Late Bloomers and the Benefits of Delayed Success

At a dinner party several years ago, a woman and I chatted about education and parenthood. I had just met her and when I told her about our unschooling approach to education that prioritizes self-directed learning, she was visibly perplexed. “Don’t you worry about outcomes?” she asked. Yes, I replied. I want my children to be highly literate and numerate, to live a meaningful life tied to their interests and talents, and to have a strong sense of personal agency. “Well,” she responded, “for my kids, it might as well be either the Ivy League or jail.” She was only half-kidding.

A Social Obsession with Early Accomplishments

The recent college admissions bribery scandal shows the lengths that some affluent parents will go to make sure their children get into elite colleges. But it’s not just wealthy parents who are worried about their child’s early success and college and career prospects. In his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, longtime Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard, writes about our societal obsession with early accomplishment and its potentially negative impact on both individuals and communities. He writes:

What I suggest is that parents, schools, employers, the media, and consumers of media are now crazily overcelebrating early achievement as the best kind of achievement or even the only kind. We do so at the cost of shaming the late bloomer and thus shortchanging people and society.

Karlgaard is clear in saying there is nothing inherently wrong with early achievement. Indeed, we are all better off thanks to the inventions of young entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who both dropped out of college years ago to pursue their revolutionary technology companies. The downside is that now we often look to early markers of a narrow definition of success as defining a person’s worth.

How children perform at school, what kind of test scores they get, what college they get into at 18 become sought-after signals of accomplishment. Karlgaard suggests several problems with this outlook, including marginalizing highly-talented young people who may not perform well in conventional schooling and grow up with a sense of being less than their peers. He writes:

When so many people believe they are inferior based on a few narrow measurements made when they were children, society as a whole suffers.

Mounting Pressure During Childhood

More troubling is the mounting pressure on parents and children to begin this trail of achievement in preschool, depriving children of freedom and play in the name of academic rigor and triggering skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide. Karlgaard writes:

Excessively promoting the primacy of early measurable achievement—grades, test scores, glamour job, money, celebrity—conceals a dark flipside: If we or our kids don’t knock our SATs out of the park, gain admittance to a top-ten university, reinvent an industry, or land our first job at a cool company that’s changing the world, we’ve somehow failed and are destined to be also-rans for the rest of our lives.

Karlgaard explains that this “societal madness for early achievement” can be damaging to many children and young people. They may appear successful on the outside, but on the inside, many are hurting. He writes:

Early bloomers are in the headlines, but are they succeeding as much as the media lead us to believe? In fact, many early bloomers are suffering terribly. The pressure to achieve early success led to three student suicides in the 2014–15 school year at Gunn High School, a public school in Palo Alto, California, three miles from the elite Stanford University campus. All were good students striving for early achievement. By March in the same school year, forty-two Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for suicidal thoughts.

Fortunately, Late Bloomers offers a dose of sanity for those of us who question the increasingly standardized, test-driven schooling model that can fuel a toxic early achievement culture, while also encouraging all of us that it’s never too late to pursue a passion, build a business, or change the world.

Late Bloomers

A late bloomer himself, Karlgaard had a hunch that there was great value in peaking later in life. His book is an extensively researched work that blends the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology with profiles of inspiring late bloomers to show that the push toward early achievement and career success may be unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

While research shows that individuals on average have rapid brain functioning and memory skills in their 20s, it’s in their 30s and 40s that strong executive functioning skills, empathy, and level-headedness kick in, and wisdom really emerges after 50. These more mature qualities can be critical in helping late bloomers to launch new, successful endeavors and enterprises.

A primary characteristic of late bloomers is curiosity which, Karlgaard argues, is abundant in young children and is steadily eroded through what he calls “America’s early-blooming conveyor belt.” Late bloomers seem to hold on to their curiosity despite societal efforts to weaken it. They are seekers and explorers who aren’t afraid to experiment.

Quitting Your Way to Success

They also aren’t afraid to quit. Late bloomers tend to reject the myth that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” recognizing the opportunity lost when we spend our time in a job or activity that isn’t serving us well and that may distract us from pursuing our true talents. Karlgaard explains the importance of quitting to success:

As part of our obsession with early achievement, we’ve turned quitting into a pejorative, an insult that cuts straight to our sense of self-worth. And that’s not just unfair, it’s destructive. In a drive to suppress individuality and reinforce cultural norms, society has turned one of the most effective tools for self-discovery into a proverbial four-letter word.

Ultimately, Karlgaard’s Late Bloomers book is a refreshing reminder that it’s okay to slow down and move through life at our own pace, following our own pathway. Don’t let the societal conveyor belt of preschool-to-college-to-career achievement drown out your talents or derail your potential. Know that it’s never too late to begin or to peak, and that there is often great value that comes with time. Karlgaard concludes:

If we’re not forced to conform to standard timetables for success, we can—and will—bloom on our own schedules. And we can do it with a deeper sense of mission and a greater feeling of contentment.

This is sage advice, both for us to take and to give to our children.

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The ADHD Overdiagnosis Epidemic Is a Schooling Problem, Not a Child One

Childhood exuberance is now a liability. Behaviors that were once accepted as normal, even if mildly irritating to adults, are increasingly viewed as unacceptable and cause for medical intervention. High energy, lack of impulse control, inability to sit still and listen, lack of organizational skills, fidgeting, talking incessantly—these typical childhood qualities were widely tolerated until relatively recently. Today, children with these characteristics are being diagnosed with, and often medicated for, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at an astonishing rate.

Early Schooling Contributes to Increased Diagnoses

While ADHD may be a real and debilitating ailment for some, the startling upsurge in school-age children being labeled with and medicated for this disorder suggests that something else could be to blame. More research points to schooling, particularly early schooling, as a primary culprit in the ADHD diagnosis epidemic.

Over the last several decades, young people are spending more time in school and school-like activities than ever before. They are playing less and expected to do more at very young ages. When many of us were kids, kindergarten was mellow, playful, and short with few academic expectations. The youngest children are the ones most often caught in the ADHD medical dragnet.Now, 80 percent of teachers expect children to learn to read in kindergarten. It’s not the teachers’ fault. They are responding to national curriculum frameworks and standardized testing requirements that over the past two decades have made schooling more oppressive—particularly for young children.

The youngest children are the ones most often caught in the ADHD medical dragnet. Last fall, Harvard researchers found that early school enrollment was linked to significantly higher rates of ADHD diagnosis. In states with a September 1 school enrollment age cutoff, children who entered school after just turning five in August were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children born in September who were about to turn six. Immaturity, not pathology, was the real factor.

The ADHD Fallacy

Marilyn Wedge, author of A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became An American Epidemic, sounds the alarm on ADHD overdiagnosis. In a Time Magazine article called “The ADHD Fallacy,” she writes:

By nature, young children have a lot of energy. They are impulsive, physically active, have trouble sitting still, and don’t pay attention for very long. Their natural curiosity leads them to blurt out questions, oblivious in their excitement to interrupting others. Yet we expect five- and six-year-old children to sit still and pay attention in classrooms and contain their curiosity. If they don’t, we are quick to diagnose them with ADHD.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percent of very young children (ages two to five) who were diagnosed with ADHD increased by over 50 percent between 2007/2008 and 2011/2012. As of 2016, data show that 9.4 percent of all American children, or over six million kids, had been diagnosed with ADHD, and almost two-thirds of current ADHD-diagnosed children were taking medication for it. A March 2019 report on ADHD by Blue Cross and Blue Shield found that among commercially insured children of all ages, ADHD diagnosis rates increased 30 percent in just eight years.

While the symptoms of ADHD may be troublesome, looking first at the environment, rather than the child, may be an important step toward curbing the ADHD diagnosis epidemic. In his book, ADHD Does Not Exist, Dr. Richard Saul, a Chicago behavioral neurologist, explains that individuals diagnosed with ADHD either have external factors that exacerbate normal symptoms or have some other underlying condition that should be identified and treated. In the latter instance, he finds that once the underlying condition is discovered and treated, the ADHD symptoms usually disappear. In the former instance, changing the environment is a key step toward improvement. This is true for both children and adults with an ADHD diagnosis. Dr. Saul writes:

Like many children who act out because they are not challenged enough in the classroom, adults whose jobs or class work are not personally fulfilling or who don’t engage in a meaningful hobby will understandably become bored, depressed and distracted. In addition, today’s rising standards are pressuring children and adults to perform better and longer at school and at work.

An Environmental Mismatch

Addressing an environmental mismatch for ADHD-diagnosed adults could mean switching one’s job or field of study or pursuing a true passion. Maybe you’re an accountant who wants to be a carpenter or a nurse who wants to be an entrepreneur. For ADHD children, changing the environment could mean removing children from restrictive schooling altogether. As Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray writes:

What does it mean to have ADHD? Basically, it means failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling. Most diagnoses of ADHD originate with teachers’ observations.

Jennifer Walenski saw firsthand how transformative removing her ADHD-diagnosed child from standard schooling could be. She shares her family’s journey at The Bus Story and told me:

Our kids were actually in public school originally. Our son also was diagnosed with both ADHD and autism while he was in the school system. And they wanted to medicate him. But we said no. Then we took him and his sister out of school and began homeschooling them. Fast forward several years, he has absolutely no need at all for medication. He is just a normal boy who did not belong in that kind of environment. And most of us don’t. Think about it.

Walenski’s experience echoes that of other parents who removed their ADHD-diagnosed children from standard schooling. In an informal survey analysis, Gray discovered that when ADHD-labeled children left school for homeschooling, most of them no longer needed medication for ADHD symptoms. Their ADHD characteristics often remained but were no longer problematic outside of the conventional classroom.

Self-Directed Learning

Gray’s analysis also revealed that the ADHD-labeled young people who fared best outside of standard schooling were those who were able to learn in a more self-directed way. He found that the

few kids in this sample who were still on ADHD medications during homeschooling seemed to be primarily those whose homeschooling was structured by the parent and modeled after the education one would receive in a conventional school.

Replicating school-at-home can also replicate the problematic behaviors found at school, whereas moving toward unschooling, or self-directed education, can give young people the freedom to flourish.

Ending the ADHD overdiagnosis epidemic depends on a societal reality check where we no longer pathologize normal childhood behaviors. Much ADHD-labeling originates from forced schooling environments with learning and behavioral expectations that are developmentally inappropriate for many children. Freeing young people from restrictive schooling and allowing them to learn and grow through their own self-directed curiosity can lead to happier and healthier families and children.

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Arbitrary Legality Makes Bad Laws

Recently, out of curiosity, I scanned the daily jail log for Curry County. I had never done so before and probably won’t do it again. Afterward, I felt guilty and was ashamed of myself.

I learned something interesting, though. Half of the people — five out of 10 — booked into the jail that particular day weren’t even accused of having done anything wrong; only things that have been arbitrarily declared illegal.

What’s the difference?

An act that violates an individual’s life, liberty, or property is wrong; a real crime, whether or not the law considers it a crime. These acts are wrong in and of themselves. The Latin term for this is “mala in se.”

Those booked into the jail that day and accused of having actually harmed someone were claimed to have either harmed others physically or to have violated someone’s property rights. Your main responsibility as a human is to respect the rights of others, so I have no sympathy for anyone who chooses to violate others.

This is assuming they actually did what they are accused of, which isn’t necessarily a reasonable assumption to make these days.

The other half of those jailed weren’t even suspected of harming anyone. The only justification for caging them was that they had offended the government in some way. Either they refused to identify themselves to a government employee, didn’t have the required permission papers, had forbidden substances, or tried to avoid being apprehended and kidnapped by an armed government employee. This makes these inmates political prisoners, not criminals. Even if I believed in punishment and imprisonment instead of justice, I wouldn’t believe these people deserved it. They are the real crime victims.

I understand why government would like for you and me to think of those things as crimes, but they aren’t They can’t be. Instead, these acts are “crimes” only because someone wrote legislation designating them so — a made-up rule with no ethical foundation. “Crimes” only because government employees say so. The Latin term for these acts is “mala prohibita.”

If you get aroused by punishing others, you probably don’t care. “It’s the LAW! It has to be obeyed,” you might insist.

Still, if you want your laws to be respected, you’ll first need to make them respectable. A good beginning is to get rid of all those laws based on nothing but the empty opinions of politicians.

This would eliminate all of your counterfeit mala prohibita “laws.”

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Focus as an Antidote for Wanting to Do Everything

I have a problem, and I think most people do as well: I want to do everything.

OK, not actually every single thing, but I want to do more than I possibly can:

  • I want to do everything on my long to-do list, today
  • I want to take on every interesting project
  • I want to say yes to everyone else’s requests, even if I know I’m already too busy
  • I want to travel everywhere, and see everything that’s interesting
  • I want to try every delicious food, and I always want more of it (and I always eat too much)
  • I want to watch every interesting TV show and film
  • I want to read everything interesting online
  • I want to take on a lot of interesting hobbies — each of which would take me many hours to master
  • I want to spend time with everyone I love, with every friend — and also have a lot of time for solitude!

Obviously, this is all impossible. But I bet I’m not alone in constantly wanting all of this and more.

There’s a term for this in Buddhism that sounds judgmental but it’s not: “greed.” The term “greed” in this context just describes the very human tendency to want more of what we want.

It’s why we’re overloaded with too many things to do, overly busy and overwhelmed. It’s why we’re constantly distracted, why we overeat and shop too much and get addicted to things. It’s why we have too much stuff, and are in debt.

Greed is so common that we don’t even notice it. It’s the foundation of our consumerist society. It’s the ocean that we’re swimming, so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we can’t see that it’s there.

So what can we do about this tendency called greed? Is there an antidote?

There absolutely is.

The traditional antidote to greed in Buddhism is generosity. And while we will talk about the practice of generosity, the antidote I’d like to propose you try is focus.

Focus is a form of simplicity. It’s letting go of everything that you might possibly want, to give complete focus on one important thing.

Imagine that you want to get 20 things done today. You are eager to rush through them all and get through your to-do list! But instead of indulging in your greed tendency, you decide to simplify. You decide to focus.

Let’s talk about the practice of complete focus. It can be applied to all of the

The Practice of Complete Focus

This practice can be applied to all of the types of greed we mentioned above — wanting to do everything, read everything, say yes to everything, go everywhere, eat all the things.

Identify the urge: The first step in this practice is to recognize that your greed tendency is showing itself. Notice that you want to do everything, eat everything, and so forth. Once we’re aware of the tendency, we can work with it.

See the effects: Next, we need to recognize that indulging in the greed tendency only hurts us. It makes us feel stressed, overwhelmed, always unsatisfied. It makes us do and eat and watch and shop too much, to the detriment of our sleep, happiness, relationships, finances and more. Indulging might satisfy a temporary itch, but it’s not a habit that leads to happiness or fulfillment.

Practice refraining: Third, we can choose to refrain — choose not to indulge. The practice of refraining is about not indulging in the greed tendency, and instead pausing. Noticing the urge to indulge, and mindfully noticing how the urge feels in our body, as a physical sensation. Where is it located? What is it like? Be curious about it. Stay with it for a minute or two. Notice that you are actually completely fine, even if the urge is really strong. It’s just a sensation.

Focus with generosity: Then we can choose to be generous and present with one thing. Instead of trying to do everything, choose just one thing. Ideally, choose something that’s important and meaningful, that will have an impact on the lives of others, even if only in a small way. Let this be an act of generosity for others. Let go of everything else, just for a few minutes, and be completely with this one thing. Generously give it your full attention. This is your love.

Clear distractions: If necessary, create structure to hold you in this place of focus. That might mean shutting off the phone, turning off the Internet, going to a place where you can completely focus. Think of it as creating your meditation space.

Practice with the resistance: As you practice focus, you are likely to feel resistance towards actually focusing and doing this one thing. You’ll want to go do something else, anything else. You’ll feel great aversion to doing this one thing. It’s completely fine. Practice with this resistance as you did with the urge: noticing the physical sensation, meditating on it with curiosity, staying with it with attention and love. Again, it’s just a sensation, and you can learn to love it as you can any experience.

Let go of everything, and generously give your complete focus to one thing. Simplify, and be completely present.

You can do this with your urge to do all tasks, read all things, do all hobbies, say yes to all people and projects. But you can also do it with possessions: choose just to have what you need to be happy, and simplify by letting go of the rest. You can do the same with travel: be satisfied with where you are, or with going to one place and fully being there with it.

You don’t need to watch everything, read everything, eat everything. You can simplify and do less. You can let go and be present. You can focus mindfully.

If you’d like to train in this kind of focus, train with me in my Mindful Focus Course.

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A Simple Mindful Method to Deal with Tiredness, Loneliness & Stress

“I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.” ~Byron Katie

A loved one has been going through a hard time, dealing with tiredness, stress, and loneliness, and my heart goes out to them as it does anyone going through such struggles.

They can break your heart, these difficult emotions.

But beyond compassion, what I tried to help her with is a fairly simple method for dealing with these difficulties mindfully. I offer it to you all as well, as something to practice and test out.

Here’s the method, to practice if you’re feeling stress, frustration, loneliness, sadness, tiredness:

  1. Notice that you’re feeling this difficult emotion, and notice how it feels in your body. Bring a sense of curiosity to the sensations, just being present with them for a moment.
  2. Notice what thoughts you have in your head that are causing the emotion. For example, you might be thinking, “They shouldn’t treat me like that” or “Why does my job have to be so hard?” or “These people are stressing me out! Things should be more settled and orderly.” Or something like that. Just notice whatever thoughts you have. Maybe write them down.
  3. Notice that the thoughts are causing your difficulty. Not the situation — the thoughts. You might not believe that at first, but see if you can investigate whether that’s true.
  4. Ask yourself, “What would it be like if I didn’t have these thoughts right now? What would my experience be right now?” The simple answer is that you’re just having an experience — you have feelings in your body, but you also are experiencing a moment that has light, colors, sound, touch sensation on your skin, and so on. It’s just an experience, a moment in time, not good or bad.
  5. In fact, while this experience is neither good nor bad, you can start to appreciate it for what it is, without the thoughts. Just seeing it as a fresh experience, maybe even appreciating the beauty of the moment. Maybe even loving the moment just as it is.

Obviously some of these might take some practice. But it’s worth it, because while you might not be able to get rid of tiredness (some rest would help there), you can let go of the thoughts about the tiredness that are causing you to be unhappy. You might not be able to get rid of the loneliness, but you can let go of the downward spiral of thoughts and emotions that make the situation worse.

And just maybe, you can find some incredible love for your experience in this moment. Yes, you feel tired, but you can love the tiredness, and everything else in this moment, without needing anything to change.

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Irresponsibility Is the Youth-Killer

There’s this myth in our culture that youth is a blank check to be irresponsible. “Have fun and cut loose a little,” older folks tell us, not without a little envy.

But being young is not the opposite of being responsible. And to be carefree is not the same as to be irresponsible. In fact, irresponsibility is the youth-killer – the very reason that our older friends and family look and feel the part of the elderly before their time.

The 20 or 30 year-old who eats irresponsibly (“donuts! pizza!” etc.) becomes the overweight and chronically-ill 40 or 50-year old.

The 20 or 30 year-old who manages finances irresponsibly (“let’s go out for margaritas every night!” etc.) becomes the 40 or 50 year-old with no retirement plan and debt which will outlive them.

The 20 or 30-year old who fails to take responsibility in work (“I just want to have a high-status job,” etc. ) becomes the corporate drone, the underachiever, or the sycophantic overachiever at 40 or 50.

The 20 or 30-year old who dates irresponsibly (“I’m just looking for a good time!”) becomes the 40 or 50-year old with one or more divorces.

This should scare you very much.

Time goes quickly (as 20-somethings discover), and action inevitably seeks its consequences. If you would keep your youth, dump this idea that your youth gives you so much margin for error. You can make some mistakes, but you can’t afford to live destructive lifestyles day-in and day-out.

Run like hell from people who want you to squander your youth with them.

Youth is a gift your parents’ responsibility gives you at birth. It’s a gift you only get to keep if you choose the path of responsibility. That path of responsibility is the only thing which maintains the attributes of youth which we (rightly) love: good health, strength, freedom, curiosity of mind, beauty.

These things we value take great work and great care. And they can last for a tremendously long time. There are 70-somethings running long distances and 80-somethings skiing down mountains. And you can be one of them.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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