People who have not yet succeeded but maybe they will

I am reminded by this question of Leonard Bernstein’s father who didn’t want his  son to study music and who later said, ‘How did I know that he would become Leonard Bernstein?’

The obvious person to study is Penelope Fitzgerald. No-one would have marked her out as potentially one of the great novelists of her generation. She was a smart high-achieving student who ended up not applying her talent as a young woman and then lived a difficult and sad life. When she did start writing, at around retirement age, she flourished. People look at the troubles of her life which gave her inspiration for the early books. Look instead at her persistent wide-ranging immersion in great European art. She travelled, read, learnt and practised the languages of the big historical cultures. She sat in the rafters at the opera and theatre, taking her own sandwiches. And she taught. Yes her life was a mess, her house sank, her husband was a dropout. But it was rigour that meant she had the ability to turn that material into unique, astonishing novels. Hermione Lee has a snippet from some family friends, talking I think about when the boat sank, who said that was exactly the sort of thing they expected of the Fitzgeralds. They were looking at the wrong thing.

Let’s call that the Fitzgerald rule. You spot talent by looking at what people persist at, not what persistently happens to them.

Other people who I think this rule applies to are Calvin Coolidge, Margaret Thatcher, the Queen possibly, Churchill, Steve Jobs, Einstein in his early life, Seneca, Jonathan Swift despite his early excellence, Disraeli, maybe Nixon, Isiah Berlin. It is maybe also true of many comedians and actors.

I see this in the office a lot. Modern corporate culture over-rewards people who are responsive now. What the people on that list have in common is a set of developed qualities that make them excellent in a new environment. Thatcher and Churchill persisted and so when they became leaders they excelled. Talent development today is narrower than that. We are worried about putting people in new contexts.

I would note that many current tech successes are probably more like Jane Austen and Forster in that they start brilliant, in the way many poets do.


The question comes from this Tim Ferris podcast with Tyler Cowen.

If you are interested in reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s books, I recommend The Gate of Angels (US link) for one of her historical novels or The Bookshop (US link) for one of the personal ones, although they are all excellent.

You can read my other posts about Penelope Fitzgerald here.