Late Boomers?

Michael Metzger

Are they Picassos or Cézannes?

There’s a flurry of 50ish baby boomers entering “second acts.” If they are Picassos, the second half isn’t likely to be any better than the first. If, however, they are Cézannes, these “late boomers” could make a positive contribution in the faith community.

Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece contrasting Picasso, a prodigy, and Cézanne, a late bloomer.1 Picasso’s career as a serious artist began at age 20 with his masterpiece, “Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas.” Today, the paintings done in Picasso’s mid-20s are worth an average of four times as much as paintings done in his 60s. For Cézanne, the opposite is true. A late bloomer, the paintings he created in his mid-60s are valued 15 times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man.

This runs contrary to a popular assumption that creativity is a young person’s game. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at 25. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late 20s, culminating, at age 32, with “Moby Dick.” A few years ago, David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago, decided to find out whether this assumption was true. Studying major poetry anthologies as well as great films, he concluded there is no evidence for the notion that prodigies are more creative than late bloomers. Some do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Creativity occurs throughout life. It’s the implications of people peaking early or late that matter the most.

Prodigies start with a road map of where they want to go and then they follow it. For example, Picasso rarely engaged in open-ended exploration. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’” he once said. Late bloomers work the other way around. They follow a compass. Their approach is experimental, Galenson writes. It is the difference between the two approaches that has significant implications.

The first is that prodigies are certain early on about what they want to say. Picasso was very good at his craft at an early age. Cézanne wasn’t. Late bloomers begin by knowing what they don’t want to say. They go against the grain, like an Old Testament prophet. Cézanne was a poor painter in his early years because he was finding his voice, just as Mark Twain did. Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on “Huckleberry Finn” so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete. “The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition,” Gladwell notes, “but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.”

Certainty versus searching yields the second implication—the marketplace works well for prodigies, not for late bloomers. Picasso’s talent was so blindingly obvious that, at age 20, an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris. Late bloomers, on the other hand, start without a plan, and have to experiment and learn by doing. This usually requires patrons to see them through the long and difficult time it takes for their work to reach its true level. In the U.S., where self-reliance is held to be almost sacred, most late bloomers go bust.

“Patron,” writes Gladwell, has “a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace.” But the marketplace rarely supports late bloomers because, as Gladwell notes, it “can’t make sense of them.” Cézanne survived solely because of his small inner circle of patrons that included Emile Zola, his coach; Camille Pissarro, who taught him how to be a painter; Ambrose Vollard, the sponsor of Cézanne’s first one-man show, (when Cézanne was 56); and the banker Louis-Auguste, who first paid Cézanne bills at the age of 22. The “lesson of the late bloomer,” Gladwell concludes, is that “his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others.”

The lesson of the prodigy is different. Because they peak early on, they often plateau early, as Picasso did. Bored, prodigies then poke around for a “second act.” A recent Wall Street Journal article told four stories of four people in their “second acts.”2 A 62 year-old pathologist became a photographer. “I ran out of passions in the medical field in my mid-50s.” A self-described “workaholic and couch potato” accountant quit his work and now runs marathons at age 66. A 55 year-old woman described putting in 80-hour workweeks as a management consultant in Manhattan. Now she runs a farm producing goat cheese. All three peaked early and then began to pursue other things. One woman, however, seemed different. Barbara Chandler Anderson is 62 years old and today works as director of an educational foundation. She describes it as the culmination of the skills gained from her previous jobs. She lives on a small income derived from patrons. Of the four, which are Picassos? Which are Cézannes?

These questions have implications for the faith community. According to one bestselling author, the driving force in the first half of life is success. After “halftime,” it becomes significance. This sounds suspiciously like Picasso. Success-to-significance might have been the unfortunate experience of the author, but to make it the uniform experience for all is quite another matter. Scripture makes it clear that success and significance matter throughout life. There is no halftime. When Picassos make paradigmatic their particular early-success-and-plateau story, it can create all sorts of problems, especially since midlife boomers are now flocking to seminaries.

According to the Association of Theological Schools, the 50+ demographic now makes up 20 percent of all new students. That’s up from just 12 percent since 1995. If this demographic thinks more like Picasso, it will likely perpetuate the misguided model of success-to-significance. If, however, this demographic includes Cézannes, or “late boomers,” the faith community could gain a prophetic voice that proves false the “halftime” message. It could appreciate how creativity occurs throughout life—and begin to value the work of Cézannes as well as Picassos.

1 Malcolm Gladwell, “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” The New Yorker, October 28, 2008
2 Kristi Essick, Second Acts,” The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2011, R7.


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  1. Mike

    Thanks for the thoughtful article.

    “A 62 year-old pathologist became a photographer. “I ran out of passions in the medical field in my mid-50s.” A self-described “workaholic and couch potato” accountant quit his work and now runs marathons at age 66. A 55 year-old woman described putting in 80-hour workweeks as a management consultant in Manhattan. Now she runs a farm producing goat cheese. All three peaked early and then began to pursue other things.”

    I don’t think I like the implied assumption that a photographer, marathon runner and goat cheese farmer are somehow less valuable than a pathologist, consulant and accountant.

    As far as shalom goes, I think I like the later….


  2. Chris:

    There was no implied assumption as to one vocation being better than another. Don’t miss the forest for the trees – the point is that “let boomers’ won’t do much good if they operate inside the “halftime” framework.

  3. Mike,

    Thanks for your article “Late Bloomers?”

    I believe that a “successful man” is the man that finds the will of God for his life and then does it.

    He does that by obeying Scripture command that Paul gives us in Romans 12:1-6.

    “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us…”

    There are alot of saved men that have not yet presented their “bodies” to God so he can show them his will for their lives and then use them for his glory.

  4. Of course! Late bloomers can have a series of acts – second, third, and fourth. They fit, however, inside one story that doesn’t have a halftime where the basic motivations change.

  5. Makes me wonder if the late bloomer did enough first half and prodigy on the second half? Are we designed to only handle so much and most of us are (mostly) level at whatever performance standard we are blessed with? I’d put myself in the late bloomer category and wanting to do something of significance before I go and would like to think I’d put in a good first half! Makes a big assumption I have another half left!!

  6. Speaking as a late bloomer now preparing for my fourth act, I couldn’t agree more. It’s not so much bloom where you’re planted as much as bloom when you’re ready to flourish.

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