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On being a late bloomer

An interesting – and reassuring – article from one of last year’s New Yorker magazines. It compares the work of Picasso and Cezanne and notes that Picasso did his best work in his 20s, fitting our usual ideas about genius. Cezanne, on the contrary, did his best work in his 60s. He was a late bloomer. The writer, Malcolm Gladwell , who could himself be termed something of a precocious young genius, examines the different approaches to their work taken by these two species. Prodigies, he writes, ‘start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it.’ According to the piece, Picasso said: “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’….in my opinion, to find is the thing.” Late bloomers, on the other hand, work in exactly the opposite way. The article finds that their approach is experimental, their goals imprecise and therefore their procedure tentative and incremental. They build their skills slowly, over a period of years, and rarely feel they have succeeded.

We often forget, those of us with the urge for recognition in our field, and immersed in a culture that fetishises youth and instant success, that people achieve at different times and speeds during a working life. Young geniuses abound – or appear to – but late bloomers are more difficult to spot. For every Zadie Smith, whose breakthrough novel White Teeth was completed during her final year at college, there is a William Golding, who was rejected by 21 publishers before his novel, Lord of the Flies, was accepted. But in the wake of eventual success, how often are those 21 rejections discussed?

The message is: don’t give up, even in the dark times. It is not a new one – Churchill told us to ‘never give in’, Camus imagined ‘Sisyphus happy’, while Beckett, of course, wrote that one must ‘try again, fail again, fail better’ – but it is an easy one, especially in these ephemeral, insubstantial times, to forget.

As Gladwell writes in the New Yorker, sometimes “genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.”

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