It's Never Too Late to Be Successful and Happy

Larry Cornett, Ph.D.
What I suggest is that parents, schools, employers, the media, and consumers of media are now crazily over-celebrating 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.” - Rich Karlgaard

Comparison kills

Comparison of achievements is not healthy. Comparison of progress isn’t very helpful either. You don’t want to compare what you have accomplished at your age to what anyone else has by that age (e.g., “Susan was a millionaire by 28. What’s wrong with me?”). That type of comparison kills confidence, happiness, and hope.

Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt

You know what I’m talking about. I wish that I could find the meme that I recently read. But, essentially it stated:

When my parents were my age, they were married with children, had great jobs, and they owned their house. I’m sitting here tonight in my crappy apartment, with my cat, alone in the dark, binging on Stranger Things.

That’s the kind of comparison that can keep you trapped in a job you hate because you’re making good money and waiting for your stock options to vest. You are busy chasing the symbols of success that you see others accumulating. In the back of your mind, you hope that happiness and a sense of fulfillment will magically happen later.

Hey, I get it. For the majority of my career, I was doing that too.

The wrong kind of comparison is deadly. It puts your focus on all the wrong things. But, there is a healthy type of comparison that can be useful. You can observe what someone else is doing and learn a new process or technique that might work for you too. You can review the path they took and eliminate unnecessary twists and turns.

You can find what I like to call a “career hero” and learn from their successful habits, as well as the mistakes they made. Sometimes, people are quite willing to share their stories and help others avoid missteps.

What is so amazing about this is that it means you still have time. You don’t need to have it all figured out. Don’t worry that what you have tried so far hasn’t led to happiness yet. You can still pursue fulfillment. It’s never too late to achieve the success that is meaningful for you.

Why are we obsessed with early success?

It wasn’t always like this. When I was growing up, there were late bloomers — myself included — and the expression was used to reassure you that everything was going to be ok. If anything, there was a concern when someone seemed to be growing up “too quickly.” Those kids got into all kinds of trouble.

Your life and career were supposed to have a steady linear timeline. Finish high school, go to college, get your degree, land your first real job, get married, work hard, get noticed, move up steadily, buy a home, start a family, get promoted into management, make more money, and so on until you eventually retired to fish and play golf.

Most of the people I knew, and even famous people, were on slow and steady career paths like that. It was considered normal. You had to pay your dues and put in your time. There were no “whiz kids” or overnight success stories.

  • Raymond Chandler was 51 when his first book was published
  • Ray Kroc was 52 years old when he started McDonalds
  • J.K. Rowling was 32 when Harry Potter was published
  • Colonel Harland David Sanders was 65 years old when he started Kentucky Fried Chicken
  • Julia Child was 49 years old when her first cookbook was published
  • Bob Ross spent 20 years with the U.S. Air Force and only started his famous painting show on PBS when he was 41
  • Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn at age 49.

I definitely noticed a shift in the 90s. The trend toward faster achievement and earlier success has only accelerated since then. Parents, who were often the first generation of their families to graduate from college, pressured their own children to get better grades and test scores. They wanted them to graduate from college more quickly, and climb the corporate ladder rapidly to pay off those debts.

A generation who had witnessed their own parents with lifetime jobs, including guaranteed retirement and pension plans, expected the same. But, instead, found themselves laid off or forced out to make way for younger and more affordable employees. The media began focusing on a whole new wave of young celebrities in the music and film industries.

The Tech ecosystem shifted from traditional hardware and software companies, which often had older employees and leadership, into a new era of Internet companies with younger employees and founders. The average age of an employee at IBM? 38. The average age at Facebook? 28. As children grew up with computers and the Internet, a whole new generation of founders exploded onto the scene (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel, Brian Chesky, Kevin Systrom).

Now, it’s all the rage for the media to fawn over the youngest multimillionaires and billionaires. Forbes has its 30 Under 30 list. The New Yorker has its 20 under 40 list. Heck, even Time magazine has its 25 most influential teens.

Given the media attention, the acceleration that tech has brought into our lives, and the expectations brought on by constant comparison at our fingertips (thank you, Instagram), it’s no wonder this increased pressure has created an obsession with early success.

Why it’s all wrong

Early success doesn’t necessarily lead to lasting success. We’re all quite familiar with the child stars who skyrocketed to the top and then were destroyed by that fame. It has happened with a number of pro athletes as well.

The business world isn’t immune either. Yes, there are certainly some early success stories who went on to more success or were happy with what they achieved and content with fading out of the spotlight. But, there are also a significant number of people who achieved early success and became disillusioned. They found out that lasting success isn’t about money, fame, and material possessions.

This concept of “early success or no success” isn’t just harmful to the shooting stars, of course. It also damages the majority of people who don’t meet that definition of the young superstar. They feel like they aren’t good enough. They always feel like they are behind. They keep sprinting for the wrong finish line. They feel like failures when they see peers passing them by. They become frustrated and depressed when they watch their friends becoming multimillionaires at the latest hot startup.

But, we all develop on a different timeline. The “race” we are running is a one-person event. The most important comparison is to yourself. Are you doing better than you were last year? Are you a better person than you were yesterday? Are you learning and growing? Are you slowly figuring out what you really want, what makes you happy, and what fulfillment means for you?

Finally, it’s wrong because it is so fatalistic. This belief leads us to think that we are what we are. That things become increasingly solidified and set in stone as we grow older. You’re either a success by 30, or it’s now clear that you never will be a success. If you haven’t achieved your dreams, just give up and settle for less. Head to the local bar after work and drink away your sorrows.

We don’t have to accept that fate. I’m in my 50s now and I’m still changing all the time. If anything, I am even more aware of what makes me feel happy and fulfilled. So I’m continuously improving, adjusting my career, and changing my life. I mean, what’s the alternative? To settle for being miserable? No thanks.

Don’t you dare give up!

First, don’t ever feel like it’s too late to have what you want in life. Don’t give in to a feeling of hopelessness. History shows us that talented people are capable of having amazing success for the rest of their lives. Grit matters. I know people who are still pursuing their big dreams in their 70s and 80s. Don’t give up!

Second, stop comparing yourself to others in all the wrong ways. I know you've heard this before. We all have. And, yet, we keep doing it. Sometimes it is a conscious comparison (e.g., “My friend just took his company public and became a billionaire. What have I accomplished?”). Sometimes it is a subconscious comparison that is happening in the back of your mind as you mindlessly scroll through Instagram and see your friends doing exciting things on an amazing vacation.

Third, always be dreaming. I talked about this in my story, “Guess Why Dreaming Big Isn't a Waste of Time". Dreaming gives you a clarity of purpose that will light up every opportunity that comes your way. It allows you to seize the moment instead of letting things slip by. And, it never has to stop.

Fourth, always be planning. Dreams are inspiring and they can help you recognize opportunities. But, you will need a plan to put ideas into motion and take meaningful action. Plan and be ready.

Finally, discipline, persistence, and progress matter more than you would imagine. James Clear talks about this in his book, Atomic Habits. Consistently making small changes and improvements in your life will accumulate into amazing results over time.

I’ve always been a late bloomer and that used to bother me so much. But, I’ve increasingly learned to appreciate it over my lifetime. I may be slower to find my path forward, but it feels better and better all the time. It helps me avoid crazy fits and starts, and massive failures. It feels like I’ve been slowly sculpting my life out of a block of marble, revealing more of what it is meant to be.

But, more than anything, I’ve focused on making my happiness, success, and fulfillment about me and what is right for me vs. comparing myself to others. I finally learned that I don’t want what they have. I also don’t want to live the life that they are forced to live in order to have what they have.

It’s never too late to uncover your own path to success and fulfillment!

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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach, career advisor, and business advisor at Invincible Career® in Northern California. He spent more than two decades in the tech industry launching new businesses, products, and services. He was a Product and Design executive at several tech companies in Silicon Valley; including his own startup, a product strategy and design consultancy, Apple Computer, Yahoo, eBay, and IBM.

Palo Alto, CA

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