Op Ed

It’s Never Too Late To Follow Your Dreams (Unless You Want To Be An Olympic Gymnast)

I aspire to have a book on the New York Times bestseller list. If this is your dream when you’re nine years old, you’re adorable. Go girl! If it’s your dream when you’re twenty-five, well, OK, good for you. If you’re 44 and still dreaming about it, some people are going to think you’re pathetic.

Those people are not invited to my inevitable “Yay, I’m On the New York Times Bestseller List!” party.

Some dreams, such as “famous child actor,” have expiration dates. Most do not, yet we feel pressure to be realistic and give up on our goals too soon. There are a few reasons why:

1. We think if you don’t become a huge success at a fairly young age, you’re just not that talented. Don’t believe this insidious bullshit. We all have different life circumstances. Learning curves vary: some are steady inclines, and some peter along almost flat for a while and then suddenly skyrocket. Good luck can strike at different times.

2. We’re scared people will laugh at us for trying. Let them. The truth is, a lot of people will not want you to pursue something ambitious, and they certainly don’t want you to achieve it, because what will that say about them? They don’t want to consider that giving up on dreams of their own was a huge mistake. Some people will be jealous of you for even trying. Who the hell do you think you are? (Someone great, that’s who.)

3. We’re scared we won’t be able to achieve it. You know what? You might not, and you might do something you wouldn’t have done otherwise. I haven’t gotten a major book deal yet, but I’ve gotten a couple of minor ones, and those are still super exciting! And even before that, I was really proud of myself for having written a whole damn book! You’ll probably enjoy trying. You won’t have wasted your time.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” There wasn’t one for him: he had huge early success, failed at his “degrading” gig as a Hollywood screenwriter, and drank himself into an early grave. Maybe being a Wunderkind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

However, there are lots of second acts, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Here are a few examples of late bloomers to inspire you! They’re my favorites, just like the mums in my garden that come on strong around October and don’t care if they get a little snow on their heads.

Photographer, painter, and sculptor Jo Ann Callis quit studying art in college in the 1950s to get married and raise children. She told the L.A. Times in a recent interview, “I was not cut out to be a housewife and a mother, but the domestic role was embedded in my history.” She went back to school, then grad school, and began to show her work in galleries in the 1970s; an L.A. Times article about her work in 1989 still made reference to her having a “late start.” A dedicated teacher and one of the few living artists to get a big show at the Getty, she’s the kind of artist who’s always exploring something new. You can check out her work here!

Andrea Bocelli is the most famous opera singer in the world. From an early age, he had eyesight problems, and when he suffered a brain haemorrhage from a football accident, he went blind. His doctors tried everything to cure him, even leeches, but nothing worked. Music always interested Mr. Bocelli, but he didn’t start singing opera seriously until his early 30s. I honest to God did not know it was possible to start opera that late and become a superstar. In fact, a few knowledgeable opera types assured him it was not.

Kathryn Joosten, who died last month, was best known as Karen McCluskey on Desperate Housewives and Mrs. Landingham on the West Wing. She began in community theater at the age of 42. Ten years later, she took a job as a street performer at Disney World, and a few years after that, she moved to Hollywood to pursue her acting dreams.

Harvey Milk was a teacher, a statistician at an insurance company, and for a while, kind of a drifter. In his early 40s, he first became involved with civil rights and politics on a local level.His courageous activism and his election to the  San Francisco Board of Supervisors inspired millions and still does. Tragically, his political opponent Dan White murdered him – it’s always dangerous speaking truth to power – but I still think he demonstrated that you don’t have to be young to be idealistic and change the world.

Since I’m talking about Milk, I may as well talk about cookies. Wally Amos was almost 40 in 1975 when he opened his first “Famous Amos” cookie store, and he wasn’t famous at all then. It did help that he knew some famous people, as a talent agent for the William Morris Agency: Helen Reddy and Marvin Gaye gave him a business loan to get started. Mr. Amos started out in the agency’s mailroom. He’s written several self-help books, splits his time between Hawaii and Long Island, and recently appeared on an episode of The Office, playing himself.

There are so many examples of writers who started very late that they could be their own very long list. It’s ridiculous. P.D. James published her first mystery novel when she was 42. At that age, Raymond Chandler hadn’t even published his first short story yet. Did you know that Ms. James is a baroness now? And that she wrote Children of Men? Apparently the movie diverged a lot from the book, although she approved of the movie. You probably did know all that. I know how you are.

Success doesn’t always mean superstardom, so I want to talk about Sylvia Lieberman. She published her children’s book, Archibald’s Swiss Cheese Mountain, at the age of 90. It’s about, well, chasing big dreams. It won a book festival award and she promoted the heck out of it, which is maybe how she got a positive blurb from one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul guys.


You may aspire to do things that don’t involve fame or riches. That is also fantastic, obviously! I’m just saying you shouldn’t tell yourself it’s too late to do something, unless we’re talking about a gold medal for balance beam or something. So go ahead and be awesome!

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

19 replies on “It’s Never Too Late To Follow Your Dreams (Unless You Want To Be An Olympic Gymnast)”

This makes me feel so much better about wanting to learn pointe ballet at 23 after getting kicked out of ballet at age 7 and dropping out at like, 14. I have no dreams about being a professional ballet dancer, I just want to learn it and not suck at it.

Thank you for this.  I’m in my mid-30s and feeling like time has passed me by.  Instead of life feeling like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the choices I made years ago have shut off certain choices forever.  After reading this, I realize that this is not necessarily the case.

@Bryn, the NY Times bestseller list is mostly reachable two ways: write a good/popular book with an editor/publisher willing to spend on a publicity campaign, or write a passable book and have about 25-40k at your disposal. Take a look at the list, and see how many of them have a little cross icon next to them. Those books had paid consultants do a campaign for them, in which the consultant paid for strategic bulk buys of the book (using the money paid out by the author) to tweak the BookScan numbers in their favor. They also do some light publicity, etc., but really it’s all about making it look like there were massive orders upon release. Obviously there are great books that make it on the list, many of which got there on their own volition, but there is also a ton of money at play (well, a ton for publishing, a drop in the bucket for actually profitable industries). Just something to keep in perspective while you toil away.

Also adding Alice B. Toklas, who didn’t publish until well into her 50s after Stein’s death.

Ah men, this is so nice.

I think it’s very weird how having Big Dreams is so age-bound. When I was thirteen, my plans of becoming director/script writer/book writer/world-changer were a regular family-visit-subject. Twelve years later, I don’t even dare to bring it up and restrict it to day dreaming.

On the other hand I think we should stop with the idea that everyone should have a Big Dream. Some people are simply happy with mainstream, no humps in the road, no troubles and so on. For a while I pitied those people, but why the heck should I. Each to his/her own.

Thanks so much for this article! I needed to read this, it’s so encouraging (I’ve been going through a period of creative block myself).

On a side note — holy shit Andrea Bocelli is blind?! I had no idea. I guess that’s why I haven’t seen him in any opera productions.

My favorite late start story is Wassily Kandinski. He didn’t even start to study painting until he was thirty, and he gave up a promising career in teaching to do so. He went on to be pretty much the first abstract painter. He was a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter (it was named from one of his paintings), and he taught at the Bauhaus. Dude was big news. And a refreshing change in the narative of the Michelangelos and Picassos of the world who were apparently born with pencils in their hands.

Kandinski had a really interesting life. He lived in Germany at time when it really sucked to live in Germany, but all the cool art was happening in Germany. During the first World War he moved back to Russia, then for the second, after the Bauhaus was closed down by Hitler, he moved to France.

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