The transition to a creative profession at mid-career often requires an extra dose of resilience. Make sure you’re not buying into cultural myths that could keep you from moving forward.
This week I caught up with two friends, each of whom are contemplating a mid-career shift that involves creative work.
One friend had put her early career as an actress on hold when she had her family, and now, with a looming empty nest, is contemplating how she wants to revive her professional life. She knows that creative work will always be central to what she wants to do, but that it won’t - and can’t - look like the professional identity had in her twenties and thirties.
Another friend is approaching this shift from a different angle. After 20+ years in the corporate tech world, she feels a strong pull to pursue something different, something more expressive and creative. Her first step was to go back to school, where she earned a degree in English Literature, “for fun” and to see where her passion for writing and literature leads.
Both women know the general direction they want to go in, but their complete roadmap for ‘what’s next’ is just starting to materialize. At the same time, they are each circling some version of the question, ‘Is it too late for me to begin down this path?’
My conversations with these two friends made me realize that those of us contemplating a career transition into a creative field face a special set of challenges.
For one thing, creative fields differ from other professions in that they generally don’t offer a clear path to professional independence or success. Almost every working writer or artist I know had to forge their own unique professional path to get to where they are now.
More significantly, professionals transitioning to a creative career at mid-life are also required to have a greater degree of resilience, and even courage. It’s always challenging to put your voice or your vision out into the world and hope that it will resonate with others.
The mid-life creative career changer also has to contend with the predominant idea in our society that the creative professions are mostly the domain of the young.
Reality is quite different from the myth, although far less known or acknowledged in our culture. I know of many creative professionals who have found their voice, realized their vision, after they raised children, pursued other careers, or simply lived full, rich lives doing other things. But I also have to acknowledge that the myth of the young creative genius is alive and well in our culture.
That’s why I was so glad to come across Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker, “Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?”
In it, he does a deep dive into the preconceived ideas we have about who gets to be creative in our society, and through comprehensive research and analysis, reveals how predominant the shift to creative proficiency is at mid-life and beyond.
“Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.”
The article is fascinating because it reveals what is behind the concept of the “late bloomer”. He identifies two types of creative people in the world — the “conceptual prodigy” and the “experimental innovator”. Those of us who are “late bloomers” invariably fall into the latter category. The creative work that 'experimentals' do needs the earlier stages of fermentation and growth to lay the foundation for the creative work we’re driven to produce.
“The [Experimentals] of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.”
Gladwell explains how both types of creatives have flourished and contributed enduring works of art through the ages, but only the “conceptual prodigy” has come to dominate in our society’s image of the success story.
Speaking of Cezanne as an example of the “experimental innovator”, he says,
“The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.”
For those of us contemplating a transition to a creative career in our 40s, 50s or 60s, it can be heartening to learn there is more than one path to success.
Join the Conversation
What are your thoughts on creativity and age?
Have you found yourself thinking it was too late to explore a creative profession or talent because you didn’t start when you were younger?
Or are you a late bloomer who has transitioned to a creative profession after years focused on other work?