Late Bloomers Review

posted in: Aging, Midlife | 0

Rich Karlgaard’s Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement was not exactly the book I thought it was going to be, but it was still an interesting an instructive read.

The fault of it not being what I thought it would be rests with me and not Karlgaard. Despite a title that includes “a World Obsessed with Early Achievement,” I was not expecting the book to focus on early achievement as much as it did. Being well-past any chance of early achievement, I guess I wanted to rush to the Late Bloomer parts.

That said, the beginning of the book that deals with early achievement is fascinating and somewhat depressing. As someone who works in higher education, I am certainly aware of students’ desires to succeed in school and to gain productive and profitable employment once they graduate. That stress begins early on as students are pressured to get into college in the first place. Karlgaard’s research shows how detrimental these pressures can be.

Another aspect of the book that differed from my expectations is the wide range of ages encompassed by this idea of a “late bloomer.” I was anticipating that the book would be addressing later in life bloomers, but Karlgaard is referring to anyone who did not succeed early in life which could include people as young as in their 30s. That discrepancy does not mean Karlgaard’s book does not contain a great deal of insights and useful information when thinking about midlife or later.

As with my review of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, I’m not inclined to go in depth with the entire book but want to focus on just a few relevant observations.

One key part of Karlgaard’s argument is to challenge conventional notions of eventual decline as one ages.

He points to a 2015 study by Laura Germine and Joshua Hartshorne of Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT respectively. Their research shows that “different parts of our intelligence peak at different ages.” Karlgaard goes on to explain that

[t]he data showed that each cognitive skill peaked at a different age. For example, the speed of information processing appeared to peak early, around eighteen or nineteen. Short-term memory continued to improve until around twenty-five, then leveled off for another decade. The ability to evaluate complex patterns, including other people’s emotional states, on the other hand, peaked much later, when participants were in their forties or fifties.

That’s not to say cognitive decline isn’t a concern, but it is not necessarily a given, and it is something that we may have at least a little control over.

He also refers to a longitudinal study by K. Warner Schaie which originated at the University of Washington. Schaie and his research team

looked at how life events, such as the death of a spouse or recovery from a physical setback, affected the cognitive abilities of people at different ages. He discovered that many factors can speed up decline, but decline can also be slowed, or even reversed, such as by coming to terms with a spouse’s death. Continuing education, and a restless curiosity, will also slow the rate of decline.

These observations come from his chapter “A Kinder Clock for Human Development,” which is the most instructive one related to middle age. He goes on to quote this rather optimistic passage from the American Psychological Association:

“It seems that the middle-aged mind not only maintains many of the abilities of youth but actually acquires some new ones. The adult brain seems to be capable of rewiring itself well into middle age, incorporating decades of experiences and behaviors. Research suggests, for example, the middle-aged mind is calmer, less neurotic and better able to sort through social situations. Some middle-agers even have improved cognitive abilities.”

It’s therapeutic to keep in mind that our skills and abilities aren’t necessarily diminishing as we get older but changing. It may be helpful to understand what they are changing to in order to not mourn what we may have lost.

Karlgaard lists these changes as such:

As we get older, we develop new skills and refine others, including social awareness, emotional  regulation, empathy, humor, listening, risk-reward calibration, and adaptive intelligence. All these skills enhance our potential to bloom and rebloom.

This chapter sets the groundwork for the following one, “Worth the Wait: The Six Strengths of Late Bloomers.” He provides a detailed discussion of each, but in short, they are:

  • Curiosity
  • Compassion
  • Resilience
  • Equanimity
  • Insight
  • Wisdom

Although only part of the book addressed specific things I had in mind, it was an overall interesting and informative read.

If you’re interested in this topic and in Karlgaard’s research, he also presented a TED Talk.

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