Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

America Puts a Premium on Early Achievers

Not everyone wakes up early to his or her own potential

Rich Karlgaard
Published: Apr 29, 2013 06:01:57 AM IST
Updated: Apr 25, 2013 02:03:31 PM IST
America Puts a Premium on Early Achievers

Sophomore Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball varsity team. But the junior varsity wasn’t so bad; Jordan got his playing time, honed his skills and blossomed.

Bill Walsh was 45 when he landed his first head coaching job in football. Of course, that’s not counting Walsh’s stint with a semi-pro team, the San Jose Apaches—a team so obscure that it held practices at a high school field and drew only a few hundred fans to its games. Humble it was, but it gave Walsh the space in which to experiment with unconventional formations and plays.

Harland Sanders was 40 when he put his savings into a small gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. When he was 65, a new highway came along, diverting most of the customers away. A few of them hung around, mostly to eat Sanders’ fried chicken, which had developed a cult following. It was at this point that Sanders turned his cult into Kentucky Fried Chicken.

These are stories, which you’ve no doubt heard. But they raise the question: Where are the new stories? Has the late bloomer disappeared from our cultural imagination, replaced by the under-30 billionaire?

But not everyone awakens early to life’s possibilities or to his or her own potential. Personal story: I couldn’t construct a logical argument until I was about 30, despite having earned a BA degree from an elite college. What turned things around for me—literally, in my brain—was buying my first computer at age 30. It was an Apple Macintosh, generation two. Shortly thereafter, I added a laser printer and some desktop publishing software. Presto! I was in the corporate-brochure business.

The discipline of logical thinking was forced on me by two things: Running a business and operating a computer. To get full use of the Mac, I had to learn its ways; I didn’t have the money to hire an IT guy to do things for me. I had to instal my own software and get it to work—or I wasn’t going to make any money. So, the Mac and I became friends. This relationship with a logical machine and its software forced a logical discipline on me.
My college actually took me away from logical thinking. That side of my brain had begun to develop in high school, largely because I was a competitive runner who read books on training and learnt to coach myself. I was just starting to learn about the theory and effects of training on the body, in the context of planning my track-and-field season. Then I was accepted at the college of my choice, majored in political science and went backward intellectually.

Community Colleges
The US, I would argue, is driving itself crazy over early achievement. Expensive four-year colleges are a symptom. They’ve become a costly dream trap for too many kids and families. High school grades are overemphasised, SATs must be prepared for years in advance, youthful intellectual experiments (or pranks of the kind Steve Jobs famously engaged in) are discouraged—and for what? Most kids won’t get into the topflight college of their dreams. Worse, some who actually clear that bar will nearly bankrupt their parents in the process. Or they’ll find life so competitive at Elite U that they drop down into the Mickey Mouse courses—which exist everywhere, even at Harvard—and end up with a worthless degree.

There’s a far better solution: Community colleges. I recently attended an event, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, celebrating the best CCs. The coming boom in online courses, such as those offered by Udacity and Coursera, will find natural partners in CCs. This affordable alliance will be a fantastic blessing for late bloomers—and America.

Rich Karlgaard is the publisher at Forbes

(This story appears in the 03 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)