© FT

Precocious talents shortcutting the traditional career arc attract attention. Mark Zuckerberg, who co-founded Facebook at 19, is the figurehead of Silicon Valley’s cult of youth. In creative fields, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a New Yorker article, “genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity — doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth”. As the writer notes, Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane at 25; the poet, TS Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” at just 23.

What is the personal experience of those who achieve career highs at a young age? I spoke to four people who did just that to find out.

Eva Noblezada, musical performer

At 17, Eva Noblezada, from North Carolina, was spotted in 2013 at the National High School Musical Theater Awards — also known as the Jimmy Awards — and cast as the lead in Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Miss Saigon. It opened last May in London’s West End. She was just 18.

Ms Noblezada believes being in the “right place at the right time” played a factor in her big break. Although she was also “working as hard as [she] could to be recognised”. She was, after all, “performing as a foetus”.

She was unprepared for her peers’ reactions. “I lost a lot of friends. They showed their true colours.” Ms Noblezada, who had attended a performing arts school from the age of 11, believes they suffered an affliction articulated by Gore Vidal: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” At her school, she says, the competition bordered on the destructive.

Teachers believed she should not leave education. “It’s not for me,” she says. “They couldn’t see my big picture.”

The industry is hard, Ms Noblezada notes. “When you get attacked you take a blow, you get battle scars and it toughens you up.” Comments made on social media can be especially hard.

Despite the naysayers, there is a “freshness of youth, a way of seeing the world which can be good”, she says. On the topic of her future, she says she prefers to live in the moment. “I don’t want to make plans — I want to give this job all my focus. I’m 18, I’m living in London and it’s beautiful.”

Lucy Prebble, playwright
Despite having her first professional production — The Sugar Syndrome — staged at the Royal Court at the age of 22, Lucy Prebble says she did not know what she wanted to do from a young age. “Writing isn’t really something I developed as an ambition. For me it was more of an emotional technique, a way of finding private control in a chaotic world.” Its transformation into a trade was an exciting but unexpected and unsettling thing.

When her play, Enron, garnered huge attention in 2009, she shielded herself from the transience of success by convincing herself it was a combination of external factors, rather than solely talent. She did not want to be bitter when it inevitably passed. “We feel loss much more acutely than we do gain. When we are given something wonderful we acclimatise fairly quickly, depressingly so. But it’s profoundly painful to get over a great loss.” Cautious not to sound ungrateful, she notes that success and anxiety often go hand in hand.

The press, she says, made a great deal of her age. Though as a 20-something she did not feel particularly young. The fetishisation of youth shows a misunderstanding of how creativity happens, the 34-year-old insists. “It’s not at all weird that the first few things you say to the world once you eventually blunder into adulthood would be fresh or exciting. It’s not that you’re saying something so early, it’s that you’ve waited so long.”

Her advice to young writers is not to “hope for success . . . It’s a weird, amorphous word . . . If you want an audience, discover why people read, why they reach out to art.”

Ben Saunders, explorer
At the age of 26, Ben Saunders skied solo to the North Pole. Three years earlier he had tried and failed to reach it. That first expedition was the “biggest failure of my life”, he reflects. He had hoped to arrive home to huge fanfare; there was nothing. Nonetheless it proved to be a “big learning curve”, teaching him to drop his ego and focus on the task ahead.

Yet he is thankful his youthful naivety persisted when planning his second — successful — trip. “I am amazed I pulled it off at 26. My innocence was good — it helped me set my sights so high.” Because he had no reputation to lose, he was willing to take risks. In his 20s he felt he had something to prove; now at the age of 37, he has mellowed.

Yet early success created its own problems — fears over peaking too soon as well as a pressure to follow up with something bigger and better. This anxiety helped drive his next big expedition — retracing Captain Scott’s 1,800-mile trip from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. Having completed the journey last year, he reflects how balanced he was compared to his “hyper” 20-something former self.

Martha Lane Fox, entrepreneur

The mythology around tech start-ups’ origins, according to Martha Lane Fox, means youth is sometimes exaggerated. She was only 25 when she co-founded travel website lastminute.com with Brent Hoberman in 1998, but the pair had been working as consultants before striking out alone.

“It would be a bad idea to get into business straight out of university. It was important to get grounding. It’s awesome to have that fire but you need to work hard and get networks,” she says. Today she reflects on the experience as “amazing”. “It gave me a riot of experience as well as funds.”

Nonetheless, she believes her youthful exuberance emboldened her. “At the IPO I started to feel scared,” she says. “The more successful the company got the more nervous I became.”

Some investors patronised her; others liked her courage. She believes she got more attention than Mr Hoberman as she was a “young blonde woman . . . it was an interesting news story — they’d cut Brent out of the picture.”

Did she fear that she would burn out? “I still worry that I’ve peaked too early.”

In 2013, at 40, she was appointed a crossbench peer in the House of Lords — a youngster again. “Some patronise you, most don’t. It’s a microcosm of society. People call me ‘love’ in business meetings. I pick my battles.”

Twitter: @emmavj

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article