16 Sep 2019

Our early achiever obsession is misplaced

From Afternoons, 3:07 pm on 16 September 2019

We are obsessed with early achievers; the people who are millionaires, or Nobel Prize winners or Oscar contenders before the age of 25. But not all stars glow white hot from the start, says Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard.

He makes the case for the slow burn, taking time to find the intersection between our talents and our passions and quitting when something doesn't serve that purpose. His new book is called Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement.

Rich Karlgaard told Jesse Mulligan he’s had his own learning experience of late blooming. Having graduated from one of the United States’ top universities, he went on to take a job as a security guard at the age of 25, while his peers went on to take jobs with NASA and the likes.

Greta Thunberg was nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 16, Apple founder Steve Jobs' net worth grew to more than $250 million by the time he was 25. J K Rowling achieved success in her later years, when she released her Harry Potter series in her 30s.

Greta Thunberg was nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 16, Apple founder Steve Jobs' net worth grew to more than $250 million by the time he was 25. J K Rowling achieved success in her later years, when she released her Harry Potter series in her 30s. Photo: Stefani Reynolds / DPA / Justin Sullivan / Getty Images North America / Justin Tallis / AFP

He says he didn’t realise that the time he thought he wasted reading the back of Sports Illustrated magazines, instead of doing his homework, would come in use.

“A year later when I had the opportunity with a friend to start what became Silicon Valley’s first business magazine, I was able to draw forward all that learning that I didn’t know was learning on how great magazines were constructed.”

And he’s not alone in that journey. He says about 50 percent of Stanford undergraduates are getting psychological counselling because they feel anxious or depressed.

He notes that a psychology professor at the university, Carol Dweck, has also found first-year students to be feeling down after admission.

“Instead of jumping for joy that they got into a great university as a result of the hard work they put in, they feel - in her words - brittle and exhausted and unwilling to mar their perfect records. So the downside of this obsession on early achievement is really quite large.”

One example of the extreme manifestation of that obsession is the US college admission scandal that made headlines worldwide after authorities unveiled a nationwide scam in which they say parents bribed coaches, rigged entrance exams or both to game the admissions system.

“We have this obsession – particularly for parents for our kids – to do extremely well on standardised tasks, to get straight As in school, in advanced placement courses, all with the idea of getting into the most elite university possible, all with the idea of getting that first job with Facebook or Google or Goldman Sachs or the equivalents around the world,” Karlgaard says.

While some children may respond well to external pressure, a large portion either burn out and self sabotage or aren’t allowed the space to discover their gifts and talents, he says.

It’s become a multibillion-dollar industry, he says, that others prey on and ultimately makes parents overspend on education in the belief it’ll be best for their child.

“There are tutors in affluent cities in the United States and all around the world that can charge $1000 an hour for counselling. Now, I mean, good Lord, why go to law school and be a lawyer when you can charge $800 an hour and be a tutor to high school kids trying to get to the most elite college they can?

“In New York and Manhattan there are preschools for three- and four-year-olds that charge $40,000 and $50,000 a year.”

In contrast, Finland’s education system doesn’t expose children to reading, writing and maths until the age of seven. Karlgaard says it has resulted in good outcomes for them, and should be an exemplar for other countries too.

It’s not always the case for everyone though, some people are natural proteges that have grasped successful lives early on - but even they know when to quit, Karlgaard says.

“The early bloomer might’ve gotten themselves into a trap by following their parents’ expectations and going into a career that they can do well in but really hate … and a lot of late bloomers simply get into traps too.

“Quitting is simply this idea that there’s a better use for your time and treasured talent.

“No-one’s first response to any adversity should be quitting, that’s a very bad, destructive habit to learn. But if you step back and look strategically at the value of quitting, a lot of great business people have learned to quit when it no longer makes sense what they’re doing.”

The rise of social media probably hasn’t helped either, he says.

“You’re comparing how you feel about yourself on the inside with this highly curated version of what other people are projecting to the outside world, we’re all going to feel crappy when that’s happening.”

Self-doubt too is often underrated in its value for late bloomers, Karlgaard says. He has some tips on how people can take advantage of it.

“When late bloomers are feeling bad about themselves … they mix up the idea of self-doubt with their self-worth and you have to be able to put up a wall.

“If you can learn to step back from self-doubt and look at it clinically – just scratch your chin and say ‘hmm, okay, I don’t really like what you’re telling me and your timing of telling me right now but, okay, what are you telling me.’

“Once you begin to look at it that way, in a clinical, dispassionate fashion and extract whatever knowledge that self-doubt is delivering to you then you can move ahead without it undermining your self-worth.”

For those who want to overcome the obsession about early achievement, he encourages young adults to explore new opportunities, take some time out, perhaps a gap year, or try enrolling in military service or the public service sector.

He says the best way to open new doors in life is to figure yourself out, and how you can make your best mark.