Orson Welles peaked early in life. He rose to fame with the infamous radio broadcast of a fictionalized invasion from Mars (which many people believed) in 1938 when he was twenty-three years old. This newfound fame won him a movie contract in Hollywood where he was given carte blanche to direct the movie Citizen Kane in 1941. Many critics have called Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made, and he attained this height at the age of twenty-six. He followed that achievement by directing the film The Magnificent Ambersons the next year, which has also ranked among the top films of all time. So here you have this guy who shocked a nation with a radio broadcast and then proceeded to direct two of the greatest films ever made, and he did all this before the age of thirty. Perhaps his biggest mistake was to leave Hollywood before The Magnificent Ambersons was properly edited, in order to embark on a South American adventure initially sanctioned by the U.S. government, who hoped Welles could serve as a propagandist for the American war effort. Instead, Welles partied with his beau Rita Hayworth, and focused his attention on creating a documentary film of life of the common people in the favalas of Rio de Janeiro,; a project which he never finished. In fact, from that point on in his life, Welles was to finish very few film projects, and never came close to attaining the status he had achieved in his mid-twenties.
I’d like to call this life trajectory ”the Orson Welles effect”: attaining greatness early in life. Some professions are set up for this kind of effect. For example, most professional athletes attain their greatest fame and fortune before the age of forty because it’s in early development when we reach our physical peak of performance. However, it’s not just the physically fit who have their best years during their youth. Mathematicians also seem to peak early in life, most of them in their twenties and thirties (and some historians of mathematics even suggest that a mathematician is ”’over the hill” at age forty).
I’d like to contrast the ”Orson Welles effect” with something that could be called the ”Grandma Moses effect.” Grandma Moses (whose real name was Anna Mary Robertson Moses) famously took up the art of painting at the age of seventy-eight and was highly productive until her death at the age of 101 in 1961. Moses was famous for her unique ”folksy” images of rural American landscapes.
What is it that determines whether one will follow the fate of an Orson Welles or a Grandma Moses? Destiny undoubtedly figures in here. And of course, genetics (which is, essentially biological destiny). But it’s still a great mystery why some people come into life storming and raging (the ”morning glories” of the world), while others seem to be set in idle for much of their life only to rev up to record speeds as they reach late adulthood (the ”late bloomers” of the world, to continue to floral metaphor). These two patterns of development appear to give the lie to existing ”stages of life” theories like Freud’s (who saw much of life set in motion by adolescence), and Erik Erikson (who looked at elderhood as a time of determining whether one’s life had any meaning or not). Clearly there are other forces at work on human beings as they make their way through the decades of their lives.
It may be that Welles and Moses just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right kind of ”stuff” to make their big splash in culture. Welles clearly had a lot of personal vitality and dramatic creativity, and he came into his early maturity at a time when radio had just about peaked, when the talking pictures were in their infancy, and when Hollywood producers were more willing to risk hiring a newbie than they would be even ten years later.
Similarly, Moses had a unique set of factors that set into motion her later life development. She married and had ten kids (five of whom survived infancy), which kept her busy during her early years. After her husband died at the age of sixty-seven, Moses began making embroidered pictures of yarn for friends and family. But when arthritis set in at the age of seventy-six, embroidery became too painful to her, and her sister Celestia suggested that painting might be easier for her. Thus, she was set on her course to achieve fame and if not fortune, at least a living as an artist. During the 1950’s, the art world was beginning to change into a market-based system and Moses’ paintings would in the twenty-first century sell for as much as $1.2 million.
So what was the critical factor? Destiny? Genetics? Personal history? Cultural trends? It may be that all of these influences were important. And perhaps we can take the lessons of these two outliers into consideration when thinking of our own life’s trajectory. Think about it. Do you feel more like a ”morning glory” or a ”latebloomer”? Or perhaps you’re more of a ”middle-ton!” At any rate, it’s interesting to consider the question of whether you’ve already made your greatest contribution to life, or whether the future holds greater challenges and outcomes for you in the years ahead.
If you’re interested in more information about the many factors that influence how we move through the different stages of our lives, read my book, Thomas Armstrong, The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life (Ixia/Dover).
This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
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