Late Bloomers

Thoughts for Those Starting Out on the Creative Path Later in Life

There seems to be an emerging trend of people quitting their jobs and trying for an illustration career. It could just be what things appear to be from my perspective. As an illustration teacher, of course I’m going to hear from all kinds of people hoping to learn the craft and become illustrators themselves. And of course, this will include career-transitioners.

I don’t have the statistical numbers, but I do hear from quite a few people I would call late bloomers—people who decide well into their established careers to make the shift to a more creative role. Late bloomers are typically in their late twenties to mid-forties. Thy are educated and often have decent existing careers. They come from careers such as teachers, counsellors, architects, and biochemists. While I’ve heard from late bloomers quite a bit since I started teaching in 2015, I’ve observed an uptick since the pandemic started last year. That today, amid an employment crisis, it makes sense that many would take the opportunity to try something new—but the tendency for me to come across late bloomers amongst my audiences is not new.

Over the past few years, I’ve gained a sense of who my audience is—at least who is most active and engaged. My students and followers skew female, in their 20s and 30s, and often already on a creative career path. Perhaps they’re designers hoping to add a few illustration skills to their quiver, or photographers looking for a creative outlet that’s a bit different from their day job. And there are a great deal of aspiring artists who haven’t settled in a career, who are looking to illustration as their first choice. But I also have a sense that a significant portion of my audience are late bloomers.

It could just be that late bloomers are by nature more engaged, because they are more mature and have less hang-ups about reaching out. Being of similar age or place in life as me, they see me as a peer. Having spent more time in the work world, they know their way around so-called corporate communication—to reach out to me is just another email. I imagine that college-age folks and younger still mostly interact with older adults as their teachers, profs, supervisors and employers. They are just getting used to being adults in the grown-up world themselves. All this to say, perhaps I hear more from slightly older folks because they’re just more comfortable reaching out.

Whatever the case, I sense that late bloomers make up a significant portion of my audience, in both numbers and in place of mind. I have a special place in my heart for this crowd because I count myself a part of it. My illustration career didn’t really start until I was in my early thirties, married, with one child and one on the way. And I had transitioned to illustration from being a designer and art director, and before that, I was in tech. I was a lackluster high school student, distracted and aloof while others around me were choosing career paths and enrolling in university. It wasn’t until the last minute that I realized I didn’t want to be a stock boy at Shoppers Drug Mart for the rest of my life. What happened between then and art school is a longer and mostly boring story, but almost everything I did post high school was delayed. In general, it takes me a little longer than others to figure things out. Thankfully, things worked out. I finally found what I wanted, even figured out a little bit of who I am, and went for it. And it turns out that it’s okay to take a little longer.

(In many ways, in our culture, we are not well set up in our youth to make the kind of huge, life-defining decisions expected of us at that age. Nor are the options that attractive to every young person. Or what they were promised to be. That people want to change their careers later on should not come as a surprise.)

I was 26 when I finally got to art school. I was 25 when I applied, 24 when I started working earnestly toward fulfilling my entrance portfolio requirements. At that young and tender age, I had even then felt that it was “now or never”, given that I would be almost 30 by the time I graduated. Today it’s almost laughable that I considered this to be the last possible moment in my life to make a career shift. I say almost because I did wisely perceive that time and money are not endless and the longer I waited the harder it would be—that much I believe is true. But still, given that I know others who are well into their thirties, forties, and even fifties, who are now boldly venturing into a more creative path, I almost feel like an imposter in the late bloomer club.

However, the experience of 26 year old me, quitting my pretty-decent job and going to art school, was similar to any other grown-ass adult making a big shift. It felt like, and was, a big deal. I was, by all appearances, floundering about and sabotaging my career (a career, which, by the way, was already a sort of miracle given my high school performance). While I was going back to school, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with 17-year-old first years, my peers were already establishing their careers, getting married, having kids, buying houses, and doing all those grown up things. Even though by today’s standards 26 is pretty young, the experience of leaving behind certainty to follow a foolhardy dream was no small thing. I spent many nights during my mid-to-late twenties lying awake, my heart pounding out of my chest, asking myself what the hell I was doing.

Are you a late bloomer? Are you dreaming of a career in illustration or design, but currently locked into a career or life situation that seems totally contradictory? Do you feel like it would be crazy to actually make the leap? Do you worry others will say you’re being unwise? Do you fear leaving the comforts of an established career for something that can only seem to guarantee at least temporary poverty? Do you worry that perhaps you are being impetuous or flighty, that this might just be one bead in a string of career changes? Do you feel that you might not even have the talent required to make a career of creativity? Do you wonder if you’re doomed to despair in a career and life you at the moment are unhappy with?

Or was it just me?

While I cannot tell you what the right decision for you is, or speak to any of the above questions in your own situation, I can offer you some questions that are perhaps more important:

Do you love creativity enough to give it a chance? Are you obsessed with illustration or design (or whatever discipline that seems to be calling your name) and think about it non-stop? Are you constantly dreaming about what it might be like to actually make it as a professional creative? Do you write about it incessantly in your journal? Do you talk about it ad nauseam with your friends and family? Do you buy or borrow unreasonable stacks of books about creativity? Do you have an inkling that you have talent (in spite of your doubts) and feel you have a pretty good shot? That you should at least try and see how far you can take it? Do you feel emboldened by some higher force or inner push to throw certainty and comfort out of the window to do what you love? Do you sense that it’s better to be lead by love than held back by fear?

Or was it just me?

Again, I cannot tell you what is most wise and appropriate for your life. I actually believe that there is more to the story than just desire. There is responsibility to those around you. There is responsibility to yourself, to be objective and realistic about who you are and what is truly possible (at least checking in with this every now and then). But what I can say is that, if you have a strong pull toward a life and career of creativity, then you must pursue it! It doesn’t mean you have to go all in. For many, this means doing a few things at once, holding a career you might not be crazy about, but at least it supports you while you pursue creativity on the side. At 26, I had no obligations, no family to support, and also, I had the support of my parents and siblings, and a great many of my friends—and even my employer at the time. For me, my “now or never” was less about age, and more about place in life. I knew that it wasn’t going to get any easier the longer I waited. And for many of you, this will be the case. The longer you wait, the harder it will be.

Now is a time for action. It doesn’t have to be drastic. It might just mean taking a class or starting to practice drawing every day.

The most important thing for anyone considering a huge career shift, a huge shift from the known and comfortable to the unknown and uncomfortable, is knowing what is driving you. Is it positive love and passion for creativity, pulling from up in front? See where it leads. Similarly, you should know what is holding you back. Is it fear of failure, or of discomfort? One of my past mentors once said something that will never leave me: never let fear be the reason for doing anything. He also said: nobody ever regretted taking too many risks, but many have regretted not taking enough.

Are you being driven by love, or held back by fear?

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare.