18 People Who Gave New Meaning to “Better Late Than Never”
Well guys, I gave it some thought, and I’ve realized that I don’t want to be an attorney. Unfortunately, I only gave it some thought after three years of law school and two years of practicing law. So now, on the wrong side of 30, I’m trying to start a new career.
While I’m floundering, my friends all seem to be enjoying unmitigated success. Perusing Facebook or LinkedIn is like navigating an ego minefield – at any second, a friend’s promotion can explode across my computer screen, demolishing whatever pathetic sense of accomplishment I had from finishing yet another cover letter.
At times like this, its useful to remember that history is rife with individuals who stumbled down a dead-end career before finding success elsewhere or didn’t take off until later in life. Even though millennials aren’t supposed to care about the past, I can’t help but feel better after reading about these folks who gave new meaning to the cliché “better late than never”.
1. Ulysses S. Grant was 39 when the Civil War changed his life. Before then, Grant, a West Point graduate, was a minor officer in the Mexican War, a farm worker, a failed relator and a mediocre clerk in his father’s leather store. Hell, the man couldn’t even get his middle name right – his name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but his West Point appointment mistakenly read “Ulysses S. Grant”. Thankfully for Grant (not so much the rest of America), the South’s secession gave him a chance to finally prove himself. During the war, he would quickly rise to the rank of Lieutenant General, win battles at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, and accept Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. After the war, Congress named him the first American four star General. Soon after that, the American people elected him President twice, even though that, today, historians generally rank Grant amongst the worst of Presidents. Still, “bad President” beats “guy who couldn’t manage to collect rent checks”.
2. John Muir was 29 when an accident nearly cost him his eyesight. Realizing he needed to be true to himself, Muir resolved to follow his twin dreams of exploration and botany. Once recovered, Muir walked a thousand miles from Indiana to Florida, presumably inspiring his fellow Scotsmen, the Proclaimers, many years later. From Florida, Muir hopped a ship to Cuba, and then went north to New York before eventually setting sail to California, where he would finally find his heart’s home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He’d spend a few years in Yosemite without a real career before beginning to write a series of articles called “Studies in the Sierra” in 1874, which – at 36 – launched his career as a nature writer. Muir’s vivid, spiritual descriptions of nature inspired thousands, including the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Ansel Adams, Ken Burns and pretty much everyone who ever hiked the Appalachian Trail. His efforts led Congress to create Yosemite National Park in 1890 and he was also instrumental the creation of Sequoia, Mount Rainer, the Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks. No wonder that today he is known as the “Father of our National Park System.” On top of all that, in 1892, Muir co-founded the Sierra Club.
3. Alan Rickman was a sensible young man when he decided to pursue a career in graphic design, because “drama school wasn’t considered the sensible thing to do at 18”. After a few years as a successful designer, he took the leap to pursue acting professionally, enrolling at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 26 and graduating two years later. Rickman would work a number of small roles before his breakout in Les Liasons Dangereuses, a prequel to Les Cousins Dangereux. Three years later, most of us met Rickman for the first time when he played Hans Gruber in Die Hard.
4. Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, started off as an attorney before joining a Goldman subsidiary. I would write more about him, but no one likes to hear about attorneys or bankers succeeding in life.
5. Being a child of the 80s, Rodney Dangerfield was near and dear to my heart, even though I didn’t get half his jokes in Caddyshack and Back to School until the late 90s. Dangerfield really didn’t get no respect when he first started in comedy: after nine years of struggling financially as a comic (performing under the name Jack Roy) and working all sorts of side jobs, he quit in 1949 at the age of 28. Dangerfield spent the next decade selling aluminum siding. Finally, at the age of 41, Dangerfield returned to standup, drawing upon his rough start to develop a self-depreciating shtick. A few years later, he was headlining shows in Vegas, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and eventually mastering the most difficult dive of all time, the Triple Lindy.
6. Before he started frying chickens, Colonel Harland David Sanders tried his hand as a fireman, a railroad laborer, lawyer, insurance salesman, tire salesman and gas station manager, plus a few other careers. (Fun fact: both the fire and legal careers ended after Sanders got into brawls at work; the law career-ending fisticuffs involved his own client in a courtroom.) He opened his first restaurant at 40, and once he mastered his secret recipe at 50,his business began to boom. A few years later, the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened in Utah. From there, the company grew rapidly, becoming one of the first US fast-food chains to expand abroad.
7. Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing in her 40s, starting with a newspaper column (“As a Farm Woman Thinks” for the Ruralist in Missouri). A full twenty years would pass before she finally published the first Little House on the Prairie novel.
8-10. We should all revel in the facial hair stylings of James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland. Our bearded and mustachioed 20th, 21st and 22nd (and 24th) Presidents all started as educators before eventually entering politics. Electing furry former profs might have been more of a postbellum political fad, not unlike the ridiculous facial hair sported by hipsters these days. I, for one, wouldn’t mind a return to electing hirsute educators if it meant seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson in office. Bonus fun fact: Garfield was a bit of an ambidextrous genius who could write Latin with his left hand while simultaneously writing Greek with his right, which I bet made all the philogist ladies crazier than a maenad.
11. Harry S. Truman ran a haberdashery that went bankrupt the year before he won his first election. At the age of 38 and without any training in law, Truman was elected a judge of the Jackson County Court. Like Grant before him, Truman’s middle initial didn’t actually stand for anything: his parents couldn’t decide on whether to honor his grandfather Solomon or his grandfather Shippe, so they settled on just S.
12. Chris Gardner was a 27-year-old single father struggling as a medical device salesman when he asked a man driving a red Ferrari what he did for a living. That man introduced Gardner to the world of finance, and a few years later Gardner would open up his own brokerage. The transition was anything but smooth for Gardner: he spent a year struggling with homelessness at the start of his career while raising his son alone. Gardner’s firm did well, but his autobiography did better: The Pursuit of Happyness was made into a film less than a year after the memoir was published, earning over $300 million worldwide.
13. Ian Fleming succeeded in damn near everything he did, but he is only famous for creating everyone’s favorite dashing British spy, James Bond. Fleming was 43 when he started writing Casino Royal. In the ensuing dozen years before his death, Fleming wrote ten more Bond novels, two short story collections and two works of nonfiction. Fleming also wrote the children’s book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, which reminds me: 007’s prolific conquests are tame in comparison to his creator’s many affairs. Before writing, though, he was an unsuccessful financier and stockbroker, successful naval intelligence officer, and pretty decent foreign manager for a newspaper group.
14. Brian Dennehy came to acting by way of the Marine Corps, Columbia, football, rugby, and Yale. Looking for Mister Goodbar was the then 39-year old actor’s first film role, and his first big role came five years later in First Blood. He’s since gone on to win two Tonys, grab a Golden Globe and inspire one hell of a catchy song.
15. No list of late bloomers would be complete without mentioning Grandma Moses. Grandma, in case it’s not obvious, was not her given name. Instead, Anna Mary Moses was known as “Grandma” because she was a grandma when she first found fame. After switching to paints from embroidery because of arthritis, Grandma Moses was “discovered” in 1938 at the age of 78, and held her first solo show two years later.
16. Danny Glover is kind of like a bizarro Ronald Reagan (see below): he started in politics before switching to theatre acting at the age of 33. His career was still just taking off when he played about-to-retire Detective Murtaugh. Glover is also an outspoken political activist; unlike Reagan, who started as a Democrat and became THE conservative icon, Glover is still an intense liberal.
17. Ronald Reagan was our oldest President, taking office at nearly 70 (William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia a month into his Presidency, was the second oldest at 68). That makes sense, given the Gipper’s late start in politics. Reagan was a 35-year-old actor of little note when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1946. The Great Communicator was elected governor of California twenty-two years later.
A surprisingly large number of our Presidents stumbled down paths before switching to politics and public service. In addition to those I’ve already listed, George W. Bush ruined an oil company before turning his attention to the nation; Warren G. Harding had stints as a teacher, insurance salesman and law student before his career in publishing and politics; LBJ was another teacher-turned-President (his father was a well-connected Texas state legislator, though, so his foray into politics was not totally unexpected); Jimmy Carter was a submarine captain and peanut farmer before entering Georgia politics; Herbert Hoover was successful engineer and businessman whose humanitarian relief efforts in World War I made him an obvious candidate for the White House.
Ahh, yes, President of the United States of America: the world’s best fallback job.
18. Finally, this being Philly, I have to talk about Rocky. But even though he was a washed out bum who finally made it, I don’t mean Rocky, the character (he’s fictional, after all). Rather, it’s the story behind Rocky that fits our theme: Sylvester Stallone was 30 when he wrote and starred in the Oscar winning film. Before Rocky, Stallone struggled to make ends meet, resorting at times to sleeping in bus stations and filming soft-core porn.