When I went past 40, this of course meant that any chance I may have had to be notable or notorious has vanished along with my ability to stay up past midnight. Because, of course, in our culture, if I haven’t “made it” by now, it’s probably never going to happen. The world loves a wunderkind, whether it’s five-year-old Mozart or the latest tween sensation. College kids create billion-dollar tech companies, teenagers win Olympic medals, and the rest of us might as well just get out of their way. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Easy for him to say—The Great Gatsby was published when he was only twenty-nine.
But there are plenty of people in the world (including me) who continue to feel that even if a person isn’t rich and famous by age twenty-five, it’s still possible to make a mark on the world. Many notable people had false starts on their life journeys and didn’t make it big until an age when the young go-getters were already getting their first lifetime achievement award.
Before she was one of the country’s most powerful and respected media personalities, Stewart was a married stockbroker with a young child. At the age of thirty-two, she left her job to focus on spending more time with her daughter and to restore the historic Connecticut farmhouse she and her husband had just purchased. It was instantly obvious that Stewart had a flair for all things domestic, and at age thirty-five, she started her own catering company. At one event, she was introduced to the publisher who eventually published her first cookbook, Entertaining, in 1982. Stewart was forty-one years old at the time. In the 1980s, she published many more cookbooks, appeared on television shows like CBS’s The Early Show, and authored newspaper articles. Her eponymous television program began in 1993, and by the time her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, went public in 1999, making Stewart a billionaire, she was fifty-eight years old.
Born in New York City in 1922, Stan Lee enjoyed remarkable success early in life, but he didn’t become a household name in the world of comics until his forties. After Lee graduated from high school at age sixteen, his cousin helped him get a job at Timely Comics, the company that would eventually become Marvel Comics. Lee, who always wanted to be a writer, started out by delivering lunch, filling inkwells, and doing other menial tasks, but by age nineteen, he was writing his own material, developing his own superheroes, and promoted to editor-in-chief. He wrote and edited all genres of comics, but by the late ’50s, his creativity had stagnated and he considered switching careers. He embarked on one last effort to create some new superheroes, deciding to design these new characters according to his own specifications, not those of the company or the reading public. Lee’s new heroes included the X-Men, Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, and Daredevil. His most enduring creation, Spider-Man, debuted in 1962 when Lee was forty and became Marvel Comics’ most popular character ever.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls was born in Wisconsin, but her family eventually moved to Minnesota and South Dakota as homesteaders. She lived a life typical of women in the late 1800s, marrying fellow homesteader Almanzo Wilder in 1887, when Ingalls was eighteen. The Wilders eventually settled in Missouri, where they ran a farm for much of their lives. It wasn’t until their daughter Rose began a successful freelance writing career in the early twentieth century that Laura considered doing some writing of her own. She became a columnist and editor of the Missouri Ruralist from 1911 until the mid-1920s, and published a few articles in national publications with the help and editing advice of her daughter. After the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out much of the Wilders’ savings, Laura wrote a manuscript based on her own childhood experiences, which was eventually published in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods when Laura was sixty-five years old.
Colonel Harland Sanders
The creator of Kentucky Fried Chicken held a series of odd jobs during his teenage and early-adult years, working as an insurance salesman, a boat pilot, a farmer, and a fireman and serving in the army. In the early 1930s, he was running a small service station in Corbin, Kentucky, where he also served meals to his customers. At first, he served the food in his own living room because he didn’t have the money or space to run a real restaurant. As he became more popular with locals and travelers, he eventually opened his own establishment, and in 1935, the governor of Kentucky bestowed on him the title of Kentucky Colonel. In 1940, when he was fifty years old, he invented his now-famous recipe for fried chicken, with its eleven secret herbs and spices. In 1955, when Sanders was sixty-five, business took a downturn and he used the proceeds from his first Social Security check to start the process of franchising his fried-chicken concept, turning his small fried-chicken restaurant into a national fast-food phenomenon.
Helen Gurley Brown
In the late 1940s, Brown moved to Los Angeles, where she attended business college and went to work as a secretary. While she was working at an advertising agency, her supervisors noticed that she was an excellent writer and promoted her to the position of copywriter. In 1959, she married a film producer, and by the early ’60s she was one of the highest-paid advertising copywriters in the country—male or female. Her big moment came in 1962, when she authored the influential book Sex and the Single Girl at the age of forty. She became the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, turning it around with a new message of female liberation, and remained in her job until 1997, when she was seventy-five.
People who believe that a person can’t change her life or hit it big after thirty are sorely mistaken. Perhaps they haven’t heard of Rodney Dangerfield, who didn’t get no respect until the age of forty-two, or Julia Child, who didn’t even learn to cook until she was thirty-seven. They obviously haven’t heard of Grandma Moses, Mary Higgins Clark, Georgia O’Keeffe, William S. Burroughs, or Henry Miller, none of whom were household names until later in their lives. Even when fame comes late, it’s better late than never.