When I was in grad school, it started to feel like the walls were closing in. All my classmates seemed to have very particular post-graduation career goals, and all their dreams made me itch. I didn’t feel ready to be hemmed into a trajectory, but it seemed too late to swerve, and anyway, I didn’t even know what I’d be swerving towards.
During this time, a friend told me a small comforting fact, one we’d go on to repeat to each other in moments of stuckness. “Janet Weiss,” she told me with an air of thrilled gravitas, “didn’t learn how to play drums until she was in her twenties. And she taught herself.” “Her twenties!” we’d say. “And she’s one of the best drummers of our lifetime!” Imagine: She didn’t even start until her twenties! Since I was in my early twenties at the time, this felt astounding.
(In retrospect, obviously, it wasn’t “too late” when I was in grad school, and I did swerve, and I was better for it.)
Lately, I have acquired a fixation on late bloomers, in part as an antidote to envy and distraction. It’s tempting to watch other people around me ascending to new heights and think that perhaps, at my age and my pace, I’ll never get there. Rounding your third decade seems as solid a time as any to give up on some dreams, I guess? But not if you’re a late bloomer. Then, they continue to be worth chasing, out towards some endless horizon.
An example: the conceptual and performance artist Lorraine O’Grady, who worked as intelligence analyst for the US government, and then as a translator, then as a rock critic, then, in her forties, became an artist.
“I think, in my field, I have like ten years left — tops — to be relevant,” a friend (nearly 31) told me recently. I rebuked him immediately, not only because of his level of talent (outrageously high) but because I thought it would lead him down a destructive path of thinking. You have to combat this internalized fetishization of youth! I said, dramatically. I like to think of it like this: If you peak when you’re 25, you’re either on the decline thereafter (bad) or you’re coasting for decades (also bad; even if you’re coasting at a very high level, you’re still planning on coasting for decades). Wouldn’t you rather plan to peak decades later, so you’re always growing, always learning new things, always getting better, always looking forward?
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this exhortation. I told a few friends about my late bloomer obsession and now we text each other when we happen upon an especially good one. (This is how I learned about Lorraine O’Grady.) I chant it to myself when I hit a dead end, when I remind myself of what my parents were doing at my age, when I watch the most miraculous people in my life (and, you know, the odd frenemy or two) knock out milestone after milestone. Late bloomer, late bloomer, late bloomer.
Carole King had a whole career as a songwriter before she made Tapestry, her first solo album.
From Ayesha Siddiqi’s newsletter: “The conventional wisdom pushed onto graduating high schoolers and college students sets them up to suffer. There is nothing less true than the idea that your choices at that age set the course of your life.” Later, she says: “Do you feel like a failure because you didn’t pave the road ahead before you reached it?”
When I first heard a rock singer declare, “I never wanna say my best days are behind me” as a teenager, it felt like a small miracle. Jonah was in his thirties when he released that song; I probably saw him perform it for the first time when he was nearly forty, and I was in high school. It felt special to witness an adult — a musician outside the mainstream and happy there, despite having flirted with commercial success — looking to the future so earnestly.
“Some years ago,” Ann Friedman wrote in her newsletter last month, “a young man who claimed to have extrasensory visions told me that I would ‘peak sometime after age 60.’ I began clapping my hands and giggling. What a compliment, what a gift! Even as my bod becomes increasingly creaky, I am still excited to get older. To go deeper in my relationships, to get better at the things I love to do now, to let go of things that I don't yet even realize are holding me back.” (I forwarded the email to a friend: “more beauty on the late bloomer beat.”)
It’s not like I’m not proud of where I am now. Most days, I am! But it’s easy to feel stuck. Measured by the signposts of traditional heteronormative adulthood, I am lagging. (And in fact most millennials are, due to factors that are compounded dramatically for those in the cohort who aren’t rich or white or straight.) So instead, I am trying to take the long view, trying to ask myself whether those signposts even mean anything to me.
“I’m a late bloomer in this industry; I’m ancient in the music industry,” Michelle Zauner said in an interview recently, just after releasing a best-selling memoir and just before releasing her best album yet. “Sometimes I get pissy about the young ones that came into it super early, but I’m also really glad I had some sort of later recognition, because I couldn’t really appreciate it if it came earlier. It pushed me to work harder, because I knew it was such a rarity to come by. I had won a lottery, and I needed to run to catch up with it.”
Agnes Martin finished graduate school when she was 40. After living in New York for a decade, she up and left, taking a break from art for years, before resurfacing in New Mexico and starting to paint again, introducing pastels and ethereal colors into her paintings and making some of her most beloved work.
Is it a coincidence that all the late bloomers I mention here are women? Or just selection bias? I’m not sure. I do know that the timelines I’m actively trying to push against feel weighted by gendered expectations. I do know that learning about queer time, reading José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, made me rethink the order in which my life is supposed to happen.
I talked to Lucy Dacus about her great new record a couple weeks ago. We discussed coming out as queer later in life (relatively) — looking back on our childhoods and realizing how different things look, knowing what we know now. "Sometimes I wish I had figured this out sooner, but that's not how it works," she told me. "What if this is actually sooner? And there's another version of me who's, like, 50 years old and said, 'I wish I had figured it out sooner?'" It made me gasp. What a wise reframing.
“You are just a girl on the edge of a great forest,” Mary Ruefle writes. “You should be frightened but instead you are eating a lovely meal, or you are cooking one, or you are running to the florist or you are opening a box of flowers that has just arrived at your door, and none of these things are done in the great spirit that they will later be done in.” I can’t wait.
This week, I hope you know you are right on time.