It’s hard to predict when you’ll enjoy your most productive periods in life. For some people, their years of productivity come early, and then they just ride out the remainder of their lives based on early successes. Albert Einstein, to take an example, was one of those people. In fact, most major scientists seem to achieve their major breakthroughs before they reach the age of 50. After that, there seem to follow decades of “coasting” on past successes.
Einstein, as well as most of the other great physicists of the early 20th century, practically exploded onto the scene. His great discoveries–the law of the photoelectric effect, special relativity, and general relativity–all took place when he was not a major academic figure. In fact, his best work was done while he was laboring as a lowly patent clerk in Switzerland. But he always was busy, and he always pursued his passions, without any thought for what others might say or think. His contrarian attitudes arguably enabled him to resist the temptations of conformist, boilerplate thinking.
Other great men were different. Some literary figures, it seems, only develop their craft when they have reached a mature age. Perhaps this has something to do with the differences between scientific achievement and literary achievement.
One could argue that literary achievement requires a certain seasoning, a certain worldly wisdom, and a perspective, that writers in their formative years can’t really match. (Poetry, that most creative of written forms, may be an exception: many great poets were brilliant in their youths. Lucan, for example, composed the epic Pharsalia while in his early 20s.)
One such “late bloomer” was Miguel de Cervantes.
His father was an itinerant physician, scratching out an uncertain living from the generosity, and the ailments, of the peasants with whom he disdained to rub shoulders. At age 22 he had some of his poems published by a Madrid teacher, and in the same year was banished from Spain for ten years as punishment for dueling. In 1571 he signed as a seaman in the armada assembled by Don Juan of Austria (most likely to escape prison) and saw action against the Turks at Lepanto, enduring three wounds and the loss of use of his left hand.
In 1575 he and his brother Rodrigo, on their way back to Spain, were captured by Saracen pirates and (as was customary at the time) impressed into slavery in Algiers. For five years he was held in bondage. His sisters tapped into their marriage dowries, his mother tapped her friends and contacts, and together they raised the five hundred crowns needed to ransom him. From this experience he gained a wealth of stories, a knowledge of Arabic and of Islamic customs, and a genially philosophic view of life. But perhaps this was enough. He returned to Spain rich in nothing but experience.
Further military adventures brought him little except a healthy skepticism of swordplay and war. In 1584 he married a loyal and patient woman named Catalina, eighteen years younger than he, and oversaw the publication of a mediocre romance titled Galatea; further efforts as a playwright produced little in the way of lucre. Appointed a tax collector at Grenada in 1594, he was eventually jailed for ninety days on suspicion of embezzlement; released, our hero was locked up again in Argamasilla. Like his Portuguese contemporary Camões and his English predecessor Thomas Malory, he found prison a wonderful concentrator of literary effort, and there completed the manuscript for what would eventually become one of the most cherished novels in world literature, Don Quixote.
The first volume of Don Quixote was published in 1605, when Cervantes was 58 years old. He had written some comparatively minor works before this, but 58 is an unusually late age for literary success. The second volume of his masterpiece did not appear until Cervantes was actually in his late 60s. Some men need time to find the full resonance of their voices.
The restaurant owner Ray Croc (of McDonald’s fame) also found success late in life. Born in 1902, he had experimented with a number of different careers (salesman, musician, even radio DJ) before taking a chance on buying a small hamburger restaurant in the 1950s. The rest was history, of course, but he had seen his share of rough times. He once said something to the effect that “I was an overnight success, but that success took 30 years.”
The historian Thucydides did not write his great history until late in his life. And the great American historian William H. Prescott wrote his histories of the Spanish conquest of the Americas while he was practically blind. He was blinded by a freak accident while at college: someone threw a crust of bread at him in a dining hall, and it hit him in the eye. It sounds too bizarre to be true, but it is true. You just don’t know where or when your big break is going to come from. That’s why you’ve got to do all you can to cultivate and nurture your interests during your life.
My own personal experiences bear this out.
You may be surprised to know that I never did any creative writing of any kind until I began submitting articles to website run by a friend back in early 2013. I always had a storehouse of ability, creativity, and knowledge in my head, which came from my experiences of reading, travel, and life in general. But I needed a trigger…I needed a spark. One day I just decided to start doing it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
And some personal difficulties I was going through around that time caused me to take pen to paper. I had even tried my hand at painting pictures, believe it or not. The results of these experiments are on my Instagram account; and readers will instantly see why I prefer writing to painting.
I was able to turn my anguish, emotion, experience, knowledge, passion, zeal, and my intensity into prose. And the result was that (arguably) I either created a new genre for a new era, or breathed new life into a completely forgotten genre, one that had not been seen since the days of Plutarch, Montaigne, or Bacon: the moral or ethical essay employing themes from history, biography, and philosophy.
I never actually planned to be a writer. But some things are fated to be. Some voices just will be heard, no matter what. Some people just come from nowhere. But I knew I had a voice, and I knew that voice needed to be heard. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) had a similar start. How did he start writing? He was sitting in his living room one day, we are told, reading one of those boring 19th century novels of the day. Closing the book and flinging it down, he announced to his wife that he could do better.
“Well, why don’t you try to?” was her response.
“Maybe I will,” he fumed.
And the result was a string of beautiful books about the American frontier, including Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, and the Last of the Mohicans. These books are true classics, and without doubt Cooper accomplished his goal of bettering his predecessors.
If you have an interest in anything, cultivate it. Practice it. It can be nearly anything. Some are incredibly skilled at fixing machines.
Some people are great cooks.
Or musicians. Or tailors. Or seamstresses. Or salesmen. Or actors. Or animal trainers. Or photographers. Or whatever.
It doesn’t really matter what it is.
Don’t try to imitate other people. Don’t try to mimic what others do. Do not denigrate the abilities of others. Focus on yourself.
You will never achieve anything unless your efforts are genuine, and come from within you.
Sincerity is the mother of invention, as much as is necessity.
You never know when it will explode into something creative. If the interest is there, and the passion is there, all you need is a spark. You will have your moment.
And when it comes, you will surprise yourself with how much creative potential is inside you, locked away for just that moment. You will both inspire yourself, and others.
So never give up on yourself. Your spark can happen at anytime.
Read On Duties today and tap into your hidden potential: