Being a late bloomer in my career was an unexpected win

Somewhere in the northern mountains of the Dominican Republic, I’m keeled over, looking like I’m going to puke. Trying to walk back to the four-wheel-drive crossover I arrived in with my interpreter, my body is betraying me. I tell him I’m gonna need a minute, because I’m completely overwhelmed with emotion.

It’s spring 2019, and the reason I’ve traveled here from my hometown of New York City, on a publisher’s dime, is to work on my first book. It’s the autobiography of a Dominican Republic native, and one of my favorite Major League Baseball players, Bartolo Colón, who once played for the Mets, my favorite team. I’m Bartolo’s co-author, and after driving to the sprawling estate of his father for an interview, I listened to an incredibly touching story from his dad that put my mission into a new perspective.

His father recounted that Bartolo, as an early adolescent, once swore to him that he’d become a professional ballplayer and give his dad a better life than the one he had. His father, at that time, was barely earning enough to house, feed and clothe his wife and six kids. The anecdote made me realize how profoundly Bartolo and his family trusted me, a stranger, to tell his story.

But I’m also emotional because becoming a writer wasn’t something I’d strongly considered until I’d been a high school English teacher for more than a decade. “I never thought I’d do something like this,” I tell the interpreter.

I’m what many might call a late bloomer, having achieved that status by taking longer than expected to figure out who I want to be, especially in a professional sense. Taking what appears to have been a scenic route in life — not settling on a career until well into my 30s — has perhaps made things more difficult for me in some ways. But in other instances they’ve become even more savory and sweet, like they were that day in the Dominican Republic last year.

“We’re not afraid to follow a different path or break free of convention,” writes Rich Karlgaard in his book Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. “We genuinely want to see what’s around the corner or over the hill.”

In addition to curiosity, Karlgaard believes that late bloomers have five more strengths — compassion, resilience, insight, wisdom and patience — that serve us well in our search for “the right people and right place to help us thrive.” These strengths have also been made more profound by our unique, exploratory experiences, part of an arguably more natural way of approaching life compared to those who take the typical path to success: grade school → college → career → financial stability → family → long-term housing, and so on.

I tried to be like most people, I really did. I earned my degree, got a job in my field of study, wedded and planned on having children as soon as my then wife and I could afford to, which was just a matter of time. But by 28, I was divorced and dog paddling in debt from student loans and two cross-country moves — the first prompted by my ex’s career opportunity in Los Angeles, the second by our separation. Fortunately, as a teacher, I was never at a loss for work. And though it took the grading of thousands of tests and essays written by teenagers, I eventually found steadier financial footing.

Once the writing bug bit me — after I began blogging about movies and TV just for fun — I surrendered to it completely, wanting to be more creative and free in my job. I abandoned the ship of traditionalism I’d moored up until that point, and took a plunge into the forecasted rough waters of a career in the arts, sure to be characterized by constant hustle and sporadic, meager paydays.

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Being a struggling writer can’t be worse than living 3,000 miles away from home in an unhappy marriage, I remember thinking. If I failed miserably, I figured I could always return to the front of the classroom, where I was plenty comfortable.

That type of resolve didn’t sound like me, the person who, placating to social expectations, rushed to become a teacher at 22, partly for the job’s security, healthcare benefits, and pension plan. But I’d accrued enough emotional scar tissue — the byproduct of a youth steeped in personal carnage that ironically erupted out of my efforts to be normal — to believe, at least foundationally, that I could navigate such a challenge, and come out the other side with a greater sense of contentment.

“It’s exciting to bloom at any point,” says Lisa Orbé-Austin, a psychologist with a practice focused on life transitions, particularly career changes. “Some people never bloom; some people have a career and they never really enjoyed anything that they did.”

Orbé-Austin and others have observed that career changes are far more common than most people realize, and that their frequency has been on the rise. “Jobs used to be a transactional affair. Today, we want a ‘career of feeling,’” Steve Denning wrote in Forbes. “One recent discussion I had with a baby boomer explained that 50 years ago, ‘People didn’t expect to find meaning in a job.’ Today, they do.”

“Some people never bloom; some people have a career and they never really enjoyed anything that they did.”

Data to back such anecdotal claims up is hard to come by, however. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not measure how often people change careers because “no consensus has emerged on what constitutes a career change.” Some may view a construction worker who founded their own home-remodeling business a career change, while others may not, the Bureau’s website offers as an example. It’s been said that Americans change careers on an average upward of seven times in their life, but that figure has been disputed, and though Millennials job-hop at a rate greater than past generations, that doesn’t mean each of them are embarking on a fresh career path altogether.

Regardless, career changes are not unheard of, nor are they impossible to execute. But late bloomers, defined in part by career transformations or delays in their choosing of an industry to work in, are socially viewed as defective in some way, Karlgaard writes. There’s an unfair stigma attached to them that broadcasts “there must be a reason you started slowly [which] diminishes the very things that make us human — our experiences, our resilience, and our lifelong capacity to grow.”

Thus, late blooming — a contextual, if not pejorative term — is arguably a more comfortably organic outcome than being locked into a career cultivated on the grounds of choices made as a teenager: What college should I attend? What should I major in? And if we’re all growing throughout life, don’t we typically bloom more than once?

“You bloomed another flower when you were a teacher,” Orbé-Austin tells me. “Now you’re just blooming a different flower, and you might bloom other flowers beyond this.” For late bloomers, being aware of others who bloomed once, “on time,” and have the finances that come with staying in a career long term, is challenging though.

Comedian Shalewa Sharpe, who began her time as a performer 10 years ago, at age 37, but is getting some notoriety in show biz, admits to experiencing some trying emotions on her journey. She’d lived on her own in Atlanta, but after a couple years of stage time, she moved to Brooklyn to seek opportunities in the expansive New York comedy scene. She performs nights and weekends, in New York and on the road, but still holds down a full-time office day job to afford rent, and lives with a roommate. She stays in touch with many old friends from Atlanta, and says observing their lifestyles, afforded to them by being more established in their careers, reminds her that in some respects she hasn’t quite caught up to them.

“I’m just like, ‘Wow, we all took really different paths, didn’t we?’” she says. When people go on vacations she can’t afford, and post pictures from their destinations on social media, she thinks, Good for you; I’ve really got to get me a passport.

Being so different fuels a sense of isolation and loneliness as well, but Sharpe has ways to render those feelings as fleeting. “I have to remember that I kind of have always been cut out for doing something not ‘normal.’ I wasn’t going to have a normal life,” she says. “Somewhere in me I just knew that wasn’t necessarily going to be it.”

I, too, have hardly traveled and live with two roommates in an old apartment. Putting a downpayment on a home and/or affording a child is a laughable proposition for me right now. At times, I’m envious of others who have the ability to afford such things, while expressing satisfaction in their work. I harbor regret over not becoming a writer sooner — I’d flirted with the idea as a teen — and feel self-doubt upon seeing younger writers roar past me on the success bell curve, partly benefitting from connections made while studying journalism in college.

But, like Sharpe, at my core I wouldn’t change a thing. As my experience in the Dominican Republic confirms, on top of strengthening myself in all the ways Karlgaard outlines in his book, seeing my life gamble pay off makes whatever success I achieve all the more gratifying — paralyzingly so, apparently.

“It just kind of makes you love it more,” Sharpe says of her comedy work as well. “Because it’s like, Wow, I had no idea where I was going, so I’m going to love everything I get from going in this direction. Because, who knew? It was such a crapshoot.”