The recent college admissions scandal showed the extent to which parents and students are obsessed with getting into high-profile universities and making the right connections to land an amazing job right after graduation. The stories of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — prodigies who became billionaires before the age of 30 — get a lot of media attention. Less attention is paid to those whose success comes a little later in life. Forbes publisher and columnist Rich Karlgaard considers himself one of those people — a late bloomer. He’s the author of the new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: Why do you consider yourself a late bloomer?
Rich Karlgaard: Despite having graduated from Stanford back in the day, when it was a much easier institution to get into than now, I barely got through college. And at age 25, when my college roommates were doing amazing things — one was at Stanford Law School, one was getting his master’s in chemical engineering at Penn, and another was getting his doctor of divinity degree at a theological institution — I was capable of handling a job no greater than security guard. I remember a low moment: I’m 25 years old and a Stanford grad, mind you. I had a security guard job at a trucking yard, and I was walking the perimeter with my flashlight and heard a dog barking. I looked across the fence at the yard next door and realized that their security guard was a Rottweiler. It suddenly occurred to me that my professional colleague was a dog. And months later, Steve Jobs would take Apple public. So, there was quite a gulf between where I was and what some of these super-achievers were doing.
Knowledge@Wharton: There are benefits to early Waitachievement, but you also talk about the fact that it puts an incredible amount of pressure on younger individuals who probably don’t need that pressure.
Karlgaard: I’m all for early achievers. I applaud them. I may admit to a little bit of jealousy about their early achievement, but people like Mark Zuckerberg who go out and do great things at an early age are really adding a lot to the United States. I just don’t think it’s the appropriate path for everybody.
You think about over the last 20 years how important getting into an elite institution has become, and this college bribery scandal, in a way, is just the logical and perverse conclusion of this insane pressure. We’ve constructed this conveyor belt, and affluent parents can put their kids in preschool at age 3 or 4 and spend $40,000 a year. The websites of these elite preschools make no bones about the fact that you’re doing this so 15 years later your kid can get into an Ivy League or Stanford or MIT or some institution like that. Well, that’s fine if your child happens to be one whose gifts are revealed by what I call the “early achievement conveyor belt” that puts emphasis on testing and getting 4.3 grade averages with advanced placement courses. That’s a system that will reveal the strengths of some people — your rapid algorithmic giftedness, your ability to focus, your determination. Again, all great early achievers have that. But there are so many gifts that go undiscovered.
You think about some kid who might have the potential of being the greatest carpenter in his city, but all he knows is that he’s stupid because he gets poor grades and he tests poorly. When you step back and look at some of the issues that students and teens and young adults are grappling with today, you see the rising rates of anxiety, depression and, tragically, suicide — they’re all going up. The pathway of getting onto the conveyor belt to early success clearly does not work for everybody, and it causes a lot of harm for many.
Knowledge@Wharton: Every parent worries about the future for their kids. In the wake of what we’ve gone through economically in this country over the last decade, I think there’s even a higher level of concern.
Karlgaard: There’s no question about that. If you look at the only sure bets over that period, they’re in two fields. They are in Silicon Valley kinds of technology, and they’re in Wall Street hedge funds and the high end of finance. Those are really lucrative fields. Those two fields screen for where you went to school, how well you did on your tests. When Amazon was a smaller company, [founder] Jeff Bezos would ask applicants, “What did you score on your math SAT?” Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google did the same thing.
You can see why, because that algorithmic giftedness is a real advantage for a software programmer. But think about all the gifts that unfold beginning in your middle 20s, when most of us achieve the full maturity of our prefrontal cortex, where we get executive functioning skills and we begin to become fully functioning adults. Things like curiosity, resilience, equanimity or the ability to stay calm under pressure — these are attributes that employers all say they want, and they are valued, and you can see why, because these are the kind of employees that will grow. But the dissonance is between how companies screen for their first hires and then what’s valued.
Even Google, which is kind of a math SAT oligarchy, or at least was in the beginning, has discovered that where you went to school and what your SAT scores are does not correlate all that strongly to how well you’re going to perform at Google. And after three years, it more or less disappears.
Knowledge@Wharton: There is some interesting data out there about the fact that there are aspects of our development that really don’t kick in until our 30s and 40s. Is that part of the reason why we see this push in many cases to be late bloomers?
Karlgaard: I wish we’d see more of a push, more encouragement for late bloomers. By the way, this idea that we have unfolding gifts over the many decades of our lives is not my speculation. There was a terrific 2015 study led by Laura Germine at Harvard with a colleague at MIT, and they asked the question, at what decade of our lives do our cognitive abilities peak? It’s a really complex and intriguing answer. It depends what kind of cognitive intelligence you’re talking about. There are many of these forms of cognitive intelligence.
Sure enough, rapid synaptic processing speed, working memory, the things that make you a great software programmer or make you a very effective high-frequency trader on Wall Street, those peak in our 20s. But then in our 30s, 40s and 50s, deeper pattern recognition, empathy and compassion, communication skills — all the things you need to grow and be effective as a leader — come into play. Then in our 50s, 60s and 70s, a whole set of attributes that lead to what we might call wisdom come into play.
This suggests that when you’re thinking about a career, there’s actually an arc. You’re a technical specialist when young, you move up into the management rank, and then you become kind of the mentor and coach as you’re older. I think it’s very encouraging. But we’re not seeing the encouraging part in our rush to celebrate and emulate all of these early achievers.
Knowledge@Wharton: Why don’t we see a greater acceptance, a greater push to recognize the late bloomers out there?
Karlgaard: I spent five years researching this book because I wanted every part of Late Bloomers to be defensible by science and research. I didn’t want to make a bunch of my own speculations. One of the things I discovered is that late bloomers tend to be the ones who find their own path that leads them to this magical place where late blooming occurs. And that’s the intersection of deepest talent, native talents and deepest passions, passions so deep you’re willing to sacrifice for them, which I would call a mission. When you arrive at that destination, and I hope that everybody has the chance to get there, then no longer do you feel pushed by society’s expectations. You feel pulled towards some greater destiny. You can endure and get the kinds of gifts like grit and perseverance that you might not have when you’re feeling like you’re being pushed by parents or by society’s expectations.
Knowledge@Wharton: How does the education system play into both sides of this debate?
Karlgaard: If you look at best practices around the world, there are some worthy things that we can import into the United States, and there are some things that we desperately need to get rid of. I’ll get to that part first. This is so tragic I almost tear up thinking about it: 95% of the drug prescriptions for ADHD are given in the United States. How are we biologically different than other people around the world? It’s an insanity. Sure, there may be some small percentage of kids that need to be medicated. But as a default position simply because young kids aren’t able to sit still?
Finland offers a great example. They don’t start kids in school and begin teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic until they’re 7. They let these very wonderful young plastic minds develop their own curiosity before they sit them in a room and begin to teach them.
I’ve become a huge believer in gap years. That could be taking a gap year after high school and before college, it could be taking one before the sophomore and junior years. Gap years can cover a variety of things. In the Church of Later Day Saints, people go on a two-year Mormon mission generally between their sophomore and junior years. I highly endorse that, and I’m not a member of that church.
I’ve come to believe that countries that have mandatory military or civilian service have pretty good outcomes, and that’s not primarily why they do it. They do it for national defense reasons. But if you look at Israel, Switzerland and Singapore — to take three countries with a level of affluence similar to the United States — the outcomes for their young men and women are better than ours. Lower rates of drug addiction, lower rates of alcoholism, more focus. They’re building adults.
I’ve also come to believe that it was a tragic mistake to think that everybody should go to college. Everybody should have the opportunity to go to college. Not everybody should go to college, or at least right away. We’ve basically given up on the idea of a skilled trade track, or what we called in my day “shop class.” Only one out of 20 public high schools offer this today. You think about all these wonderful skilled trades out there today that intersect with technology and pay really good salaries. Good HVAC people, good welders — good people in a number of skilled trades who can go out and with a minimal investment in their education can be earning six figures in their early 20s.
Knowledge@Wharton: Do you lay the blame for that at the feet of parents and the fact that they are pushing their kids?
Karlgaard: It’s tough to be parents today. I don’t want to point the finger at parents in any way because I think that they’re subject to so many pressures. Sure, I’ll point the finger at the ones that are bribing officials at universities to let their kids get into a college they otherwise couldn’t get into. But think about it, you grow up in a high-performance city or you grow up in a suburb where everybody’s educated and everybody wants their kids to be educated and have great careers. The dilemma for parents is, are we putting too much discipline on them, or not enough? My answer is, you really have to get engaged with your kids because some kids will respond to more discipline; other kids will rebel because they’re sensing that they’re being disciplined into areas of their weakness rather than their strengths.
I think parents will have to step up. I think educators will have to step up. What I was hoping to do with this book was to start a national conversation around the dysfunctions that we’re creating among teens and young adults, but at the same time highlight that all the emerging neuroscience and cognitive science points solidly to the fact that we have multiple decades in which to come into our own.
Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you bring up the concept of quitting. Can you explain that?
Karlgaard: In our culture, I think that we’ve overdone this idea that quitters never win, winners never quit, and you must apply your grit to all things at all times. Grit is a wonderful thing to have, as Angela Duckworth pointed out. But grit misapplied will burn us out. If you look at great entrepreneurs, [Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson’s quit a lot of businesses. He quit Virgin Cola. He quit Virgin Brides. One of my favorite examples in Silicon Valley, where I live, was the internal debate that occurred at Intel in the 1980s when their original product and their profit-maker, memory chips, were suddenly getting knocked down on their butts by Japanese and South Korean memory chip manufacturers. But they had this new, very promising product that had been around for a dozen years called the microprocessor.
The internal debate was, do we quit the memory chip business? Bob Noyce, one of the founders, didn’t want to quit. [Co-founder] Andy Grove said, “We have to quit.” And then they had a discussion: If we were bought by another company or by outside investors, what would they tell us? [Co-founder] Gordon Moore said, “Well, they would fire us and then they would get out of the memory chip business.” So that’s what they did. Then Intel had a glorious late 1980s, 1990s, and still is a great company today.
So yeah, you have to quit. You have to know when to strategically quit. That’s not the same as saying that your first response to any adversity is to quit. But I think we have to have a realistic view of when quitting is appropriate.
Knowledge@Wharton: Does this relate to self-doubt, which you also touch on in your book?
Karlgaard: Pop culture tells you to throw your shoulders back, puff it up, fake it till you make it. I think you need to learn how to use self-doubt as an adviser. You need to wall it off from your sense of self-worth, step back, look at it clinically. When the dark clouds of self-doubt come in, what is that self-doubt telling you? How do you deal with it rationally, as you would if you were coaching somebody you like?