By ‘thinking long’ you can achieve your career and life goals.
One evening in 2004, having spent yet another evening scraping a living serving drinks at a swish party, Erika Sunnegardh was in tears and about to give up on her singing career. For 16 years she had worked as a waitress and singer at churches and funerals and was beginning to lose hope. But at 38, Erika decided she should give her dream one last try. Though she was living in New York, a family friend suggested she audition for Sweden’s Malmo Opera. The audition went well and she was given her first professional role, in a production of Turandot.
This experience in turn gave her the confidence to audition for the Met. She was taken on as an understudy, and one night in 2006 the singer for the role of Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio was taken ill. The 40-year-old Sunnegardh filled in at the last-minute, and it was a triumph: the performance was critically praised and the audience loved her. Finally, her career was established.
As the French philosopher Montesquieu, who did not produce his masterwork, The Spirit of the Laws, until his late fifties, said: ‘Success in most things depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.’
When Sunnegardh went for her audition at the Met, its artistic administrator Jonathan Friend was amazed at her voice. But he was also drawn to her beauty and maturity. ‘She was, as a human being, grown up,’ he said. ‘She had had another life, and knew what she didn’t know.’
Though the story is remarkable, the principles are universal.
It usually takes at least a decade to become an expert in anything – what researchers have called ‘the ten-year rule’. With the increased life spans most of us enjoy today, you are rarely too old to begin learning a trade, art, or discipline, and to be able to apply that learning in a new career – or, to get to the top of what you already do. Within the context of our longer productive life spans, say age 20 to 80, ten years is not that long in the scheme of things. At 40, for instance, you still have 67% of your productive years ahead of you.
Remember the saying, “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade”. Taking the ‘long view’ of your life is all the more relevant for women who have to spend years balancing family needs with career aspirations. In the midst of changing nappies or doing endless weekend chauffeuring to sports events, it is easy to think: Is this the end of my career? Is it the end of any chances to achieve my dreams, or just anything substantial beyond the family?
Joan Birman studied mathematics and physics at college and could have entered academia, but was also keen to have a family. Over a period of fifteen years she had three children, and only returned to university when they were in their teens. By the time she got her PhD in mathematics she was 41. She wrote in a memoir:
‘I was rusty, but that did not seem insurmountable because, as a compensation, maturity had given me an ability to focus and to concentrate in a way which had seemed impossible fifteen years earlier.’
As an older woman in a young man’s field she might have given up, but she got noticed after giving some public lectures, and duly found an academic posting. It was the start of a very successful career; Birman became an expert in her branch of mathematics – topology and braid and knot theory – and made a number of important solutions and discoveries.
Parents – particularly women – often have to bide their time like Birman did, hoping the point will come when they can devote themselves fully to their chosen area. But the time does come, and we shouldn’t get too frustrated in the meantime. And as Birman says, the extra maturity and insights into human nature she gained through having children and managing a family became a real plus in the work environment.
In her early thirties, Betty Friedan was dismissed from her job as a journalist for a union newspaper when she became pregnant with her second child. She managed to do some freelance writing, but it was difficult with three children, and through her twenties and thirties juggled as best she could. When she was 35, Friedan was given an interesting project to survey her college classmates 15 years after graduation. Her interviews revealed many unhappy, unfulfilled housewives, and this sparked the research that would lead to The Feminine Mystique, the multi-million bestseller, launching the feminist ‘second wave’. With her children at school and growing up, Friedan found more time for writing and research, and after the publication of the book in her early forties she became a public figure.
Closer to home, consider the career trajectory of English philosopher Mary Midgley, who didn’t publish her first book, Beast and Man, until she was 59. ‘I wrote no books until I was a good 50,’ she noted, ‘and I’m jolly glad because I didn’t know what I thought before then.’ With her three sons moving on to university, she was finally able to devote her time to writing and speaking.
With the longer life spans of today, most of us do have time to achieve our goals. But the trick is to think long. Whatever you have done so far may have just set the scene for your real contribution, whether that is something quite modest or a project on a bigger scale. Don’t ever think that you are ‘too late’ or ‘too old’. Whatever your current age, chances are, you have just been warming up.
Author: Tom Butler-Bowdon is the author of Never Too Late To Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long, recently published by Virgin/Random House (£11.99).