Some are hares, others are tortoises when it comes to discovering our talents, says Charles Handy. But pace is not important, it is fulfilment of potential which counts.
The salt marshes at Snape in Suffolk are truly magical on a late summer evening with their mysterious beauty and subtle suggestions of infinity. Magical too was the music on one particular evening inside the Maltings Concert Hall where Mikhail Rudy, a talented and passionate pianist, was playing some of Schubert's finest compositions for the solo piano.
These were rich with their own suggestions of beauty and infinity, and as I listened I reflected on the fact that Schubert was 25 years old when he wrote those pieces and just 31 when he died. I was only mucking around with life at that time. Had I died at 31, only my parents and a few friends would have noticed. Nothing had been achieved.
Did Mozart peak too early?
'Don't worry,' said a friend when I commented on this after the concert, 'if Tolstoy or Trollope had died at that age, no one would have known that they existed because neither had written anything. Beethoven was a late starter, too, with only one symphony to his name by then.' My friend is right: if Tolstoy or Trollope had been in our employ as writers, we may well have dismissed them early on for lack of achievement. Schubert was a sad case because he died from complications following syphilis with, most people feel, a great deal of potentially stunning music still to come. Mozart, by contrast, had probably done most of his life's work when he too died early, at the age of 35. The differing ages at which individuals make a major contribution to life led me to wonder whether our institutions and our systems take account of the fact that there are Tolstoys as well as Schuberts in almost every occupation?
Some occupations, it is true, seem designed exclusively for the young and fit. No one really expects tennis players, swimmers or other athletes to go on competing successfully beyond their mid-30s and those, such as Bjorn Borg, who do attempt a comeback inevitably withdraw, disappointed, to the veterans' circuits. For them there has to be a new career and a new talent to be discovered. Wigan Rugby League Club told me once that it encourages and pays for its young players to train for a new career even while they are at the height of their ability on the pitch because it is a passing talent, fading in the mid-20s even if the young players refuse to believe it.
Mathematicians, apparently, also have a tendency to flower young, likewise the dealers in the financial markets. Painters, musicians and other artists, however, often get better with age. For them the earlier part of life can be the tough time, both financially and professionally. Too many potentially talented ones give up because they are unable to live with the long apprenticeship and the uncertain outcome. Who can tell how many possible Beethovens the world has been deprived of because they did not possess the perseverance and determination that he did? Such people really need their second career to come before their first.
Politicians, priests and professors could also benefit from a back-to-front career on the assumption that in those occupations the wisdom that can come from age and experience is at least as valuable as the energy and enthusiasm of youth. As managers get younger by the month, we have no choice but to ask ourselves whether they too are not substituting energy for the wisdom and experience which their short lives and fiercely competitive careers have denied them - and whether it is the right swap. Why, I sometimes wonder, is everyone in so much more of a hurry these days when life is so much longer? Surely it ought to be the other way around.
Value of late self-discovery
It does, however, suit more conventional recruiters and assessors to believe that talented people are all Schuberts or Mozarts, who will reveal their talent, if they have any, early on in their lives. The truth is different. Most of us don't know what we can do best, or want to do most, until we are much older.
My own wife, Elizabeth, graduated from university on the same day as our son. She was 50 and he was 22. The career that she then went on to make for herself (as a portrait photographer) requires that she form some immediate relationship with her sitters. Her ability to establish a speedy rapport with her subjects benefits enormously from her earlier career as an interior designer and later as a counsellor. She can only be thankful that no one in the university questioned her age or suggested that she was too old to embark on a professional career. For my part, I was over 50 before I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Discovery of oneself late in life can sometimes be a blessing. We can, in fact, be trapped by our early prowess. For instance, an early gift for language lands you up eventually as a prisoner in an interpreter's box at international conferences with no chance to prove that design was your real talent, had it only been given the opportunity to reveal itself.
Horizontal fast track
I like what I once christened the 'horizontal fast track' employed by some large Japanese organisations. I was questioning the merits of their 'slow-burn' age-based promotion system. 'Do you not have a fast-track for the best and the brightest?' I asked. 'We do,' they replied, 'but it's horizontal.' They put the best of their young people through a five-year runaround of a whole range of different tasks in a whole range of different functions in order to allow them to discover what talents lie hidden behind the official degree or qualification. A very good idea.
How awful it would have been if Schubert's father had insisted that he remained the school teacher that he was supposed to be and stopped his silly tinkling with the piano.