Success, clarity, and creativity come with age
We’ve all heard the stories of Colonel Sanders, Ray Kroc, and Julia Child finding success later in life. They’re all prime examples that success comes for those who work hard and stay patient.
But have you ever heard the story of Frances Hesselbein?
Hesselbein was born in 1915 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She attended my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, but never graduated and instead settled into a homemaker role for the first half of her life.
At the age of 51, when most people are winding down their careers and thinking about retirement, Hesselbein found herself volunteering as a Girl Scout troop leader — something she did not want to do after raising only boys.
Thus began her professional career.
From 1976 to 1990 she ran and reshaped the Girl Scouts as their CEO. She co-edited 27 books and has written 3 autobiographies. She’s won Presidential awards and has honorary degrees from practically every prestigious university.
She’s sought after by every CEO for her leadership advice, and if you show up to her office with a glass of steamed milk, she might just share some of that advice.
Today, at the ripe young age of 104, she serves as the president and CEO of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute. Oh, and she has a Twitter account.
Hesselbein embodies the life of a unique late bloomer, one who didn’t experience exponential growth after years of small gains, but rather one who gathered a wealth of life experiences to build a foundation on which to launch.
Or to put more simply, don’t fret if you haven’t figured out things career-wise. Instead, take the Hesselbein approach.
Life is just getting started
I turned 30 a few months ago after spending a decade peppered with frantic fears of “not living up to my potential.” I experienced so much angst over my career I pivoted after any sign of doubt crept its way into my confidence.
From the ages of 20 to 29 I was:
- An aspiring filmmaker
- A supply chain analyst
- A food blogger
- An aspiring YouTuber
- A web developer
- A writer
- A stay-at-home dad
I’ve pivoted so many times my ankles hurt. For years I felt ashamed for not being to “stick with something” that I never stopped to realize that this type of career experimentation is exactly what I should be doing.
If my experience sounds all too familiar then it’s time to stop beating ourselves up. Instead, focus on the essential: gathering life experience and testing future versions of yourself.
Gather and test: The career advice no one tells you to follow
Gather experience and test different versions of yourself. If I could go back in time and talk to my 20-year-old self, this is the advice I would give.
When we’re young, we can take big risks. One, because we’re naive about the outcomes and two, because we don’t have a lot to lose.
When we expect young twenty-somethings to plan and predict who they want to be for the rest of their lives, we fail to acknowledge that people change. Who you are in your twenties is certainly not who you will be later on.
It’s almost like telling someone they should marry the first person they date (although that’s exactly what happened in my case).
Instead, play the field. Do you have an inkling to be a writer? Then drop everything and live a writer’s life. If that’s not for you, give web design a try. Still not a great fit? Find the next opportunity and take it.
If you’re worried about potential employers asking too many questions about your short stints, don’t. This is your career, you’re in this for the long run. If someone can’t appreciate your willingness to try new experiences then they probably aren’t worth your time.
Take risks. Try new ventures. When an opportunity comes along ask yourself: “Will this contribute to my growing skill set?” Test future versions of yourself and gather as much experience as you can.
I can’t guarantee success will ever come, but something even better will: clarity.
Experience and Creativity
I bet you’ve never heard of Katsushika Hokusai. However, I bet you’ve seen at least one of his paintings: The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
Hokusai was a prolific Japanese artist in the 19th center, producing over 30,000 works during his life. But the Great Wave — easily the most recognizable of Hokusai’s work — wasn’t painted until he was 60 years old, 40 years after he began his career as an artist.
“All I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth taking into account. When I am 80 I shall have made still more progress. At 90, I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At 100 I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am 110, everything I do, whether it be a dot or a line, will be alive.” — Katsushika Hokusai
Hokusai never made it to 110. He passed away at the age of 89. Nevertheless, Hokusai is a perfect representation that of all the things not guaranteed to come with age, creativity is the exception.
Creativity is nothing more than finding relationships between things. Steve Jobs once summed it up best:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask a creative person how they did something, they may feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after awhile. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people have.”
Young creatives exist, of course. But not everyone is born a creative genius from the start. Most of us acquire our creative abilities by gathing diverse experiences throughout our lives. Or as David Epstein explains in his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:
“We learn who we are only by living, and not before.”
Where to go from here
I’m not saying once I hit the 30 year mark I’ve somehow magically assumed the wisdom of an old sherpa.
No, I have however grown to appreciate the patience needed to settle into one’s life and set forth on a slow and steady path — A path not set on chasing success but rather one focused on the next step.
Hesselbein “waited” 51 years before beginning her career. Let that sink in.
There exists a symbiotic relationship between the number and quality of life experiences we gain and the general feeling of optimism towards one’s life.
Be patient young Padawan. Success, clarity, and creativity aren’t tied to a specific age but rather the continuous effort to try and try again.