We celebrate exceptional, successful people of all stripes—kids who build businesses, entrepreneurs who make billions before their 30th birthdays, or bestselling teen authors. Did you notice the theme there, though? We often equate exceptionalism with youth.
I don’t want to take away from those people, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something especially inspiring about the people who didn’t hit the big time until later in life.
And when they did, they hit it big.
Being older and in the job market or trying to fund a new business has its own unique set of challenges. People assume you should have succeeded before now if your ideas were any good; they may not have a lot of faith. Companies see more mileage in the younger candidates and therefore a better return on their investment.
These people, however, prove there’s value in tenacity. They kept trying and although they weren’t going to land on any “youngest ever” lists, they eventually found their stride. Even when it came at an age when their peers were starting to wind things down and dream of that retirement home on the ocean.
1. Alan Rickman Became a Movie Star at 46
Alan Rickman’s success as he approached the half-century mark is especially admirable, given Hollywood’s predilection towards uber-young starlets.
He didn’t just decide to jump into acting on a lark in his forties, either. Rickman owned a graphic design company in his 20s and walked away from it to take acting classes.
Now, when your friend or relative does this, you probably have the same concerns as every other person who’s watched a friend or relative chase an elusive dream: I want it to happen for you, but it’s never going to happen. You want them to be real about it. You want them to have a back-up plan.
Rickman returned to school, this time for dramatic arts, and worked as a dresser—literally helping actors get dressed. For over 10 years, he was “that guy who works in theater,” never with any great success.
He had some close calls, but it wasn’t until he was 44 that Rickman caught the attention of famed producer Joel Silver, who asked him to be the villain in a little movie he was working on. Die Hard, with Bruce Willis. You might have heard of it?
What a way to get started! It was Rickman’s big break. He went on to become the inimitable Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series, and lives happily ever after.
2. Colonel Harland Sanders Had Way Different Retirement Plans Than You or I
You know those people who just seem to have everything going for them—they get into the good schools, land the sweet jobs, and generally seem to have a good time of life?
KFC founder Harland Sanders was not one of those people.
In fact, he had it pretty rough from an early age and had to drop out of school in grade six to care for his younger siblings. Life had dealt Sanders a crap hand and over the next half a century, he would toil away as a motel operator, farmhand, and even a mule-tender.
In his forties, Sanders was running a gas station when he found that he had a talent for cooking food people actually liked to eat. He did pretty well, too, until the highway his business was on was diverted to another roadway and his customers all disappeared.
Colonel Sanders’ retirement plan was in the toilet by the time he turned 65—his restaurant business had gone belly up. His entire retirement plan was Social Security.
Not one to deny his entrepreneurial spirit, Sanders took that first SS check he received and decided not to stuff it in his sock drawer for crappy canned food and the occasional big night out alone at the cinema. Instead, he opened a franchise restaurant. Then he opened another one. And another one. Soon, there was one on every corner across America (well, that’s probably stretching it, but there were an awful lot of KFCs).
In his first 10 years, Sanders opened 600 Kentucky Fried Chickens. He sold out for $2 million in his 70s to a group of investors who turned his franchise into the conglomerate it is today, spanning 15,000 locations worldwide.
You can bet he was a lot more comfortable in his retirement the second time around.
3. Chris Gardner Beat All the Odds to Craft His Own Legacy
And what a legacy it will be. The author of two bestselling books, Gardner is also a philanthropist and an ambassador for AARP on a mission to bring hope and guidance for the 50+ crowd looking to follow their dreams.
Born in mid-1950s Milwaukee, Gardner’s early existence was marred with poverty, sexual abuse, domestic violence, alcoholism, and family illiteracy. He joined the Navy after high school and moved to San Francisco after his discharge. Gardner had a child with a woman who deserted them both, leaving him an underemployed single father. The small family would become homeless.
Still, Gardner kept fighting. He beat the odds and he beat his situation, keeping both his son and his drive to find success—and he did, becoming a top earner at Bear, Stearns & Co. in the mid-’80s. In 1987, he founded his own firm and the rest, as they say, is history.
Except, not satisfied to simply exist as a moderately successful single father who kicked and screamed his way out of poverty, Gardner decided to tell his story.
Gardner’s first bestseller was his autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness—yes, that one, the one that inspired the movie of the same name, starring Will Smith.
His goal today is to help others achieve their full potential, and if there’s anyone you should listen to on that topic, it’s Chris Gardner.
See? You have lots of time. If you haven’t found your very own great big thing yet, fear not. You’re in great company.
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