There’s an unspoken timeline that people supposedly need to follow to have a successful life: be a good student in high school, get into a good college, and then get a good job right after you graduate.
But you’ve probably met successful people whose lives didn’t follow this kind of linear arc and neat timeline, and maybe yours didn’t either. Their young adult years weren’t very auspicious, and they didn’t come into their own and find their bearings until after college, or even much later. My guest today explores the upsides of this kind of trajectory in his book: Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. His name is Rich Karlgaard and we begin our conversation discussing how he defines a late bloomer and a few examples of some famous late bloomers in history. We then dig into how late bloomers got a bad rap and how society became increasingly obsessed with finding success at a young age. Rich then walks us through the disadvantages of being an early bloomer and the advantages of being a late bloomer, including resilience, self-awareness, and a healthy, motivating sense of self-doubt.
- Why there hasn’t been much research on late bloomers (as opposed to early prodigies)
- What defines a late bloomer? Is it based on an age? Is it based on expectations?
- When did being a late bloomer become a negative in American culture? Where did our obsession with youthful success come from?
- The downsides of specializing early in life
- Why academic success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
- Do your mental faculties decline in your 30s and 40s?
- What the makeup of your brain has to do with how quickly you mature
- Is every late bloomer brain different?
- The strengths and real benefits of being a late bloomer
- Why do late bloomers have greater curiosity? Why is curiosity so important to one’s career?
- Why late bloomers tend to be more resilient
- How a healthy amount of self-doubt can be a good thing
- The power of changing your environment
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Reach Your Peak
- How to Find Your Calling in Life
- Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
- The Defining Decade
- Don’t Waste Your Twenties
- Reagan, the Man
- How to Be a Creative Genius Like da Vinci
- The Importance of Developing a Growth Mindset
- Self-Efficacy and the Art of Doing Things
- How to Increase Your Personal Agency
- Lessons From the Gridiron’s Greatest Coaches
Connect With Rich
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. There’s an unspoken timeline that people supposedly need to follow to have a successful life: Be good student high school, get into a good college, and then get a good job right after you graduate. But you’ve probably met successful people whose lives didn’t follow this kind of linear arc and neat timeline. Maybe yours didn’t, either. Your young adult years weren’t very auspicious and they didn’t come into their own and find their bearings until after college or even much later.
My guest today explores the upsides of this kind of trajectory in his book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. His name is Rich Karlgaard and we begin our conversation discussing how he defines a late bloomer and a few examples of some famous late bloomers in history. We then dig into how late bloomers got a bad rap and how society became increasingly obsessed with finding success at a young age. Rich then walks us through the disadvantages of being an early bloomer and the advantages of being a late bloomer, including resilience, self-awareness, and a healthy motivating sense of self-doubt.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/latebloomer.
All right, Rich Karlgaard. Welcome to the show.
Rich Karlgaard: Thanks for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you just got a new book out, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. What got you thinking about and wanting to write an entire book about late bloomers?
Rich Karlgaard: Well, I’ve always thought of myself as a late bloomer and I always wondered if sharing my late bloomer story would be of use to people. And I’ve been thinking about this for not only years but decades, because at age 25 I was a complete wreck, incapable capable of holding an adult level job. And I really didn’t begin to form as a fully functioning adult until my late twenties and then when that happened, I began to bloom pretty fast. So I always wondered if that would be a useful story to share with a broader audience.
And what catalyzed my wanting to write the book now was simply picking up all these stories about the problems that parents were having with their teenagers and this rising rate of anxiety, depression, and even suicide among teens and young adults and a new kind of sufferer. Not the people who were sort of predisposed because they were maybe bipolar or they got into trouble with drugs or things like that. These were kids who are depressed, anxious, and some of them even contemplating ending their lives because they were feeling this enormous pressure to bloom early, to just knock it out of the park in standardized tests, straight A’s and advanced placement courses, getting into the most elite college that they could. And I thought, “Wait a minute, this needs to be challenged. This idea that you have one window in your teens when you’re supposed to demonstrate the capability of your whole lifetime in front of you.” And that’s when I got off my butt and spent four years researching and writing the book Late Bloomers.
Brett McKay: And you highlight in the book, there hasn’t been a lot written about late boomers, or even research. There’s been a lot of research done about prodigies and what makes a prodigy a prodigy, but nothing about late bloomers.
Rich Karlgaard: Well, I was kind of surprised, Brett, that when I looked into the field that nobody had claimed the term late bloomers. I mean, certainly it was a popular phrase in our language. I mean, people use it all the time. Maybe they used it more in the past and they do now. But there was no clinical definition of what it meant to be a late bloomer. And when you saw the phrase in the academic literature, it would usually be in association with some sort of problem rather than an opportunity. This poor late bloomer. Well, we have no other diagnosis for this slow kid, so let’s just call him a late bloomer. And I thought, “Well, this is a great chance to add a definition to a late bloomer.”
And so I came up with a couple. One was chronological and one is more metaphysical. The chronological definition of late bloomer, as I see it, is somebody who comes into their own full talents and motivations simply later than expected. Now, later that expected can be contextual. For example, the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, won a Super Bowl in his early twenties, I think when he was 24. You’d surely say, therefore, he was an early bloomer. But in the context of football, he was kind of a late bloomer. Not very highly recruited out of high school, had to fight to win the starting job. Michigan only started in his senior year. I think he was the sixth quarterback taken in his draft year. I do know that there were 199 players taken before Tom Brady. He was the 200th or so player taken in the NFL draft in this year. And so now he becomes the most famous quarterback of all time. So is Tom Brady an early bloomer or a late bloomer? And that’s why I think it’s contextual. It’s contextual to your expectations.
Remember, metaphysical definition of late bloomer and one that really jazzes me up, is that you reached this perfect intersection of your God given gifts and your deepest motivations, your sense of purpose, a passion so deep you’re willing to sacrifice for it. And when you hit that intersection you feel like you’re being pulled toward your destiny as opposed to being pushed by others. And when you have that feeling of being pulled toward your destiny, you never burn out on that. It’s only additive. And when you feel like you’re being pushed by others, there is going to be a reckoning someday in the future where you’re going to self sabotage or realize in your consciousness that this is the wrong path.
Brett McKay: And in the book you highlight and you make the point that there was a time in American culture, or we can say Western culture, where the late bloomer was seen in a positive light, right? Maybe he’s not thriving right now, but he will eventually. But then there was a point in our history, in our culture where, as you said, the late bloomer is looked down upon and there’s sort of this idea of the early bloomer, that you have to hit your prime in your early twenties. That became the go-to ideal. How did that happen? What are all the different cultural influences that led to that?
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, I think the late bloomer was once more lauded and recognized in society. When I Googled late bloomers, and this is when I began the research of the book about four years ago, I was kind of astonished. It was the same old stories that’d been around for decades. Colonel Sanders starting what became Kentucky Fried Chicken in his sixties. Ray Kroc franchising the McDonald brothers hamburger stand. Again, in his sixties. Grandma Moses coming into her own as a painter in her seventies and eighties. And I go, “Wow, these are kind of dated stories. Where are the more recent stories?” They’ve kind of disappeared in our culture.
I would also say that when I grew up, it was common that a kid, some teenage boy usually, would have problems with authority, would maybe get into some minor scrapes and some minor troubles, and then would go off and join the military and would come back. They were straightened up. They were that kind of a late bloomer. They came into their adult capacities later. And I just noticed that in contemporary society, the term seemed to fall out. There were no recent examples on Google in particular. Maybe you might come up with a Morgan Freeman who didn’t achieve Hollywood fame and until his fifties. Kind of the same with Bryan Cranston, much later in life.
But by and large, I thought that this is a term that needs to be rescued and elevated and used as a motivational tool for people who don’t feel like they’re coming out of the gates all that fast, as I did not come out of the gates fast at all.
Brett McKay: And what do you think caused that shift? I mean, did something happen where that’s where you start seeing this emphasis on, you have to peak early instead of blooming late.
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah. Well, I have my own theory here, which I put forth in the book and that is, it has to do with the economy. If you look at the last 20 or 30 years of the U.S. economy, the two most reliably lucrative fields where you could make the most money the quickest way possible legally are in, still today, high finance. Let’s just call it Wall Street, hedge funds, high level venture capital. And in technology, but particularly digital technology of the Silicon Valley sort. And that’s where your Mark Zuckerberg’s have become billionaires in their twenties. And before that bill Gates and Paul Allen and Steve Jobs and people like that.
But unlike the era of Steve Jobs when he started Apple in the 1970s with Steve Wozniak and they started it in Jobs’ garage, today the age of the tinkerer is kind of gone. And today in high finance and in Silicon Valley kinds of technology it’s becoming more and more of a closed club of people who went to certain universities. Not exclusively, but it is trending in that direction and trending at a rapid rate, that if you didn’t go to Harvard or MIT or Stanford or Caltech or a handful of schools like that, that somehow you’re going to have a hard time cracking these doors on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley at the highest levels.
And that created this intense competition for kids to get into these right schools. It trickled down. Suddenly trickled down to society. Suddenly aspirational, educated parents who became terrified that if their kids didn’t get into these kinds of schools that the window might close on them. The best opportunities in the American economy, unless their kids had some exceptional athletic skill or artistic skill or just were native born entrepreneurs who are going to succeed anyway, if they didn’t have those other skills, then they had to pursue this early achievement to be recognized by an economy that was recognizing these kinds of talents early.
And so what you’re seeing is people spending just enormous sums of money on tutors, private camps, all the kinds of things that parents do to give their kids an edge. And it’s just not in academia. It’s in sports. You can’t just show up and, “Hey, I think I’m going to try basketball in the ninth grade.” If you haven’t been playing for an organized program before then, unless you have exceptional talent, you probably are going to be cut and never get a chance to play. Football, the same. Baseball, the same. And everything is backing up into earlier age groups where kids must show their promise and talent early or the whole system kind of bypasses them.
Brett McKay: Right. And I imagine also the research, the psychological research that’s been coming out that’s sort of popular has reinforced that, this idea of deliberate practice and the earlier you start deliberately practicing whatever, the better you can do. And so parents hear that. It’s like, “Well, we got to get Johnny signed up for elite sports camp or start him preparing for the LSAT or the SAT when he’s 15 or 14.” So they specialize early. But the interesting thing is, you highlight this research, is that by doing that, there’s a downside to that, right? By specializing so early.
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah. David Epstein and his new book called Range does a pretty good job of debunking the 10,000 hour theory that that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and developed by an academician whose name escapes me right now. The idea which you alluded to, that you better get those 10,000 hours in early, that practicing with intent or you’re not going to be ready for prime time. And now prime time being coming in at an earlier and earlier age bracket. But David Epstein shows that actually it’s the well-rounded sports kid, the kid who played all sports, who tends to do better as their career progresses both in college in the pros.
And so, yeah, I think when you look at what’s gone on in the economy and how it’s raised the profile of these two industries that select most of their young talent from a very restricted number of schools and you look at what’s happened in sports that it’s led to this mania. But more and more it’s been debunked. If you take the idea, you look at Google is sort of this example. Now, Google was started by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, were two Stanford grad students, and the rest is history. And they were both exceptionally bright academic people and they both scored 800 on their math SATs. And I can verify because I just talked to somebody last week again, in addition to the research I did in my book, in the early days of Google, when Brin and Page were still involved with recruiting people, the first question out of their merit mouths would be, “What did you score on your math SAT?”
Jeff Bezos would do the same thing at Amazon. Now, they don’t do that anymore because they know it’s kind of a political hot potato to do that. But more importantly at Google, Google tests everything, and Google had a visionary HR guy named Laszlo Bock. No longer there. He’s doing his own startup. But he tested this idea that whether the high math SAT people and the people who went to the elite schools, were they actually performing better at Google? And he found out that, yeah, in the first three years they were doing slightly better than their peers, but after three years or so, that one’s SAT and one’s diploma mattered almost to the point of insignificance. It was lost in the statistical noise. So there you have it. Whether it’s David Epstein with this book Range or Google’s own testing, that the early advantages, they revert to the mean.
Even Lewis Terman, the Stanford researcher who imported the IQ tests from France and began this longitudinal study called the Stanford Study of the Gifted, found out that the early IQ high achievers reverted to the mean over the course of their lives. That is to say, they didn’t do any better than the merely above average.
Brett McKay: So besides this pressure to excel in today’s economy, there’s also this concern that’s driving this early bloomer mania that you have to do it while you’re young because you have your faculty. All your mental faculties are there, right? If you wait too long, then your brain gets slow because you get old. Does the research back that up?
Rich Karlgaard: The research doesn’t back that up. So where does that idea come from? Well, it comes from considered statements from people like Mark Zuckerberg who said when he was in his twenties, “Face it, people under 30 are just smarter.” Now, Mark is in his thirties now and you’ll notice he doesn’t say that anymore. Or how about Vinod Khosla? Brilliant man. One of the founders of Sun Microsystems back in the 1980s, became a very successful venture capitalist who said publicly, “Basically people over 45 are brain dead.” And what he meant was brain dead in their ability to go out and start Silicon Valley kinds of companies. Well, it’s kind of refuted by a lot of examples out there.
You take a woman named Diane Greene who co-founded VMware with her husband in her forties. Diane didn’t even go back and get a computer science degree as a master’s degree until her thirties, and until the beginning of this year, Diane, at age 64, was the CEO of Google Cloud. Or you take Tom Siebel who founded Siebel Systems in the 1990s in his forties. He’s now CEO of one of the leading enterprise level AI companies, C3.ai, and Tom just turned 67. The founder of ServiceNow, which is a $30 billion market cap company, was started by a guy a week before his 50th birthday. So you have plenty of examples, even in high technology fields. I mean, Jim Goodnight, the founder of SAS Institute, big analytics company in North Carolina. He was still leading it in his mid seventies. Still giving keynote speeches at industry conferences. So it’s kind of refuted.
Now, the science refutes it even more deeply. There was a 2015 study led by MIT and Harvard, two post doc researchers who had their degrees at those institutions and we’re working with Massachusetts General Hospital, and they asked a simple question: “At what age do we cognitively peak?” To get to your point, that there’s this window that we have all of our… that we’re at our cognitive best. Well, it turns out to be much more complex than that. At certain things, yes, we’re best in our late teens and early twenties. Rapid cognitive processing speed, working memory, those peak pretty early. And a whole other set of skills that support executive functioning, leadership, communication skills, et cetera, only begin to peak in our thirties, forties, and fifties. And then what we would call wisdom, those skills begin to peak in our sixties and seventies.
The question is then, once we’re past peak, how rapidly do we fall off our peak? Because the implication by this fear about, if you don’t hit a window early you’re never going to hit it, is that post peak we fall off rapidly. Let’s say like a professional sports player who suddenly, when they fall, they fall rapidly. Well, we don’t. The research that MIT Harvard studied suggested we fall off peak, whether it’s rapid cognitive processing speed or working memory, at about a rate of 0.2% per year. So it’s a slow, slow… I mean, for all intents and purposes over any given five year period, it looks like a plateau and in five years the plateau may be a little lower.
But in fact, if you’re a software programmer in your twenties and thirties and you’re going to advance in your career, you’re probably going to become a manager anyway in your thirties, forties, and fifties where you’re going to need these new skills that most people don’t get until their thirties, forties, and fifties. Leadership skills, empathetic skills, communication skills, and the rest.
Brett McKay: So yeah, there’s different parts of our life where we’re going to be good at certain different things. And that’s the other thing to point out, is that you could peak at, say, that sort of information processing, working memory, later than some other people. Right? Some people might peak when they’re 20. You might not do it until you’re 24. That’s a misconception. A lot of people think that you become an adult once you are 18, but biologically the brain is still forming into an adult. And that might happen until you’re 25.
Rich Karlgaard: Oh, 25 is seen to be a median age for when the prefrontal cortex is fully developed. And some young adults will fully mature into recognizable adult capacities earlier than that and some later than that. There’s a neuroscientist at NYU named Elkhonon Goldberg who believes that with each generation, for some reason he can’t quite figure out, whether it’s driven by biology or driven by our environment, but with each generation the prefrontal cortex seems to be appearing about 12 to 18 months later. So the median age might be moving toward the mid-twenties. Goldberg even has an intriguing theory that somehow the body knows that the full adulthood should come about one-third of the way through a person’s life, and as life expectations keep growing in the West, that this is happening.
Anyway, he’s conducting a number of tests to see if that is possible, or whether things like social media and other things are delaying the onset of a full adult maturity. It could be any number of reasons.
But 25 moving upward is the median, which means that some will mature faster, some will mature slower. I can tell you in my own life that I was very conscious of the fact that I only began to think and comport myself like an adult until I was 26 or 27, and only then did I began a pretty rapid process of blooming. But I was incapable of blooming much at all from adolescence through my middle and late twenties, with a few little exceptions along the way. Some low level accomplishments in sports, pulling an upset and getting into Stanford at a time when, frankly, it was a lot easier to get into Stanford than it is now. A few things like that, but nothing that took root. Nothing that took root until my late twenties and beyond.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, in your research in the book and talking to different late bloomers, what did you find? Why did late bloomers become late bloomers? Or is it sort of like Tolstoy and his family, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? Is every late bloomer different in, a late bloomer, in its own way?
Rich Karlgaard: Oh, I think you ask a great question because I don’t think there’s a single answer to that. I’m pretty convinced in my case that two things slowed my development. One was simply, I had a whole history going back to childhood of being a really slow to physically mature kid. When I was in eighth grade I was five foot two and 80 pounds. Five foot two and 80 pounds. I mean, I got the snot kicked out of me playing junior high school football. I never got to play in games. I was the poor kid who got to play safety and just got blocked and the wind knocked out of me on every practice play. And I’m six feet and one half inch today. So from five to two to my full spurt happened rather late.
People could grow up in dysfunctional families. People could grow up with some undiagnosed problem like dyslexia where people were slow to catch it. Ronald Reagan, I was reading Ronald Reagan’s biography and Ronald Reagan had really poor vision. But he came from kind of a poor family and he didn’t have glasses until high school and only in high school did he begin to show any love of reading and things like that. So there could be any number of reasons why people are slow out of the gate. But the important thing is, is that being slow out of the gate doesn’t dictate where you’re going to go, unless we let this stupid societal narrative right now win the argument. And I’m determined to let that not happen.
Brett McKay: And part of that in your book, the second half, you talk about the problem of this early bloomer narrative, but then you make the case for late bloomers, that there are lots of benefits and strengths that late bloomers have. What are a few of those strengths that stood out to you in your research?
Rich Karlgaard: Curiosity, I think is one of the great attributes of late bloomers. Now, why would late bloomers have more curiosity? Which is something I assert, but I will admit that I can’t prove this one. This one goes into the area of anecdotal. The best that I could do speculation, but I’m sticking with it. Why do late bloomers, as I assert, have more curiosity than early bloomers? Well, think about this whole early blooming conveyor belt track that we’re putting kids on today where they’re supposed to demonstrate their excellence in sports or school or playing an instrument in an orchestra, whatever it is, earlier in earlier. What is the process that makes that possible?
The process that makes that possible for them to do well early is that they focus. They approach everything that they do, whether academics or sports or music, with a determined focus. Well, what is the price of a determined focused? The price is your lateral vision. Determined focus is you’re looking straight ahead with a focused vision. You lose your lateral vision, you lose your curiosity. You lose even the sense that going out wandering and playing and trying things has a justification anymore. Society would appear to tell you it has no justification whatsoever. Well, you lose your curiosity. Kids have it in abundance, but you lose your curiosity throughout your childhood and adolescence, young adulthood. When you need it, it’s kind of hard to get it back. If you’ve always been the rote learner, the one always marching to adults tunes, it gets hard to get it back.
Now, is that a real loss? Yeah, I say it is, and I go to this. There was a 2017 cover story in Fortune magazine and their annual best places to work issue and they asked a bunch of CEOs of high performing companies, the very kinds of companies that recruit for high IQ people. Companies like Genentech, Intuit. And they asked the CEOs of these companies, “What’s the number one attribute that you like to see an employee?” And the CEOs of both of those companies said, “Curiosity.” And so did other CEOs. Because without curiosity there’s no learning. Without learning there’s no human development inside of the organization and if people are stuck, then teams get stuck, then the organization gets stuck. You fail to recognize when to disrupt yourself. You fail to recognize a new competitor coming out of left field. All of those kinds of things vanish when you are so focused and you don’t have curiosity that goes with it.
So curiosity, late bloomers tend to have more curiosity simply because either ignorantly or through blind luck they resist the siren call to put their butts down on the chairs and concentrates with a determined focus that their early blooming brother were doing.
Brett McKay: Another benefit that stood out to me that you wrote about in the book was that early blooming, you look at these kids and you look at them like they’re doing awesome, they’re amazing, but they’re also really fragile because they experienced success early. They might not have experienced too much failure, so it makes them less resilient. But a late bloomer, they probably experienced failure after failure in their early life, and is there a certain point they built up a tough skin?
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, leading to some resilience. Again, I speculate perhaps more than some of these early bloomers. Now, I don’t mean the early bloomer who followed the path of of pluck and grit and and found that they could do things on their own. I’m talking about the mass of early bloomers in an affluent society or simply been pushed to early blooming by their parents, by the school system.
Let me tell you one of the most important interviews that I did for the book. It really opened my eyes on a lot of subjects. It was Carol Dweck. Now Carol Dweck, if you’re not familiar with the name, wrote a bestselling book called Mindset in 2006 where she differentiates a growth mindset from a fixed mindset. You want a growth mindset, to jump to her conclusion, and this book has embraced by leading corporations. Satya Nadella, the CEO at Microsoft, has everybody at Microsoft read Mindset. It’s that good a book.
Well, Carol teaches psychology at Stanford University and she has a freshman introductory class. And when I interviewed her for my book, Late Bloomers, it was 10 years after Mindset came out. It was in the late summer of 2016. And she said something that was just kind of shocking to me in answer to the question of, “Has anything changed since you came out with Mindset in 2006?” And she leaned forward and slapped the table and she said, “It’s gotten worse.” I said, “What do you mean? How has it gotten worse? More than a million people have bought and read your book. And Satya Nadella, you changed the way companies are thinking about this.” She said, “It’s not companies, it’s the school system and the incentives there for students has gotten worse.”
So I said, “Well, give me an example.” And she said, “Well, the kids I see coming into Stanford today, one is I see in my introductory freshman course and psychology are,” and then I quoted her, “Are exhausted, brittle, and don’t want to wreck their perfect records.”
Now, stop and think about that. If that’s the spoils of victory, because Stanford’s a school that I could never get into today, and a lot of people don’t. It only has a 3% admissions rate, so it’s a very prestigious school to get into today. And you’re spending your whole high school career trying to get into an elite school like that. And then the price of winning that prize is that you arrive brittle and exhausted, not wanting to mar your perfect record? What kind of a win is that? That’s not a win. That’s a fixed mindset. That’s somebody who’s traded in their curiosity for focus and now is exhausted.
Brett McKay: Another attribute that I thought was surprising you talked about, it can be a benefit to late bloomers, is this idea of self-doubt. Now, we live in a world where people are Googling for articles on how to be more confident, more assertive. But you’re saying late bloomers, they understand how self-doubt can actually propel them to success. How so?
Rich Karlgaard: Well, late bloomers have to openly face their self-doubts because society isn’t praising them the way they’re praising the early bloomers. So it’s out there in the open. Now the question is, what do you do with your self-doubt? And there’s a lot of pop literature around the idea that you simply ignore it or bull your way fast. You puff yourself up, you tell yourself some slogans. You go to some conferences by some very popular speakers whom I won’t name because I think they act in good faith. And that can have a short term effect. Sometimes we need to bull our way through a period of doubt.
But as a longterm strategy, self-doubt is going to creep back in. I look at self-doubt like the weather. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control your mood all the time. It’s going to creep in. The clouds are going to creep in. Now, what do you do with it then, when it’s impossible to keep self-doubt away? Do you try to bull yourself through it? Well, maybe you can, but maybe that’s like the equivalent of anaerobic sports and you need an aerobic strategy to go along with that. And the aerobic strategy to go along with that, the marathon strategy for dealing with self-doubt, is simply coming to terms with it, in a way, and the number one thing you need to do is not let self-doubt infect your self-worth. You need to draw a wall between your self-doubt and your self-worth. You have inherent self-worth.
I mean, I personally believe that we’re all creatures of God and that alone gives us all the self-worth that we’ll ever need. But even if you don’t have that religious belief about your value as a human being, just accept that you have self-worth. Self-doubt is information. We’re here. Human beings have evolved because our forebearers had self-doubt. The ones that rushed across a raging river to chase the animals to get protein, perished. They drowned. And so being skeptical of things or being skeptical, having doubt about a scam artist, all of those kinds of things. Having doubt if somebody’s telling you to jump off a cliff and into the water and it’s a 50 foot drop, that’s good.
So self-doubt is information. It’s evolved into us. It’s part of our survival mechanism. And so what we need to do with self-doubt about anything is step back and say, “As uncomfortable as it is to feel this self-doubt, what information value can I get from it?” Carol Dweck, going back to her again, says that she teaches a technique of imagining self-doubt as the annoying friend who shows up at the wrong time, at the worst possible time. Right before you’re going to give a speech, right before you’re going to do a job interview, right before you’re going to take a major test, right before you’re going to make the biggest sales presentation of your career. This annoying friend, self-doubt, shows up and you just simply say, “Oh, you again. Okay. What do you have to tell me? Spit it out. Okay, thanks. Go sit down,” and move forward.
Brett McKay: Right. I like how you make this distinction between self-doubt and self-efficacy. Just because you don’t think… Maybe you have doubts about how it’s going to turn out, the people, late bloomers, who doubt themselves, they still have confidence that they’re able to figure out a way to make it work. Even though it looks like it’s going to be hard, they still exercise their agency to get it done.
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah. Self-efficacy, it was a great concept put forward by a Stanford psychologist of an older generation. He’s still alive. He’s in his nineties, named Albert Bandura. One of the great psychologists who ever lived. And self-efficacy, exactly as you describe it, is this idea that the people who accomplish things are not people who are free of self-doubt. They’re the people who move forward despite their self-doubt and they start at their point of efficacy and they expand their circles of efficacy. They learned the habit. Even amidst self-doubt, go to that thing that you know you can do well even when you have self-doubt, and then use the information value that self-doubt is bringing you to say, “Well, how now do I expand that circle?”
Maybe the self-doubt you’re feeling about your startup company, let’s say, is your worry that you’re really not good in some areas that the company needs to be good at, and you’re the founder and you think you’re supposed to be good in all the areas. Finance, raising money, making the product, selling the product, marketing, all of that. And the fact of the matter is, very few people can do it all. So you’re feeling a vague sense of self-doubt. Listen to what the self-doubt is saying and it may tell you, “Okay, you’re strong here, you’re weak there. Okay.”
Self-efficacy is going to your strengths and building from there, and then figuring out, “How do I build the bridge to solve the things that I’m not good at? Maybe I need to bring in a partner. Maybe I need a really good employee in this area.” So self-efficacy, go to the thing you know you can always count on and get some momentum going. And then begin to expand the circles and develop the habit of knowing a technique of proceeding when you feel this self-doubt.
Brett McKay: And then also understand that self-doubt is information, right? It can be useful information to help you make a wise decision. Because I imagine when you’re young you don’t have a lot of self-doubt. You’re confident and so you tend to be… Sometimes there’s a tendency to make decisions that aren’t good in the long run and can actually come back and bite you in the butt later on.
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah. One of my heroes that I wrote about in the book, a man who, if you met him, it was a man who wore his self-doubt on his sleeve and seemed almost neurotic. And you’d think, “Well, that generally doesn’t describe successful people,” and certainly would never describe an NFL football coach and one of the greatest NFL football coaches and innovators of all time, Bill Walsh. But Bill Walsh had this very professorial demeanor. He was a great innovator. Everybody talks about the West coast offense today and its many different iterations, including the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes today doing it on a level that no one dreamed it could happen. But it was really Bill Walsh back in the early 1980s at the San Francisco 49ers and before that as an assistant coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 1960s who pioneered all of it.
So anyway, I got to know Walsh quite well and I would see that… Great example of how Walsh would deal with the self-doubt. Walsh knew that he would feel a sense of panic at the beginning of the game. All the tension, all the adrenaline, all of that, and finally the kickoff. And he felt overwhelmed, but he admitted that he was overwhelmed. How did he respond to it? He scripted the first 20 plays of every game. He did it for himself. He did it for his quarterback. He did it to give the team a sense of calm, not to be overwhelmed by the moment.
Another thing he would do, he knew that he and his team were prone to panic. If, let’s say, it was first and ten on their own two yard line, particularly in an away game with a really loud fan base of the other team, you can’t hear anything. So he practiced it. He said, “Okay, let’s take this problem head on.” And he would simulate that out on the practice field, bringing in rock concert sized speakers with crowd noise and simulating what it’d be like to be first and ten on your own two yard line in a very, very noisy stadium.
In other words, what Walsh would do is he would anticipate those moments where he might feel doubt and panic and simulate it before, rather than runaway from the doubt. Rather than puff up his chest and tell his players, “We’re all men here. We’re going to bull our way through it,” which I think is the equivalent that a lot of these rah rah speakers are telling some of the people who were coming to their seminars.
Brett McKay: All right, so late bloomers can use self-doubt to their advantage as long as they don’t let up on the self-efficacy.
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah, that’s absolutely critical. I mean, just because you’re a late bloomer, it may not be your fault that your late bloomer. It may have been for any number of reasons. The family you grew up in, the fact that you were a late maturer, the fact that you had to overcome some trauma in your own life, whether an illness or accident or your own addiction problems. I mean, you still own your life. It may not be your fault, but it’s your life and you are responsible for it. I don’t want to leave anybody feeling that I’m giving permission for people to run away and be passive waiting for that magic late blooming moment to happen.
Brett McKay: Well, in one way late bloomers, if say someone, they feel like they’re a late bloomer. One thing they can do to actuate that self-efficacy is to change their environment, right? Their environment might be the thing that’s causing them to late bloom. So maybe you have to move somewhere else or maybe you got to get away from friends who are holding you back because they don’t think what you want to do is good for whatever reason.
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah. I’ll share my own story. So I grew up in Bismark, North Dakota and my dad was a high school athletic director in the capital city of North Dakota. So he was paid about at the level of a high school principal and my mom didn’t work so we were middle middle class, but he was an esteem guy around town and he was a great high school athlete himself. One of those all arounders, football, basketball, baseball and the traditional sports. And I was terrible in all of those traditional sports and I became pretty good but not great in track and field and cross country. I was good enough to run in the state track meet, in the fast heat in the finals and the mile. But then I was the kid that finished second to last in the fast heat and the mile. So that kind of tells you my level.
But I always felt that Bismarck, North Dakota was not a place where I was going to bloom. Number one, there will always be the comparison with my own father. A wonderful man, but kind of a barrier for me because it informed how I would see myself and it would inform how others might see me. And then I began to realize that I love to read. I love to debate people. I love all those kinds of things that weren’t skills that at the time I found that were valued much by society. Now, I was maybe looking in the wrong place. But the people who really do well in North Dakota are people who are action figures. I mean, they get into physical industries. They become civil engineers, they build dams, roads, do construction projects. They’re good in those things. They love to do those things.
And I just wasn’t more of those. I was more of a cerebral, creative, introverted type. And in fact, the cerebral introverted type, particularly if you layer on the late bloomer aspect to that, they’re going to do better in university towns. They’re going to do better and in urban settings. And I find that I was able to take all my love of sports and the competitive angle that goes with sports and transfer that to the competitive landscape of Silicon Valley where I could put my cerebral and communication skills to work. And a friend of mine and I founded the magazine at the dawn of the desktop publishing revolution and it was called Upside magazine. And it was my entrepreneurial breakthrough in my early thirties and it got the attention of Steve Forbes who then hired me and has given me a 27 year career at Forbes and all that’s gone along with it. But that couldn’t have happened. I mean, Upside is about Silicon Valley. I wouldn’t have been motivated to start a magazine about building dams or doing construction projects or the AG industry in North Dakota. I mean, it wouldn’t have happened.
Brett McKay: All right. So yeah, you knew yourself well enough, you were able to change your environment to make something happen for yourself. Well, Rich, where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?
Rich Karlgaard: Well, thank you so much for that. You can go to my website, richkarlgaard.com. Be sure you get the spelling right. R-I-C-H, and then the last name is one of those tricky Scandinavian deals, K-A-R-L-G-A-A-R-D. You can ping me at [email protected] if you want. You can go to my book website, but I haven’t kept that up as well as I should with all the other things going on here, but late bloomer, singular, latebloomer.com. Or just go to Amazon and look up Rich Karlgaard Late Bloomers. Or go to your local bookstore and look it up.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Rich Karlgaard, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Rich Karlgaard: Yeah. Thank you so much, Brett. It was a real honor to be on your show.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Rich Karlgaard. He is the author of the book Late Bloomer. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, richkarlgaard.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/latebloomer where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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