Out of Your Depth In defense of late learners.

Out of Your Depth In defense of late learners.

  • Words Alex Anderson
  • Photograph Tom Bianchi. Swimming to Careyes, 1992. Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery

The purple gentian is an unassuming wildflower that emerges in the cold November sun. Amenable to harsh conditions, it brightly carries on when other flowers have long since disappeared. Emily Dickinson, the American botanist better known as a poet, wrote admiringly about the gentian—“The frosts were her condition”—and claimed it as a vital emblem of her own late development. In her poems, the gentian proclaims that the late bloomer comes tardily, but shines gloriously in adversity.

For most people, however, there is nothing glorious in having to wait too long for success or in taking on mundane challenges that others overcame long ago. A 30-year-old wobbling unsteadily on a bicycle or floundering in the shallow end of a swimming pool is hardly the ravishing late bloomer Dickinson envisioned. Sometimes it seems like the only real adversities the late-blooming bike rider or swimmer faces are frustration and humiliation. If kids can learn this stuff, why can’t I? But these aren’t the only challenges. Anyone who has learned to ride a bike late in life knows that adults simply fall farther, harder and more painfully than children do. Gravity conspires against ambition.

The mind conspires against ambition too. Brain researchers at MIT have recently discovered that adults’ “superior cognitive function”—their focus and memory—actually makes it difficult for them to learn the subtleties of a new language. This is because adults’ well-developed capacity to acquire and analyze information dominates more fluid, unconscious styles of learning that develop earlier in life. Kids learn languages—and skills like bike riding—so easily because they don’t think about it too much. They just do it.

There is hope for the late bloomer: That same fluid ability is still there beneath the embarrassment and overthinking. So it is worth following the advice of the late-starting “guy who can ride a bike,” sportswriter Barry Petchesky: “Here’s the secret to learning to ride a bike: Just keep trying it, you’ll get it soon.” Substitute learning to ski, to swim, to drive, to watercolor—you get the idea—and you too can be, like the purple gentian, a ravishing late bloomer.

ISSUE 52

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