Each of us has two types of intelligence, known as fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is our capacity to reason and solve novel problems, independent of knowledge from the past, and it peaks earlier in life. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use skills, knowledge and experience; it shows rising levels of performance well into middle age and beyond. According to Georgia Tech psychology professor Phillip Ackerman, the best way for older adults to compensate for declines in youthful “fluid” intelligence is to select jobs and goals that optimize their “crystallized” knowledge and skills.
For instance, while the field of software coding favors the young and fluid, managing projects and the business can shift the needed skills to an older profile.Consider the career of Diane Greene, who spent her 20s and early 30s organizing windsurfing races and working for Coleman, the camping equipment company. At 33, she earned a master’s degree in computer science and pronounced herself ready for a “grown-up’s job.” In 1998, at age 43—late by Silicon Valley’s youth-centric standards—Ms. Greene cofounded the software company VMware and then led it for a decade. In 2015, Google acquired another company she started and, at age 60, put her in charge of one of its most important businesses, Google Cloud (a position from which she stepped down in January).
What about creativity and innovation? That realm must belong to the young, with their exuberance and fresh ideas, right? Not necessarily. For instance, the average age of scientists when they are doing work that eventually leads to a Nobel Prize is 39, according to a 2008 Northwestern University study. The average age of U.S. patent applicants is 47.
Take Ken Fisher, who today runs Fisher Investments, a stock fund with $100 billion under management and 50,000 customers. After graduating from high school, he flunked out of a junior college. “I had no particular direction,” he said. He went back to school to study forestry, hoping for a career outdoors, but switched to economics and got his degree in 1972. In his early 20s, he hung out his shingle as a financial adviser, following his father’s career. To bring in extra money, he took construction jobs, and he played slide guitar in a bar. But he also read and read: “Books about management and business—and maybe thirty trade magazines a month for years,” he says. By the time he reached his 30s, an idea had gelled that would make him his fortune. As he puts it, during that period of reflection, “I developed a theory about valuing companies that was a bit unconventional.”
Tales of late bloomers are found in every walk of life and often feature an under-appreciated talent that emerged more slowly than the standard expectations. As a high school athlete in San Mateo, Calif., the New England Patriots’ legendary quarterback Tom Brady, winner of six Super Bowls, wasn’t on the radar of most college recruiters. Though he made the team at highly rated Michigan, he had to compete to become the starting quarterback in both his junior and senior years. He was only the 199th player selected in the NFL draft in 2000. A year later, when the Patriots’ starting quarterback was sidelined by injury, Mr. Brady, by then 24, finally got his big chance—and emerged over the course of that season as the spectacular success that he’s been ever since.
How many of us were overlooked in our school years, or dismissed early in our careers, or are dismissed even now? What gifts and passions might we possess that haven’t yet been discovered but that could give us wings to fly? Record-setting astronaut Scott Kelly, who has spent more than five hundred days in space, the most of any American, said he was so bored in high school that “I finished in the half of the class that made the top half possible.” Billionaire Diane Hendricks, daughter of dairy farmers, sold houses in Wisconsin, married, divorced, then 10 years later met her next husband, Ken, a roofer. The two maxed out their credit cards to start ABC Supply, a source for windows, gutters, and roofing material. Today Ms. Hendricks presides over a company worth $5 billion.
International star Andrea Bocelli began singing opera when he was 34. Martha Stewart was 35 when she started her catering business in a friend’s basement, and 42 when her first book of recipes was published. Toni Morrison published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” at 39 and won a Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved” at 56 and the Nobel Prize in Literature five years later. J.K. Rowling was a divorced mother on public assistance before she created Harry Potter at age 35. Tom Siebel founded his first big tech company, Siebel Systems, at 41, and his second, C3, at 57. Famous movie villain Alan Rickman owned a graphic design studio for years before he got his first taste of fame at 42 for his role as Hans Gruber in “Die Hard.”
“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrongly observed “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald. But Fitzgerald was an early blooming snob: He attended Princeton and was already a famous literary success in his mid-20s. But that was his peak. By his 30s, Fitzgerald was spiraling downward. He must have met all kinds of late bloomers and second acts who were on their way up. He died a bitter man at 44, the same age that Raymond Chandler began to write detective stories. Chandler was 51 in 1939, the year his first book, “The Big Sleep,” was published.