Malcolm Gladwell on the Late Bloomer Phenomenon

If you haven't discovered your exceptional gift yet, you're in good company. Mark Twain, Alfred Hitchcock, and Cézanne all reached the apex of their talent in midlife.

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Ralph Smith for Reader’s Digest

Ben Fountain was an associate in the real estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. He had tried to write when he came home at night after work, but usually he was too tired. He decided to quit his job.

“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. I was doing well at the practice of law. And my parents were very proud of me … It was crazy.”

He began his new life on a February morning—a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 a.m. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for 20 minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. “I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate,” he says. His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was 60 pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he wrote another—and then another.

In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Meanwhile, he got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. It was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews and drew comparisons with the works of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le Carré. His second novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was published to glowing reviews and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: The young man suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least 30 rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. His breakthrough with Brief Encounters came in 2006, 18 years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer took the literary world by storm at the age of 48.

Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative requires the exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, at 25. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late 20s, culminating at age 32 with Moby-Dick. Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat Major at the age of 21. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old … I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains.

A few years ago, David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago, examined this assumption. He looked through 47 major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. The top 11 are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those 11 were composed at the ages of 23, 41, 48, 40, 29, 30, 30, 28, 38, 42, and 59, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that poetry is a young person’s game. Forty-two percent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after he was 50. For Williams, it’s 44 percent. For Stevens, it’s 49 percent.

The same was true of film and literature, Galenson points out in Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Yes, Orson Welles peaked as a director at 25. But Alfred Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho between his 54th and 61st birthdays. Mark Twain published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 49. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at 58.

The examples that Galenson could not get out of his head, however, were of Picasso and Cézanne. Picasso was the prodigy. His career as a serious artist began around age 20. In short order, he painted many of the greatest works of his career—including Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, at the age of 25. Picasso fit our usual ideas about genius perfectly.

Cézanne didn’t. If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career. The works he created in his mid-60s, Galenson found, are valued 15 times as highly as those he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer.

The first day Ben Fountain sat down to write at his kitchen table went well. He knew how the story about the stockbroker was supposed to start. But the second day, he says, he “completely freaked out.” He didn’t have a fully formed vision waiting to be emptied onto the page. He began to collect articles about things he was interested in, and before long, he realized that he had a fascination with Haiti. “The Haiti file just kept getting bigger,” Fountain says. “And I thought, OK, here’s my novel. After a couple of months, I thought, Yeah, you’ve got to go there, and so I went, in April or May of ’91.”

He spoke little French, let alone Haitian Creole. He had never been abroad. Nor did he know anyone who lived there. Fountain was riveted by Haiti. “Everything that’s gone on in the past 500 years—colonialism, race, power, politics, ecological disasters—it’s all there in very concentrated form,” he says. “And also I just felt, viscerally, pretty comfortable there.” He made more trips to Haiti, sometimes for a week, sometimes for two weeks. He made friends. He invited them to visit him in Dallas. (“You haven’t lived until you’ve had Haitians stay in your house,” Fountain says.)
In Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, four of the stories are about Haiti, and they are the strongest in the collection. “After the novel was done, I just felt like there was more for me, and I could keep going, keep going deeper there,” Fountain recalls. “How many times have I been? At least 30.”

Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research,” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.”

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

An experimental innovator would go back to Haiti 30 times. That’s how that kind of mind figures out what it wants to do. When Cézanne was painting a portrait of the critic Gustave Geffroy, he made him endure 80 sittings, over three months, before announcing the project a failure. He would paint a scene, then repaint it, then paint it again. He was notorious for slashing his canvases to pieces in fits of frustration.

Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re 50, so of course they achieve late in life. But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else: that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.

This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: While the late bloomer is revising and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.

Prodigies advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counselor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.)

Not long after meeting Ben Fountain, I went to see the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the 2002 bestseller Everything Is Illuminated. Fountain is a graying man, slight and modest. Foer is in his early 30s and looks barely old enough to drink.

“I came to writing really by the back door,” Foer said. “My wife is a writer, and she grew up keeping journals—you know, parents said, ‘Lights out, time for bed,’ and she had a little flashlight under the covers, reading books. I don’t think I read a book until much later than other people. I just wasn’t interested in it.”

Foer went to Princeton and took a creative-writing class in his freshman year with Joyce Carol Oates. It was, he explained, “sort of on a whim, maybe out of a sense that I should have a diverse course load.” He’d never written a story before. “Halfway through the semester, I arrived to class early one day, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m glad I have this chance to talk to you. I’m a fan of your writing.’ And it was a real revelation for me.”

As a sophomore, he took another creative-writing class. During the following summer, he went to Europe. He wanted to find the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. After the trip, he went to Prague. There he read Kafka, as any literary undergraduate would, and sat down at his computer.

“I was just writing,” he said. “I didn’t go with the intention of writing a book. I wrote 300 pages in ten weeks. I’d never done that.”
It was a novel about a boy named Jonathan Safran Foer who visits a village in Ukraine called Trachimbrod, where his grandfather had come from. Those 300 pages were the first draft of Everything Is Illuminated—the exquisite and extraordinary novel that established Foer as one of the most distinctive literary voices of his generation. He was 19 years old.

Foer began to talk about the other way of writing books, where you honed your craft, over years and years. “I couldn’t do that,” he said. He seemed puzzled by it. It was clear that he had no understanding of how being an experimental innovator would work. “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an original?”

If you read Everything Is Illuminated, you end up with the same feeling you get when you read Brief Encounters with Che Guevara—the sense of transport you experience when a work of literature draws you into its own world. Both are works of art. It’s just that, as artists, Fountain and Foer could not be less alike. Fountain went to Haiti 30 times. Foer went to the Ukrainian village just once.

Ben Fountain did not make the decision to quit the law and become a writer all by himself. He is married and has a family. He met his wife, Sharon, when they were both in law school at Duke. When he was doing real estate work at Akin, Gump, she was becoming a partner in the tax practice at Thompson & Knight. They got married in 1985 and had a son in April 1987. In 1989, they had a second child, a daughter. Fountain had become a stay-at-home dad with a rigorous writing regimen.

“When Ben first did this, we talked about, generally, ‘When will we know that it really isn’t working?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, give it ten years,’” Sharon recalls. “It takes a while to decide whether you like something or not,” she says. And when ten years became 12 and then 14 and then 16, and the kids were off in high school, she stood by him because she was confident that he was getting better. She was fine with the trips to Haiti too. “I can’t imagine writing a novel about a place you haven’t at least tried to visit,” she says.

Sharon was Ben’s wife. But she was also—to borrow a term from long ago—his patron. If you are the type of creative mind who starts without a plan and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level. Cézanne, too, had an extraordinary list of patrons, which included his father, the banker Louis-Auguste.

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: His or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. Louis-Auguste didn’t have to support Cézanne all those years. He would have been within his rights to make his son get a real job, just as Sharon might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to Haiti.

But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne. Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after 20 years of working at your kitchen table.

“Sharon never once brought up money, not once—never,” Fountain says. She is sitting next to him, and he looks at her in a way that makes it plain that he understands how much of the credit for Brief Encounters belongs to his wife. His eyes well with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he says. “Not even covert, not even implied.”

Malcolm Gladwell is a journalist and the bestselling author of five books. He has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1996.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest