35 People Who Became Successful Later in Life

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We always hear about people who are able to reach fame at an early age, but it isn’t often that people talk about late bloomers. These are the people who seem to be late in meeting society’s unwritten milestone calendar.

They may be seen as not living up to their potential or even being failures, but this is far from the truth.

People develop at different rates and a lot of factors go into how and when individuals find success. Even defining what success means can make a difference.

Let’s look at some factors that go into why a person may not find success until later in life.

What You Will Learn

Why Are Some People Late Bloomers?

The Harvard Business Review conducted a study to determine the dominant factors that indicate whether or not a person will succeed.

The study found that success was primarily due to a combination of having the right idea, at the right time, and being passionate about pursuing the goal. Sometimes those right ideas come later in life.

Other factors also come into play when determining one’s rate of success:

  • Poverty can prevent a person from having the means to act on their dreams. In order to succeed, you need to have access to both financial means and education. You also need to have access to the knowledge of what type of help is available.
  • Mental health issues such as PTSD can make a child feel like joy is non-existent. They grow up without passion and excitement, both of which are necessary to reach a dream.
  • Some people are what are known as Renaissance Souls. They have so many interests that once they reach a certain plateau with one, they are off seeking new adventures. They can’t focus on one thing.
  • Other people are perpetual learners. They feel that the longer they do something, the more they learn. These people do not seek a particular physical goal. For them, the journey and knowledge gained mean the most.

When Is It Too Late to Switch Gears in Life?

The answer to this question is a resounding NEVER!! There are many resources available today that those in the past didn’t have. You have the world at your fingertips with the Internet databases, online classes, access to professional and personal connections, and much more.

As long as you don’t give up on your dreams, you can succeed. While having a support network is a big help, many have succeeded by sheer willpower alone, even when it seemed everyone they knew thought they were crazy.

Keep learning, keep dreaming, and keep striving to reach that goal. Motivation is key.

Food for Thought: 35 People Who Became Successful Later in Life

1. Colonel Harland Sanders

Left school in seventh grade and worked several jobs, often quitting in anger or getting fired. At the age of 40, he ran a small gas station and opened a small restaurant in the apartment next to the station. Word soon spread and business grew.

In 1952, at the age of 62, Sanders opened the first Kentucky Fried Chicken, and history was set in motion.

2. Fauja Singh

Was born with a disorder that left him unable to take his first steps until the age of five.  When his wife and two children died, he looked for a way to fill the empty spot in his life and started running again. He was in his late 80s at the time.

He ran his first marathon at the age of 89 and became the first 100-year-old to run a marathon in 2011. He has been an Olympic torch bearer on two occasions, once at the age of 101, and has broken several running records in his age category.

3. Julia Child

Couldn’t cook when she graduated from Smith College.  She spent time working in advertising and later worked in government intelligence. During that time she fell in love with French cuisine and started to cook it when she could.

She wrote her first cookbook at the age of 50 and gained a reputation as one of the top French chefs in the world. She eventually became the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame.

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder

Quit school at the age of sixteen and worked with a local dressmaker. She was in her forties when she started writing but it wasn’t until she was in her 60s that she wrote Little House in the Big Woods and she began to gain a following.

Over the next decade, she continued to write the Little House books.

5. Ray Kroc

Was only 16 when WWII broke out and he lied about his age and was assigned to drive a Red Cross ambulance throughout the war. Once his enlistment was over, he spent the next few decades as a traveling salesman who sold paper cups and milkshake machines.

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Ray Kroc

He teamed up with the McDonald brothers when he was in his 50s to start the first McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in 1954.

6. Grandma Moses

Only briefly attended a one-room schoolroom.  When she reached her 60s, she picked up her brush. It would take another decade before her work was noticed. Once they were, she ended up having her paintings displayed at the Museum of Modern Art.

Before her death at the age of 101, she produced about 1500 pieces.

7. Leo Goodwin Sr.

Was working as an accountant and dabbled in the insurance arena on the side. When in his 50s, he began to think that he could lower the cost of insurance if he could find a way to sell to the customer directly.

He started the Government Employee Insurance Company in 1936. It has since grown into what is known as GEICO, one of the largest car insurance companies in this nation.

8. Duncan Hines

Attended Bowling Green University and when he graduated became a traveling salesman for a printing company. He spent a lot of time eating out and decided, at the age of 55, to write a book about his culinary experience, Adventures in Good Eating.

This book was so well received that he became a food critic. By the time he was in his 70s, his high standards as a critic had product developers asking him to use his name on their products to indicate they were high quality.

9. Peter Mark Roget

Was a physician who graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1798. From an early age, Roget suffered from depression and found that spending hours categorizing words, making lists, and finding similarities and differences in the lists helped him deal with his depression.

In his early 70s, Roget published his lists in a book that would become Roget’s Thesaurus. This book has sold millions of copies and has never been out of print since its first edition.

10. Henry Ford

Started out as an engineer under Thomas Edison. Learning how cars were developed, he founded Ford Motor Company at the age of forty, with many innovative changes in both work processes and design. Five years later, the first Model T was introduced to the public.

11. Sam Walton

Graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in economics. He joined the Army and eventually rose to the rank of Captain. After his discharge, he made many attempts at running retail businesses.

While each failed, he took what he learned from each attempt and finally put these lessons into play when he started the first Wal-Mart at the age of 44.

12. Charles Darwin

Got a MA from Christ’s College. He entered medical school but didn’t finish. Instead, he chose to join the crew of the HMS Beagle when he was 21.

When he returned home, he suffered an illness that he was to fight off and on for the next few decades. When he could, he wrote of his voyage. Finally, at the age of 50, Darwin published On the Origin of the Species.

13. Stan Lee

Graduated with a BS degree when he was only 16-1/2. While studying, he also worked several part-time jobs. He started working in comics but didn’t move up the ranks until he was in his 40s.

At that time, he hit on the idea for The Fantastic Four and success was imminent. After that, he created Spiderman, Black Panther, X-Men, and many others. He is still active at the age of 95.

14. Momofuku Ando

Studied Economics at Ritsumeikan University. After leaving school, he opened his own textile company. At one point, he was arrested for tax evasion. He filed for bankruptcy and ended up losing almost everything he had worked for.

He took what little money he could gather and purchased Nissan, which was a small salt-producing company. At the age of 50, he perfected his idea of a cheaper noodle, and Chikin Ramen was introduced. When he was 61, he then introduced cup noodles.

15. John Fenn

Got his first academic appointment at Princeton when he was 35. For years, he did research and published with little success. It wasn’t until after he was forced to retire at the age of 70 that a paper he published at 67 got noticed.

In his mid-80s, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for creating a way to measure ribosomes and viruses, a method found in every lab today.

16. Nelson Mandela

Was in his 40s when he found his voice as an activist. He was arrested on numerous occasions and eventually spent 27 years in prison, where he studied law.

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After his release from prison, he continued speaking out and was elected as his country’s president at the age of 76.

17. Harry Bernstein

Was considered a mediocre scriptwriter most of his life, retiring at the age of 62. He started writing his memoir when he was 96 and this is where he found success.

After this book, The Invisible Wall, he published three more books, one at 98, one at 99, and one at 100.

18. Jeffrey Brotman

Earned a degree in Political Science and then a J.D. in 1967. At the age of 40, he joined forces with a partner and opened the first Costco.

He remained chairman until his death at the age of 74. Costco has grown to over 736 stores nationwide.

19. Gladys Burrill

Had polio as a child and didn’t become active until she was in her 40s. After that time, she came to pilot multi-engine planes, climb Mt. Hood in Oregon and hiked the Arizona deserts.

At the age of 86, she ran her first marathon. She completed the Honolulu Marathon at the age of 96 and holds the world’s record for the oldest woman to complete a marathon.

20. Joseph A. Campbell

Opened his canned goods company at the age of 52. He sold canned tomatoes, condiments, and jellies, but never developed his first condensed soup, tomato soup, until he was 78 years old.

Campbell’s condensed tomato soup changed the way the world viewed canned soup.

21. Miguel de Cervantes

Spent time as a military prisoner. He became a tax collector and we don’t hear much of him until he wrote Don Quixote when he was 58.

This book has been touted as the first version of the novel as we know it. It has been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible.

22. Jack Cover

Earned a doctorate in Nuclear Physics. He spent time working with NASA’s Apollo program, IBM, and Hughes Aircraft. When he was in his 40s he designed the taser that is used by law enforcement personnel around the world.

He named his creation after a Tom Swift move, Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.

23. Donald Fisher

Had a BS in Business and no retail experience at all when he founded the first GAP store in his 40s. He envisioned a place where people could buy all their favorite styles in a wide variety of sizes.

He eventually founded the GAP label and they became the first chain to use the store name as the brand name.

24. Ian Fleming

Attended many schools in his life but barely passed classes and was asked to leave a few because of his behavior. He went to work for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division and wrote in his spare time.

He wrote his first James Bond novel when he was 44. In all, he wrote 11 James Bond novels; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and two short story collections, all before his death at the age of 56.

25. Taikichiro Mori

Graduated from Tokyo College of Commerce. At 51, with no prior real estate experience, he founded Mori Building Company.

In 1992, it was so successful he was considered the richest man in the world.

26. Toni Morrison

Earned a MA in English. She taught for a time and then became the first black female editor at Random House.

She was just shy of 40 when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published. She has since won both Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for her books.

27. Kathryn Joosten

Was a psychiatric nurse for most of her adult life. At the age of 42, she joined a local community theater. This continued until, at the age of 60, she got her break by being cast in a role on West Wing.

28. Ralph Roberts

Used his Business degree from Wharton to buy a small local community antenna TV system at the age of 43.

He incorporated this business as Comcast, a name he invented by combining the terms communication and broadcasting, and helped it grow into the largest TV network in the United States.

29. J. R. R. Tolkien

Was originally homeschooled but attended Oxford College, where he graduated with first-class honors in English and Literature.

His first novel, The Hobbit, was published at the age of 45 and he didn’t complete Lord of the Rings until he was 56.

30. John Warnock

Failed 9th-grade math but ended up earning a BS in Mathematics and Philosophy and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.

At the age of 42, he founded Adobe and he was 52 when he came up with the idea for Portable Document Format (PDF). 

31. Bob Ross

Dropped out of school in the ninth grade. He enlisted in the Air Force where he spent the next 20 years yelling orders. He taught himself to paint and did so to relax.

After leaving the Air Force, at the age of 41, he gained fame for his quick painting style. 

32. John Pemberton

Earned his medical degree and worked as a pharmacist. He suffered a sabra wound and became addicted to heroin.

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John Pemberton

This compelled him to try and create a pain reliever that wasn’t addictive. In the end, he stumbled upon the formula for Coca-Cola when he was 55 years old.

33. Vera Wang

Has a degree in art history. She started figure skating at 8 but an injury ended that as a career. She then tried her hand at journalism, without much success.

When she was 40, she opened her first bridal boutique and it has now grown to include locations in NY, London, Tokyo, and Sydney.

34. Wally Blume

Had a degree in Industrial Economics. He used his career in the dairy business to start his own ice cream company at the age of 57.

Since then, Denali Flavors, who introduced us to Moose Tracks, has realized revenue of over $80 million.

35. Tom Allen

Never started doing yoga until he was in his 50s. When he retired from the pharmaceutical company he worked at, when he was 60, he started teaching yoga. In the early years, he taught six classes a week.

Today, he still teaches two classes a week and is considered Britain’s oldest yoga instructor at the age of 90.

Final Thoughts on People Who Succeed Later in Life

One thing we can take away from this list is that there is no limit to the age a person can realize success. What is most important in eventual success is passion, determination, and a willingness to put aside the negative thoughts and stereotypes society places on us when it comes to what is and what is not appropriate for a particular age.

The people on this list had to overcome many hardships, including a few who had to learn to handle anger. In the end, however, they are among many who have shaped the world, with or without a college degree. And I, for one, couldn’t imagine a world without their influence. 

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