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Terez Mertes

In Praise of the Late Bloomer

February 27, 2009 at 7:44 PM


I work part-time at a library and last Monday afternoon found me there, putting away recently checked-in magazines. My eye caught the title of an article from the Psychology Today magazine in my hand. “Confessions of a Late Bloomer,” by Scott Barry Kaufman. Intrigued, I paged through the magazine to the article and quickly discovered that not only was the article enjoyable and interesting, but it helped explain me to me. Job duties faded into the periphery as I eased myself into a hidden corner and continued to read.

Here’s a portion of the article (following a hilarious opening section) that explores why some of us seemed to miss the mark in our early years:

“A complex trait like intelligence is not only partly determined by many interacting genes, it changes across the lifespan as some genes are automatically turned on and some turned off. The most appreciated abilities in society, such as creativity and leadership, rarely fully present themselves early on.

Prodigies certainly exist, but they are notably more common in some domains than others. Chess, musical performance, and pure mathematics are full of prodigies because they draw on relatively delimited knowledge and skills. The dazzling calendar calculation of the childhood savant is likely not a polygenic trait.

Achievements that require complex abilities like creativity or leadership, which comprise many different traits and thus the alignment of many different genes, are years in the making. As Simonton points out, there is only one way of becoming an early bloomer, but there are an infinite number of ways of being a late bloomer. The more complex a trait, the more ways a person can become a late bloomer for that trait.”

I certainly qualify into the Late Bloomer Club. I am not necessarily proud of this, but at least I’m not as ashamed of it as I was in my mid-twenties, looking around the furniture rental showroom where I worked as a outside sales rep, muttering to myself, “I just know I was meant to do Something Bigger. And as soon as I find what it is, well, look out, world.” Two years later, living in London as an expatriate wife, I wasn’t sure whether to feel proud or ashamed when my husband’s boss, observing me entertain her eleven-year-old daughter at a dinner party by spraying pressurized whipped cream onto my head, voiced this very thought. “When Terez figures out what it is she wants to do,” she murmured to my husband, “she’s going to really come alive.” Which, given my culinary antics of the night, which had our inebriated British guests highly entertained (or maybe just fearful), was really saying something. I’m not sure what. But I clung to this quasi-complimentary prophecy. It was all I had to go on.

Back to the unbloomed, untapped maybe-genius of my youth. I couldn’t have played the violin as a kid; I didn’t have the discipline, the motivation. I was dreamy, introverted, liked to read, ponder big thoughts, big concepts and then not do a thing about them. My grades, mostly Bs and Cs were “good enough.” They kept me off the radar screen, while at the same time confirming I did not share my six older siblings’ academic acumen. Few expectations were made of me, and this seemed for work for everyone—my parents, my teachers, myself. Low expectations meant more time to drift off, to dream, to vaguely plot how to do Something Big in my future, more glamorous life (an actress? A famed explorer?) before pushing aside homework in favor of reading trashy romantic novels that fired my imagination, if not my intelligence.

I finally began to bloom at age thirty-three, during the whipped-cream-hairspray expatriate-in-London period. I’d quit my despised sales job back in the U.S. and now happily tagged along with my husband as he flew to meetings in Milan, Paris, Frankfurt, Lausanne, Valencia, Amsterdam. It was a great life, rife with adventures, new sights and sounds, eye-opening experiences. I soon began to write about them, personal-essay style, which made three hours pass in the blink of an eye. And like that, I realized I was a writer. A week before my fortieth birthday, now based back in the U.S., a fictional character leapt into my head while I was struggling with a dull-but-marketable travel essay. He wouldn’t go away so I wrote a story about him that wouldn’t end, even after 30,000 words. Like a gong to my head it hit me that I was meant to write novels (a gong that hasn’t stopped reverberating through me, six years later, much as I’d like it to leave me alone, at least temporarily, please). Three years into novel-writing came the obsession with the violin and its music. A sweet obsession, a second wake-up gong much like the novel-writing one, that hasn’t, and probably won’t ever go away.

This, then, is the gift the late bloomer receives. After spending your life stumbling, feeling like everyone else received an operating manual and map at birth while you were out on a cigarette break, when you finally arrive at that right place, there’s this explosion of energy and motivation, along with crystalline clarity. Your sloppy, meandering journey of life now reveals its purpose to you and it all makes sense, even the stumbling. And what you have now, in addition to this insight, is a sense of dedication, of eternal affection and loyalty toward this vocation you finally unearthed.

The violin music that so nourishes me now—this is a more baffling one to ponder. How could I not have needed this? I loved classical music as a kid; it has always touched my soul. Had I been given the opportunity to play the violin as a child, might the instrument have called my name, turned me around?

I’m inclined to say no. And I must admit, I’m glad the opportunity didn’t present itself. I think I was always meant to be an adult beginner, a late bloomer. And the discovery of such a world, a door opening to you in your forties, is like being given a chance at a second life, one where you’re on the ball, you know what it is you want, there’s this sweet urgency to gobble down more, learn more, experience more. It’s a great feeling, albeit an exhausting one.

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all, this late bloomer business.


PS: Check out the rest of Scott Barry Kaufman's article here. It's worth a peek.


© 2009 Terez Rose 

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on February 27, 2009 at 10:42 PM

Terez, that was an eloquent story of your personal journey.  I'm glad that you have found work that you love.  Adult beginners are often looked down on by other people.  A lot of violin teachers won't even take adult beginners.  People often forget the advantages of starting to learn to play the violin when you have some maturity.  (I'm writing a blog about this now.)  I hope your blog will inspire other adult beginners to tell us their personal stories.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on February 28, 2009 at 12:05 AM

So, did the whipped cream on the head improve or detract from the fabulous English cuisine you were served?  (Insert smiley face here).

Actually, the adult students I have now are all are deeply motivated.  Which is good, of course!  Better late than never...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 28, 2009 at 12:33 AM

Despite starting violin as a child, I still feel like a late bloomer! What a great blog, Terez. :)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 28, 2009 at 2:39 AM

Thanks for your comments, Anne, Pauline and Laurie! Pauline – looking forward to reading your blog on the subject, from the teacher’s POV. Anne – the whipped cream went on top of the fruit salad I was serving as dessert, and the young girl (very quiet, very properly British) was so serious and shy, I was determined to get a chuckle out of her.  I don’t think she realized just how far an American would go to produce a chuckle. Silly her! But I got my chuckle (in a wary sort of way, like the way people smile at the woman who’s had too much to drink and thinks she can sing and looks good up there on top of the table). Laurie – you just keep blooming, girl, and we’ll keep profiting from it here! ((“Laurie Niles, interviewer to the stars, takes time from her busy routine to talk to the Atlantic Monthly about her early grassroots efforts at the esteemed”))


From Kim Vawter
Posted on February 28, 2009 at 2:54 AM

My first real teaching job out of college was in a college. The subject that I taught "Instructional Technology" was a required subject for other teachers. My best students were returning adult students 40+ years old. How I loved their enthusiasm! I loved the support they gave me as a first year teacher. They really wanted to know what it was that I was teaching them. I think that I had a class full of 'late-bloomers" that you described. It was a wonderful experience for me and I lasted in teaching 29 more years. A year before I retired from teaching, I took on the violin and I can claim to be a late bloomer in that pursuit. It is so difficult and so different from any other instrument I ever played or any activity or project that I ever took on that I am still fascinated by it 3 years later. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 28, 2009 at 4:13 AM

 >It is so difficult and so different from any other instrument I ever played or any activity or project that I ever took on that I am still fascinated by it 3 years later. 

Oh, Kim, you said it! And I'm so interested in your experience of teaching those 40-something women. Yes, I think it is a big facet of the late bloomer personality to say, "Hey! Let's take a continuing education class! Let's learn a foreign language! Let's take a class that will enhance skills in my current job! Cool!" I must say, the continuing education classes I've taken in the the years since I've gotten my college degree (at 22) are far more entertaining and enlightening than the classes that earned me a degree. I was just doing those classes because it was expected. The post-degree classes - dang, they're fun! Learning is fun! Who woulda thought it, back when I was struggling for that degree, vowing never to take any further advanced studies? And yes, this newfound motivation is a strong proponent of my interest in playing this difficult instrument. In a weird way, I almost welcome the fact that I will never master it. That means I will keep learning forever. Somehow that pleases me now.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 28, 2009 at 1:20 PM

I love this sentiment!  What a great blog.  But don't I also recall a blog about a beautiful and accomplished ballerina, in her early 20's? 

I'm just kidding, though, Terez.  I don't think your early ballet achievements disqualify you from late bloomer-hood.  I think, like others here, that it's also a state of mind.  And there are so many ways to bloom.

I started violin when I was 7 but I too still feel like a late bloomer in music.  I didn't begin to get over my stage fright and fear of performing until my late 20's, and I started to play the viola in my 30's.  And I'm having my first real recital in my 40's.  I'm a different enough kind of player now that it's almost a different instrument altogether.  I am grateful, though, for the muscle memory that came along for the ride.  That has made re-beginning easier.  Hats off to real adult beginners, who don't have that to fall back on!

This may not be true everywhere, but I'm noticing anecdotally that the viola seems to attract this kind of demographic (of midlife-blooming women).  I've had several of them as stand partners and they are all amazing people.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 28, 2009 at 2:06 PM

 Karen - enjoyed reading about your experience! Actually, yours and Mendy's (posted on the related thread I started on this subject, over at the discussion forum) stories are quite similar, having the burst of motivation/dedication as an adult, but the muscle memory from youth. Seems to me you two have found the best of both worlds.

As for this, I had to chuckle: 

>But don't I also recall a blog about a beautiful and accomplished ballerina, in her early 20's? 

Okay, you're right, I had a few triumphs in there. : ) Got my college degree, which, trust me, was a huge triumph for me (maybe because I was focusing so heavily on ballet those five years? My poor dad...). And then I served in the Peace Corps for two years in Africa, which was another biggie triumph. But it was almost surreal, that middle period, late twenties, when I really didn't know what came next, and it's not as if you can cling to ballet years at that age (or Peace Corps years, although God knows some of my compatriots tried). It's like the baffled, ungrounded feeling was default mode. Thank goodness that feeling is gone - I'm one of those people who would NEVER want to relive my younger, "better" years. I'm very happy being in my mid-40's, in that respect.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on February 28, 2009 at 7:02 PM

Yes, it's so true!  But you do not necessarly need to have a "sloppy past" to become a late bloomer.  But I know your posting was not about this in particular.  Sometimes you just didn't had the opportunity and found  something later on that you say oh my good I would have liked to start this young.  Yes, often, late bloomers are in creative fields! Do you know a 40 years old who started quantic physics for fun?  Maybe there is some but it must be rare! A very interesting thing you said is "I wouldn't have wanted to start violin sooner. (or something like this). On a TV program, a man passionated by painting said that if he had discovered this sooner, he would never have wanted to "push hard" to do the job he had. He would have become crazy about it!  As a teen starter, I can say that I am happy for technical reasons to have started at this age, I have been able to do the good choices fast ennough but I really have been blessed that things didn't go worst because such a meeting at such an age can do good and... bad things!

I explain all the advantages that I believe the persons who started after 20 have. (take is as a compliment for those who start after 20 and not as a "you should start after 20" because there is pros to start as all ages!)

-It doesn't interfere with their studies!  Yes it is troubling to discover your burning passion when you are at high school and have to make choices like do I take sciences or not? Do I still aim for 90 % or 70%.    I am very lucky to be able to be in the science program in college, not bright ennough to be the best but with two years older than the others, I started like a grandma because I didn't remember anything. You become obsolete very fast in these fields!  Late bloomers in college in science are extremely unfrequent. To say the truth, the teacher say they all quit because it is too hard!  If I would have push further my violin (trying to go in music a little longer, I would not have been able to go in this in college!  Of course, this field is my "survival" field only but I am happy to at least have had the possibility to go in it and to have a chance!

- If I would have been a little more fragile emotionally, discovering such a love + all the regrets that can come with ideas with  "why did I didn't find this before" "where would I have been if I had started at three" "do I go in music or not" could easily have make little damages in the head... I believe many persons could have take drugs or got drunk to forget all this.  For some persons, the emotional connection with music is really deep and we often forget it! Such questionning tortures the brain and can bring a big insecurity + lack of self esteem!

There is pros to discover music or an equivalent passion at any age, but I believe those who start after 20 are less encline to experience things similar to the above lines. (Maybe I'm totally wrong?)  So in this blog, let's celebrate them!

Nice blog!!!


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on March 1, 2009 at 1:58 AM

In many ways, I bloomed after my divorce.  I became excited about playing my violin again at that time.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2009 at 5:53 AM

Anne-Marie, you said it well!

And Pauline, you certainly wouldn't be the first woman to comment on post-divorce blooming. (Add my sister to that group. And boy, did she bloom!)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 2, 2009 at 5:39 PM

 On the subject of late beginner violinists and such, here's a link to a great site v.commie Jasmine Reese has started up, an e-magazine and discussion forum for "the late starter musician" that ppl might want to check out.

From David Wilson
Posted on March 3, 2009 at 12:36 AM

I know how you feel. I am another one. I didn't start playing violin seriously until I was 31..

At 39, I gave up on it.

At 42, I started improvising popular music on it.

At 44, Henry Mancini asked me to record with him.

At 49, I recorded my first album of my own.

At 50, I was signed to a label.

At 62, I released my 10th album. Sales exceed 150,000 units.

At 63, it's a challenge to keep up with the times.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 3, 2009 at 6:07 PM

David!!! I want to be your kind of late bloomer. : ) 

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