published that book at age 62 after being a technical writer at Microsoft.

Steve Pomeranz: J.K. Rowling, too.

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, J.K. Rowling. Not as old as Frank McCourt or Dan Brown, but she was a single mother on public assistance in her early 30s. Went on a train, and she got the idea for Harry Potter.

Steve Pomeranz: I know there are many more. We’re not going to sit here and list too many, but the idea is that there is a natural way that human beings develop. Certain things happen at certain ages, executive function in our brains. Things happen when we’re 25 years or younger to us that just are not available to our brains or our brains are not mature enough to develop until we’re in our 40s and 50s. Can you take us through some of the timeline of brain development?

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah. There are two studies that I want to cite that are really hopeful. One was a study that came out in 2015 led by a Harvard researcher named Laura Germine. She was doing postdoc work at Massachusetts General Hospital with another postdoc, Josh Hartshorne of MIT. They asked the question, at what age do we cognitively peak? The answer is far more complex than they had anticipated. The answer is it depends what kind of cognitive ability you’re talking about. Rapid cognitive processing speed and working memory, the things that make you a really good software programmer, do peak in our teens and 20s. It gives some people in Silicon Valley this idea that we peak as people in our teens and 20s because it’s such a narrow view of human potential.

Then a whole set of skills that you name it, first of all, our prefrontal cortex in our brain on average isn’t fully done developing until 25. It could be older for many. I’m sure it was older for me. Then we begin in 30s, 40s, and 50s to develop a whole set of cognitive attributes, deeper pattern recognition, facial recognition, higher emotional IQ, equanimity, which is the ability to stay calm under pressure, all of these things. Leadership skills begin to really blossom in our 30s, 40s, and 50s. Then in our 60s and 70s, we begin to acquire all these cognitive abilities that support this ancient notion of wisdom.

Here I’d lead you to the second scientist. He’s a little bit more of a maverick. His name is Elkhonon Goldberg of NYU. He started noticing in his late 60s that his intuition was producing answers to questions that then when he would back-test it using logical process, the intuition would stand up under the test of logic. What on earth was happening? How was I able to arrive at these logical answers by the path of intuition and get there much faster? He has a theory.

Again, he’s a maverick in the industry. He seems to rile some people up, but that the two hemispheres of the brain keep developing these networks, which he collectively calls the salience network, throughout our healthy lives. That’s what he thinks wisdom is. It’s basically the logical side and the intuitive side developing more and more pathways. You might perceive something novel on one side of your brain. Then that novel perception goes to the side of stored memory and logical, and you have a better idea of what that new thing that you just saw or perceived is really worth. Our creative yield, as opposed to our raw creativity, actually gets better as we age simply because we know what to do with the creativity we’ve just perceived.

Steve Pomeranz: Well, I think we kind of all know that as we get older. I notice certain things about myself, things I’m able to understand, and connections bringing from different parts of my life and different parts of other people’s life as an advisor that I can see the larger picture and put them together in creative ways. I see that now. I don’t think I had that when I was in my 20s and 30s for sure.

Rich Karlgaard: Yeah. I will make a confession to your listeners. What I like to do on airplanes rather than watch movies is I’m a voracious consumer of thriller novels. I just love thriller novels. All the great spy novelists and thriller novelists, they’re later blooming. They first break on the scene generally in their 40s, and then they end up doing their best work in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. I just finished Neon Prey by John Sandford. John Sandford is in his mid-70s, and he’s really bringing it. Or you look at Lee Child, who created the Jack Reacher series. Lee Child is in his mid-60s. You look at the Reacher books today versus when they started out, they’re far richer, far richer, even approaching literature today.

Steve Pomeranz: Interesting. We’re out of time. It’s gone by very fast. There’s a lot here I wanted to talk about about what needs to be changed in our education system so we’re not stifling these late bloomers, but we don’t have the time. Anybody who’s interested in this topic should go to the book. Get the book, which is Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, and also come to our website. You can hear this episode again if you go to stevepomeranz.com. Also while you’re there, sign up for our weekly update for upcoming live events and important topics like this one that we’ve covered this week straight into your inbox. That’s stevepomeranz.com. Rich Karlgaard, thank you so much for spending your time with me.

Rich Karlgaard: It’s a delight to be with you, Steve.