Photo: Marion Ettlinger
If you're one of the legions of people who didn't hit their sweet spot at age 25, there are a few things Robin Black would like you to know.
Dear fellow late-bloomer, I thought you could use some advice. I know I would have benefited from some along the way, but back when I most needed it, there wasn't much to be found. I earned my MFA in writing in 2005, when I was 43 years old and, much to my distress, the phrase "young emerging artist" seemed to be everywhere. There were prizes for young emerging artists; there were words of wisdom for young emerging artists; there were lists of the most exciting young emerging artists to watch. Anxious to find my peers, I did an online search—only to be told: "Your search for middle-aged emerging artists has yielded no results."
Clearly the search engines weren't looking hard enough. Because as you and I both know, there are plenty of us out here—along with the middle-aged emerging doctors, nurses, professors, jewelry designers, yoga instructors, cupcake masters, and more: an entire civilization's worth of people who for one reason or another got off to a late start. And I'm not going to sugarcoat that for you. We are late. For me the original dream of publishing a book by age 25 became 30, then 40, then 45—until reality stepped in with its final answer: book by 50. Am I glad about that? Let's just say it took some readjusting.
The point is, there are challenges to changing your life radically when you've already done a bit of living. The first challenge, of course, is actually to do it—whatever it is. In the past few years, more women than I can count have told me that they too have thought of embarking on new careers, often first careers, in their 30s, 40s, or 50s—even their 60s—but can't bring themselves to act on their dreams. "Nobody would take me seriously," they say. Or "I can't compete with all those young people." Or "Are you crazy? I have a mortgage."
I wish I could say that those concerns aren't real, but unfortunately they often are. I remember when I started writing, just before I turned 40, how unseriously many people took my pursuit. Time after time I would work up the nerve to say, "I've recently started writing," and time after time the response would be a patronizing, "Oh, that's nice," or a little smile and a subject change.
It turns out that beginning a new career in midlife requires you to take yourself seriously enough that your confidence won't be shattered if other people don't. This is especially true if you've been a stay-at-home mother for any length of time. Sure, everyone talks a good game about full-time mothers being no less capable or interesting than women who seek careers, but tell someone you've spent the past 15 years caring for your children, and you can almost see them docking your IQ.
Here, though, is where we late bloomers have an advantage: One of the great things about getting older is that other people's opinions have less power over us than they once did. I work with a physical therapist who recently told me, "When I turned 40, I stopped worrying about offending other people. When I turned 50, I started enjoying offending other people." In many ways this is the best time to do something that others might view with skepticism, and to risk a little ridicule that might once have been unendurable.
As for competing with young people—well, again, it would be nice to say that it isn't an issue, that we're all on a level playing field, but in the vast majority of careers that just isn't the case. You might think publishing would be age-blind. After all, as a literary agent once reminded me, writers use their minds, not their bodies. "You aren't tennis players," she said. "You aren't models." But publishing involves selling, and youth sells; even in my field there are a surprising number of career-enhancing accolades available only to the young, like the New Yorker's list of 20 Under 40 and the National Book Foundation's annual 5-Under-35 Award. I could spend hours grinding my teeth over the unfairness of that, but what would be the point? I already know life is unfair.
Financial concerns, alas, aren't so easy to brush off. Many late bloomers are shouldering entire families financially—which is why many find themselves juggling an old career alongside an emerging new one, eking out hidden minutes from already overfull days. Among my graduate school classmates were teachers, lawyers, newspaper reporters; in their "spare time," they were writers, too. Somehow the fear of never having done the thing they felt most drawn to outweighed the difficulties of doing it.
That doesn't mean it's easy to overcome every obstacle. In those of us whose professional accomplishments didn't come with youth, there is often an ancient well of insecurity—a reservoir of fear deep enough to have kept us from pursuing our dream careers in the first place. I know this firsthand. While I was still in college, my mother became the first woman dean of Columbia Law School, which at the time was front-page news. (She even got to be a clue on Jeopardy!. The ultimate prize of fame!) My father had a long, distinguished career as a legal academic and civil rights advocate, including having been one of the lawyers responsible for the winning brief in the landmark school desegration case, Brown v. Board of Education. Throughout my youth, when I wasn't hearing from young women what an inspiration my mother must be to me, the rest of the world was looking at my father and noting what big shoes I had to fill.
I opted not even to try. There are doubtless children who would have responded to the same situation with focused, intense ambition, either to carry on the family legacy or to best it. Not me. I had a baby at 25 and left the world of professional accomplishment alone.
I suspect that lots of people who reach middle age with ambitions they've never even tried to fulfill have similar stories. If not parents with intimidating careers, then parents who insisted on standards they feared they couldn't meet; or parents who seemed perpetually disappointed in them; or households in which achievement was given less attention than failure. For many of us, early career decisions were equal parts running toward and running away. And if you are in that category, as I am, then as you contemplate embarking on a new career, you not only have to face down the issues we all do as the years pass; you also have to confront some powerful old inner demons. For me that was a process that included therapy over many years, but therapy isn't the only route. I have friends who meditated their way past fear.
No matter your method, it's hard to imagine that ridding yourself of paralyzing inhibitions can be anything but good. Which brings me back to my first piece of advice, the most important one: Do it. Whatever it is. If you have a dream, go ahead, take the risks, and make whatever sacrifices you possibly can. Endure the funny looks. Ignore the ridicule if ridicule comes. Expect some unfairness along the way, and kick up a fuss about it if kicking and fussing feel productive. Whatever you do, keep moving forward.
Many people have said to me, "Better late than never, huh?" and I suppose there's truth in that. But think about yourself as a very young woman, then think about who you are now. Maybe it's more a case of better late than early. Maybe, after all, it's not even that late. Think about who you want to be ten years from now. Then get to work.
Robin Black's story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, has been short-listed for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.
Find Your Calling
Published on October 13, 2010
We Hear You!