I re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on “late-bloomers” recently when I was included on a group email from a friend, sent out to our cadre of 30-something friends who have each pursued various artistic/creative/thoughtful pursuits. It was, I think, meant to inspire.
The article distinguishes between two types of creatives: the early genius and the late-bloomer. The former, he argues, is our stereotypical impression of the artist. The tortured young soul who is captivated early by a passion that must be expressed and who spews out evident classics before most of his (and, of course, these geniuses are historically male for reasons of gender bias in record keeping and publicity) peers have figured out how to tie their ascots. However, Gladwell points out that many artists did not achieve early success, and, in many cases, were mediocre at best in their early years, before producing masterpieces late in life. These artists are, of course, the late bloomers.
Much of the article describes the life of Ben Fountain, a contemporary writer in Texas who quit his job to write in 1988 and finally achieved success in 2006 with the publication of a book of short stories called Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. While the article applauds Fountain his determination, I couldn’t help but feel vaguely uncomfortable as I read about the supposedly lucky bastard who managed to eke out modest success as a writer very late into a career of small literary victories and stay-at-home-dad-ism. Not to presume Fountain found the tedium and effort of his 18-year effort soul-crushing. His life may well have been rich and full and all the things we read self-help books to achieve, but, I would wager that it can’t always have been one in which he felt perpetually vindicated by his decision.
More than this, though, I wonder about the thousands of other Ben Fountains who never achieve his “breakthrough” success and spend their lives wringing satisfaction from small glories. This is not to belittle accomplishments that don’t make the New York Times bestseller list; I myself have revelled in some such coups. However, I wonder why we are so persistent in pursuing the elusive goals of fame and creative success, even when we know that statistically there can be very few Ben Fountains among us.
Sure, in Fountain’s case a wife with a well-paying career made all the difference. His family, one could argue, did not *really* suffer for his craft and so his choice to work on developing a literary career was a fine one with few casualties. But, how do we know that and why are we so quick to presume his choice was justified? Why do we hallow the successful creator and assume that success, whether achieved as a precocious teen or aging dilettante, validates all that which came before?
I enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s revisionary approach to genius. I like his emphasis on the work that goes into producing artifacts of genius, whether artistic, athletic or literary. After all, it is labour, and lots of it. But why is the work of “genius”—however achieved—prized above a career making widgets or pushing paper? More pressingly for me, someone obviously implicated in my own concerns by my sense that things such as blogging are worthy investments of time: when is it better to give up on the lottery of a longed-for moment of breakthrough? When should one settle for a life of making widgets or typing reports—or, even more fortunately, a life doing work one finds satisfying but perhaps not wholly fulfilling—in the interest of being able to afford mortgage payments (or rent) and the odd fancy dessert? Not all or even many of us can or will be Ben Fountains or Malcolm Gladwells; we know this, and yet, we continue to act as though we can achieve these things. Is this a good thing, or did my friends who went into careers in sales, PR or management make a better choice?
Let’s look at Gladwell himself for a moment: a graduate of the University of Toronto at 21, he was working as a journalist for the Washington Post by age 24. At 33 he took on a position as a staff writer for the New Yorker; four years later publishing The Tipping Point, for which he’d received a $1.5 million advance and which sold 1.7 million copies in the next six years. In the context of his own argument, Gladwell could be described as something of an “early genius.” Someone who somehow found his path early and doggedly pursued it (or enjoyed serendipitous events that precipitated his early success). While he’s not wrong in pointing out that his is only one way in which creative success is achieved, I wonder if he can properly understand the perils of late-blooming, the constant self-doubt, the pressure on families and loved ones to be supportive, perhaps even swallowing their own doubts, lest they dissuade the late-bloomer from his or her goals. It would have been one thing to be a late bloomer in the era of patronage, when one could count on the independently wealthy to keep one in booze and bread, but it is quite another to bloom late in a climate of economic uncertainty, rising education costs and mortgage crisis. And it is still another to reach after creative success in an era in which creative work is increasingly devalued (the rates paid to freelance writers, designers and illustrators have been steadily decreasing over the past 10 years).
Creative genius, whether bursting forth in youth or emerging slowly through dedicated honing, is not something that is easy to parlay into stability. However, without early success, or some kind of willing patron, the pursuit of elusive creative success seems like a clear gamble whose likeliest payout is poverty. My grandmother once told me that a person should not necessarily like what they do for a living. While nodding outwardly, I scoffed inwardly at her arcane ideas and wondered why in her mind enjoyment and employment were so incompatible. Now, I’m starting to wonder if she was on to something.