Episode: 567 |
Henry Oliver:
Author of Second Act, on The Secrets of Late Bloomers:


Henry Oliver

Author of Second Act, on The Secrets of Late Bloomers

Show Notes

In this discussion, Will Bachman interviews Henry Oliver, author of the forthcoming book Second Act about late bloomers. Oliver has a background in English literature and marketing. He worked for an MP and later in employment marketing. 


Defining a Late Bloomer

Henry’s interest in late bloomers came from his work in employment marketing, and during his research, he found a wealth of talent in an older demographic. During the course of his research, he found that cognitive ability is the number one predictor of job performance regardless of age.  A late bloomer is someone who is no longer expected to achieve anything significant. However, Henry states that many people start a successful career late in life. Henry’s book is structured as a series of short biographical sketches that illustrate themes such as the right people, networks, influence, being at the right place, the right time, and meandering career paths that many high profile leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, are prime examples of the late bloomer. 


The Focus on the Book

His decision to focus more on the biographical sketch approach was influenced by his background as an A talent and employment brand consultant. He believes that the book should be focused on more than just the social science approach, as it allows him to explore the complexity of life.  The concept of inefficient preparation, as discussed by Henry, is a concept that has been gaining attention in recent years, especially with the emergence of AI. He talks about the meandering career path of Calvin Coolidge. He explains that many people are considering how to prepare for different careers. However, he emphasized that this approach is not necessarily always the best career strategy, as it can lead to inefficient outcomes. One example of this is Dwight Eisenhower, who was a young soldier during World War One and was kept in America to train on tanks. Despite the shrinking army and the lack of pay at the end of the war, Eisenhower continued to study military strategy and find mentors, which eventually paid off with the advent of World War Two. Henry mentions that many people have a meandering inefficiency in their careers, and if they can find a way to switch into a more challenging job, it can pay off well. This combination of a wait-and-see approach and serious planning can help individuals make the most of their time and achieve their career goals.


How to Make Networking Work 

Henry talks about the problem of focusing on building a network and why it’s important to find the person with the right influence for whatever it is you want to do right now. He shares an example of this with the story of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership election in the conservative party.  Henry discusses the importance of corporate culture in shaping one’s career trajectory, and how the culture helps or hinders how you work. He cites studies of young men sent to the Second World War. The study found that a more ambitious, fast-paced environment with strong leadership and opportunities for development can lead to better performance. He also talks about the detrimental effects of a toxic environment. The discussion turns to putting yourself in the right place in today’s work environment. The most fundamental piece of research that Henry found is about hot streaks, where people produce their best work over a long period of time.The study found that people have an explorer phase, where they try out different ideas and move around the world. This is followed by the exploit period when they take action to take steps connected to their primary interest. In today’s world, there are no universally-accepted answers to what constitutes an “exploit phase.” It depends on the individual’s career goals and the circumstances they are in. Steve Jobs, for example, was an example of someone who dropped out of various fields to pursue what eventually became Apple.


The Importance of Exploration and Perseverance in Career

The book emphasizes the importance of active exploration and perseverance over a sustained period. It emphasizes that people cannot simply move to a new location and hope for success. Instead, active exploration involves attending social events, meeting people, and participating in self-study programs. Second acts involve investing in self-improvement or relationships. Henry emphasizes the importance of live practice and building skills, which can be broad and involve socializing, learning, and networking. He suggests that the rule of 10,000 hours of deliberate exploration should be expanded to include practicing in new areas, including networking and meeting new people. He also believes that it is essential to be prepared to take opportunities. Henry talks about the importance of right timing and the concept of increasing your luck surface area. He gives the example of Ray Kroc who turned McDonald’s into the biggest business in the world. At 53, he was a milkshake mixer salesman at McDonald’s when he discovered a small family restaurant that had perfected the fast food kitchen. Henry explains how Ray Kroc increased his luck surface area to turn a family business into an international franchise. 


Why Extraordinary People are Good Examples 

While his book presents examples from extraordinary individuals, Henry believes that the lessons drawn from social science and famous figures can be applied to people of all levels. He stresses the importance of understanding the details of these individuals, such as Vera Wang’s story, which highlights her personal struggles and the need for encouragement. Henry states that the internet is full of stories of late bloomers, but they often do not provide a detailed account of how they achieve their success. While his book does offer examples of ordinary people who have achieved their second act career, he believes that digging into larger examples can provide a deeper understanding of how late bloomers work and how they achieve their goals. Henry has been focusing on the social science side of human interaction over the past decade. He has been researching and writing about network science, sociology, economics, and psychology to understand how someone can transition from a hack journalist to the creator of the dictionary. He was surprised by the importance of networks and how being in the right group of people can make a huge difference. 


A Word or Two on Writing Motivation

Henry talks about the inspiration and researching information for his book. His motivation for writing is to provide a platform where people can read great works and benefit from them. He believes that reading literature not only helps in understanding human interaction but also helps in understanding power dynamics and ambition. For example, he believes that Jane Austen’s novels, like Emma, can be useful for understanding human interaction in modern office life. Henry’s substack Common Reader, which includes literature, brings in other topics to help readers better understand human interaction and decision-making. He believes that reading Shakespeare can be useful for questions of power, ambition, and leadership. Henry discusses the importance of having a sub-stack for writing and how it can generate more ideas as you read.



04:04 Career development and the concept of late bloomers

10:59 Building meaningful networks and finding influential connections

16:44 The importance of influence and being in the right environment for success

22:55 Career development and finding one’s passion

28:10 The importance of deliberate exploration for personal growth and development

32:16 Luck, opportunity, and success

37:44 Late bloomers and their inspiring stories

44:58 Literature and its relevance to modern life

48:45 Late bloomers, talent, and career development



The Book Second Act: What Late Bloomers Can Tell You About Success and Reinventing Your Life

Twitter https://twitter.com/HenryEOliver

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/henry-oliver-5165b189/

Substack https://www.commonreader.co.uk/


One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:


  1. Henry Oliver


Will Bachman, Henry Oliver


Will Bachman  00:03

Hello, and welcome to Unleashed. I’m your host will Bachman and I am excited about this discussion today. I’m here with Henry Oliver, who is the author of second act, forthcoming book about late bloomers. And Henry does a bunch of other things as well, some of which are related and some of which are more tangentially related. And we’ll get into that. Henry, welcome to the show.


Henry Oliver  00:27

Hi, thank you for having me. It’s great to be here. So


Will Bachman  00:30

Henry, I first got familiar with your work and your thinking on a topic that is maybe a couple steps removed from from second act and late bloomers, you write a popular substack called common reader. And which, which I subscribe to. I’d like to start there and work our way, tell us a bit. And you’ve also been a brand consultant. So you have a bit of a portfolio in your life. And I was wondering if you could just give us a bit of an overview of common reader your experience as a brand consultant, and what other things are going on in your life, maybe how they fit together.


Henry Oliver  01:09

So I was a I studied English literature, right, which I had always had a great interest in. But it’s not a useful degree. So I ended up doing several other things in my career, right, like I worked for an MP at one point. And then I ended up going into marketing as an advertising sort of copywriter slash researcher. And this was in employment marketing, right? So it’s not brand consulting in the in the sense that, you know, we’re working with people who are selling trainers, we’re working with organizations to think, how do I attract great talent into my business? Right? And so I was the research guy on those questions. And my clients would come to me and say, We need to talk about degree degree requirements, we need to explain to the execs that we don’t have to get people with the first from Cambridge, that actually there are loads of universities and loads of degree classes that would be suitable for recruitment or questions like that, right. And one of the topics that kept coming up in that for me was, everyone wants a new talent pool. Right? Because this was back, pre COVID. I’m sure listeners of this show will remember, the labor market was very tight. Right? Very, very tight. And so everyone’s running around saying, why can I find tenant? Why can I find tenant and I’m like late bloomers, the world’s full of late bloomers. The over 50 is a booming, this is a great area, and then no one no one’s interested. High had maintained my interest in literature. And so I had simultaneously been reading about novelists like Penelope Fitzgerald, who didn’t start writing until she was 60. And I’ve maintained my interest in politics. So I was thinking about Margaret Thatcher who no one thought she was ever going to do anything until she was 50. And so the whole thing kind of came together for me while I was working in brand consulting, thinking about the labor market, right, and I think it’s still true. If you look at that, there’s a really big study 100 years of findings of industrial psychology. And it takes all the studies we’ve got and says, what do we know about hiring people? Right? So you know, that cognitive ability is the number one predictor of job performance. And it goes through everything. Age is like zero value for prediction of job performance. Now, obviously, like at a certain point that that isn’t true. But it’s very interesting to me that that is not reflected in hiring practices. And so it was just topics like that that in my mean, you call it a portfolio that’s generous, I think my my hair there and everywhere career. It all came together in late balloons. Okay.


Will Bachman  04:07

Let’s get a definition. How would you define late bloomer?


Henry Oliver  04:12

Someone that is no longer expected to achieve anything significant. Okay, some people want to put a number on it, but um, like, some people will give up on someone when they’re 20. And then that person will turn themselves around when they’re 25. Out of nowhere. Some people it’s much later than that. If you’re a pro tennis player, and you don’t get serious until you’re 20. You’re a late bloomer, right. If you’re a historian, maybe you’re a late bloomer, you know if you don’t pick it up until until much later, but I think there’s a lot of variation and it’s quite an individual thing.


Will Bachman  04:49

Now, the way you structured the book is a series of short biographical sketches that illustrate a set of themes themes including the right people, networks and influence being the right place, which maybe you want to change and move somewhere, the right time, the and a series of other themes as well, those were some of the big ones, also meandering career paths and inefficient preparation, so illustrating these themes using a BIOS of some well known people. So that’s, you know, including Malcolm X. And Samuel Johnson and Steve Jobs, and Margaret Thatcher, who you mentioned, and Katherine Graham, so I’m curious about your decision on that, because it’s not necessarily the most typical decision, given your background, you know, as as an A talent, you know, employment brand consultant, a different approach to reading this book might have been much more of a social science approach about looking at more potent ordinary, everyday people, and so forth. What led you to make the decision to focus more on the sort of biographical sketch approach?


Henry Oliver  06:05

There are a few reasons. So half of the chapters outline findings from social science in the way that you would expect from a book like this, right? When I read those books, though, I think, I think to myself, like, okay, so we have a bunch of studies, we’ve drawn a big like rule. And they’re kind of telling me like, hit the button, and implement this thing in your life, and it will change. And there’s never a chapter that’s like, oh, by the way, life is big, messy, complicated. There’s 100 other things going on. And it might not work in quite the way we’ve described here. Right? So the biographical chapters are supposed to say, Okay, we’ve just done a review of network science, right. And this is the big lesson from network science. Now, let’s actually see how that happened in someone’s life and all the other things that had to be in place and how long it took, and how it was kind of by chance, and how no one ever really knew it was networks that was going on. So you know, you actually learn the lesson a, the most important thing in networks is influence, not connection. Be like that’s hard to hack. It’s hard to find, like a three step plan to put in, in your organization to use networks as a form of input, right? Because it’s too complicated and messy. So you need to really get into the details of the individuals you’re dealing with. And I think there’s so many of these social science books where it’s like, that’s fine in theory, but actually doing that in someone’s life in someone’s business. That’s a much messier. Question. So I was hoping to just put across like the reality of it. Well, that


Will Bachman  07:51

the idea of late bloomer or have a second act, or third act, I think, is certainly been very much on my mind over the past couple of years, particularly with the emergence of AI over the past 18 months or so, because I think, so many of us are thinking, okay, you know, if artificial intelligence can do what I’m doing now, then how do I prepare to do something else? And so some of these lessons, I think, are quite relevant. Maybe we can go through some of them. Talk to me about this concept of inefficient preparation, and what that means, and maybe illustrate it with a couple examples.


Henry Oliver  08:35

If you think about the president, the American President Calvin Coolidge, right, he had a kind of stop start career. And he made pretty good progress. And he got elected to like, a small local office, and then a bigger one, and then he’s a governor, and so on. But he’s not like those politicians where they’re constantly climbing the ladder, and they’re constantly, you know, on track to meet their career goals, and he gets some lucky breaks. And it’s a bit sort of, you end up thinking this guy’s career strategy was to just be there, and to wait for wait for it to happen. Right? It turns out, that’s actually, that sounds like not really a career strategy, right. And if consultants are listening to this, they’ll be thinking, My God, I’m glad I didn’t do that. But that’s actually a real career strategy. That’s exactly what Dwight Eisenhower did. Right. Eisenhower was a young soldier in World War One. And he was really upset because he didn’t see action. He was kept in America to do training on tanks. And then the war ended. And of course, people are leaving the Army in droves, because they can go and get a great private sector job. Make some real money. There’s not going to be another war for you know, for some time. And Eisenhower was like, I’m going to Today, I, you know, his wife said, Oh, my God, if you if you couldn’t be a soldier, you would go crazy. Like, what are you thinking, of course you’re gonna stay, the pay is no good, right? The army is shrinking. This is just it just a terrible decision in terms of having a career, he doesn’t get promoted for 16 years. And he remains obsessed with tanks, to the extent that he gets himself a tank. And with one of the generals he works with, he strips the whole thing down to its parts and puts it back together again, just because he wants to see the inside of this tank. Now, at this point, the Army is like tanks are over. We’re not interested in tanks, this turns out to be a huge mistake. Obviously, World War Two is like the tank war. But in like 1990 1920, they’re like, if you don’t stop talking about tanks, we’re gonna fight like you need to get with the program. And so he ends up in this kind of, he’s drifting, right? He’s drifting. But it works out because while he’s drifting, he is finding mentors. He is studying the history of military campaigns, he is studying military strategy. And even though he knows that he might be forcibly retired before the next war, and he, in reality, he was like, months away. If World War Two had started, I don’t know 12 To 18 months later, Eisenhower would have been retired at home. As it was his like drifting approach paid off. And he would, he’d spent, he’d spent these long years doing his preparation. And so when the war started, his career that has just been flat, takes off like a rocket and he becomes Dwight Eisenhower. Now, that’s very inefficient in the sense that he wasn’t climbing the career ladder. There’s no plan, as I said, another 18 months or whatever. And it’s like, Eisenhower retired. He’s not in this work, it didn’t pay off. But in the sense that when the war came, all the top brass, they started meeting him, and they started recommending him. And there are several people who say, Oh, my God, he’s the best guy in the army. Where’s he been? Because he spent 16 years getting ready, right. But in this, taking tanks apart, finding mentors going all over the world, like no structure, no career ladder. It he was waiting it out. But it worked for him. And I think a lot of people have that kind of meandering inefficiency in their career. And if they can find a way to switch into a more, like, here’s a big job I’m going to do and make use of all the things I’ve got and pull it all together, if they can find that it pays off really well. And so there’s this combination of like, taking a wait and see approach. But taking that seriously, and like you really are, you really are looking for the moment when you can make it work.


Will Bachman  13:01

Excellent. You, in the beginning of the book, you say that you’re not going to give a kind of recipe, right? Or the traditional kind of social science sort of book of, okay, here’s the five step plan to have the second act. But I thought I would still ask you if we could do that a little bit on the fly here to illustrate some of the lessons. So I thought we could go through some of the categories and say, you know, for someone who’s in their 20s, or 30s, or 40s, what are some things that you can do now, that would position you for a second act in your 40s 50s? Or 60s or beyond? And maybe we could go through the different categories? So perhaps you could start with right people that networks and influence? What are some of the things that you should be thinking about doing to prepare yourself for that second act?


Henry Oliver  13:58

We think that networks are all about connections, right? You need to build your network. Whenever you get a job that people always say build your network, right? The problem with this is that there are so many people who are well connected and have great recommendations. You remember Malcolm Gladwell called them connectors? Suppose they’ve always got a restaurant idea. They’ve always got a movie, right? I know some of these people. They’re fantastic. I’m not saying anything like that. The problem is, how many of their recommendations do you take? Not that many, because you wouldn’t do anything else with your life. If you took every one of their recommendations, you’d have a full schedule. There are new studies that show us that actually, the significant thing is not having lots and lots of connections, but is finding the person with the right influence. Right. So someone who’s like one degree or two degrees removed from you, is way more influential. Shogun, someone who’s three degrees from way more influential. They’re not influential on everything, you have to get the right person at the right time. But there’s this major lesson that you need the person with the right influence. And I think a lot of the advice I see about networks doesn’t, it doesn’t talk about influence, it doesn’t talk about, find the person who has the influence for the thing that you want to do right now. They just talk about building up connections. Obviously, that’s great. We should all have extensive networks. But I was surprised by the number of people I found in the research for this book were the person who had the influence. It was it was kind of an unusual thing. And maybe they hadn’t anticipated who it would be. And they didn’t quite really know who the who that person would have influence on. Right, and actually building up a lot of connections is one thing. But knowing like, I’m trying to make a career move, I need someone who can influence like inside that organization with that person, finding who actually has that influence is a more significant job than we’ve, we’ve sort of paid attention to until now. And so really being able to think about who am I connected to who will listen to that person? What are they actually credible? Right, because connectors have got information about a whole range of things, but who’s like the exact right person to make this sniper shot recommendation for me. I would put a lot of emphasis there for making networks work for you.


Will Bachman  16:35

So illustrate this piece about networks and influence with with a story or two from the book.


Henry Oliver  16:44

The the classic account of how Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party, is that her campaign manager airy Neve lied about the voting numbers. He was going around to MPs saying or Ted’s got a lot of votes, you know, you’ve got to you better be careful, you’ll be stuck with him if you don’t vote for Margaret. Now, he did do this on like one or two days towards the end, right. But you have to ask, why did they listen to him? When he said that? Politics is a very factional business. They all hate each other. They’ve all got a little plans or whatever. The answer is that airy Neve had never been in the cabinet. So he wasn’t on anyone’s team, right? He wasn’t associated strongly with like one group or another. And he had a really exemplary war record. He’d been a prisoner of war, he’d broken out, he had bravery medals, like he was a highly respected person. The combination of these two things meant he could go and talk to anyone in the Conservative Party, because he wouldn’t turn up and they’d be like, Oh, he’s part of so and so’s group. It’s like, no, no, this is airy. He’s kind of crazy. But we have to respect this guy’s war record and just give him a hearing. Right. And the people she was running against actually wrote in their diaries. He’s getting meetings with everyone in all factions, how is he doing this? And so the secret of her leadership election was not, like aware in Eve, you know, inflated the numbers and spooked everyone. But in the weeks before that, every nev had the influence, to be able to get into all different voting constituencies in Parliament, and get a fair hearing. And that was exactly what her opponents lacked. So what matters in that, in that networking story is influence and the ability to move between groups rather than, you know, this particular thing he said on a particular day.


Will Bachman  18:47

Okay. So I guess to some degree, that begs the question a little bit. So, you know, I mean, it makes intuitive sense, right? Yes, you want to be connected with people, and also connect with people with influence. So what’s the next step behind that? So, you know, my


Henry Oliver  19:06

point there is, there are loads of people who were well connected in the Tory party. Only airy Neve was the one who was influential across all those groups. If she’d picked someone else, they had the connections. But when they turned up for the meeting, it would have been like, Oh, this guy he’s in, he’s in that clique over there. You know, we’re not, we’re not going to listen to every Neve had influence over all those people. So she didn’t realize that she’d picked, like the one and only person who could actually do this job for but that’s what she’d done. And I think a lot of the time when we when we’re thinking about who do we want for this task? We’re thinking about who is the best connected, right, who’s in the center of the group who’s got the most connections, who knows everyone? Whereas the question should be, who’s going to get a hearing? Right, and who’s going to have him Because everyone’s connected, everyone can send a message to and up to a turn up to a meeting, whatever. Not everyone’s gonna get listened to.


Will Bachman  20:10

Let’s talk about being in the right place. So you talk about change your circumstances to change yourself.


Henry Oliver  20:21

I would guess that this one is very intuitive to listeners of this podcast, because consultants go into lots of different organizations, and they see the effect that corporate culture can have, right. And if you end up working in a place where the culture is holding you back, right is a slow moving culture, an organization that lacks ambition, that just makes it very, very hard for you to work at the same pace the same level than if you’re working somewhere else, somewhere with a with a different culture. Right. Now, this is quite a big, I think, a big generalized finding across various forms of research that are detailed in the book. The most striking one to me was that there were studies of the young men who were sent to the Second World War from America. These guys had been delinquents. So we’re talking projected bottom 10% incomes, low skilled jobs, like leaving high school with, you know, very few, if any qualifications, going into the army, were like, suddenly everyone’s equal, no one cares about your, your high school, this whatever it like, no one cares. There are rules, you will follow the rules, you do the training, right, you get discipline, you get structure, you travel, you go around the world, you’re exposed to senior people. And maybe you get put on a, you get to go to do further education on the GI Bill afterwards. Their career trajectory has completely changed. Right skilled work, higher income levels, more stable family lives just just completely different lives. And I think there is a really big and significant point that we know that corporate culture matters. And we’re always talking about corporate culture. But we haven’t quite internalized that if I can just like pick you up from where you are now, and drop you into a much more ambitious, fast paced environment where there’s strong leadership and lots of opportunities for development, probably, you’ll just do a lot better. Whereas if I sit someone next to you, who’s toxic, that will crush you. And I don’t think we’ve properly internalized that, like, do I need to make more effort? Do I need to work harder? Do I need to do this? Maybe you just need to be in a different environment. And that’s right, that’s the thing.


Will Bachman  22:55

So I think for people who are focused on a sort of current, like tactical change in their life, right? Oh, I’m a consultant, I’m trying to get a better consulting job or something like that. That’s one set of recommendations that might come out of that. But what are your thoughts today about someone who is thinking about No, a second act or a third act? But in a more meandering way, where they’re kind of wanting to prepare, like, I’m happy what I’m doing now. But maybe I want to be able to put myself in a position to have some opportunity available to me that I don’t even know what it is yet. Right? So it’s particularly in today’s world? In your view, does that mean mostly moved to a big city? Where it stands? Because I think he talked about the research where people in bigger cities are more productive per capita? Is it? In a more remote zoom world? Is it getting into the right online communities and the right online discussions and making friends with interesting people you meet on the internet? Is it hanging out on certain social media platforms? Like, what is it starting a podcast? What is it? What what’s the kind of today’s answer to being in the right place or putting yourself in the right place? In today’s world,


Henry Oliver  24:22

so I want to stress like two or three points. This is exactly why there’s no like blueprint or formula in the book, because all of those answers might be the right answer, depending on who you are. Right? And maybe you’re going to come back on two or three of them. Right, right. It depends where you are in your career. It depends. Do you want to go from being a lawyer to you know, a weaver? Or are we talking about lawyer to working in insurance, like what’s the scale of the what’s the order of magnitude change, right, we’re talking about the most fundamental things The second point is the most fundamental Two piece of research that I found, which is in the introduction, because I think it’s a really significant thing is, it was about hot streaks, how do people have a hot streak in their career, which is when you get like a 1015 year period of just producing your best work and producing a lot of work, right. And this study looked across scientists, artists, I think sports people like lots of different domains. And they found that you, the pattern is basically you have an explorer period. And you’re looking at different things, you’re trying out different ideas, like you’re really just, you know, meandering right all over the place. At some point, you then move into the exploit period, which is where you pick want to some combination of the things and explore phase and you say, right, I am going to work on delivering that solving that building that whatever it is, what they say is, it’s not the most recent thing you found in the Explore phase, it’s not like, Ah, it’s been six years, I finally found my thing I’m gonna go, it’s, it’s actually like, the thing you were most interested in the thing that really stayed with you, somewhere in that Explore phase, what makes the difference is you choose to switch. Now, maybe that’s because you get the job offer. Because you know, someone opens a lab where you can do your thing, because you know, a new T opens in a firm that whatever, whatever. But making that switch is really important. And so I would emphasize, like, if you’re looking for an exploit phase, and it’s different from what you’re doing, now, you need to do the Explorer, you need to add some strings to your book. Now that might be moved to a city, start a podcast, get a blog, and you know, and everything else, right, or it might be like, I’m going to work in private and not tell anyone for three years and just build this up. And then I’m going to come out with a podcast later, like, like, the route to it’s going to be very different for each person, depending on what they’re starting with. But when people always tell that famous story about Steve Jobs, like he dropped out, he did yoga, he did calligraphy, you know, he did all these other things. And then it all came together in apple. He’s a perfect example of that. Yeah, right. He was adding all these strings to his bow. But at some point, he said, I am switching now, I’m going to build this thing. That was the key moment. So I think you’ve got to get it into your head, like I’m going, I’m going to be an explorer mode, I’m going to add these different, I’m going to look around, find new skills, find new that find new ideas. But I am all I also know that I am looking for my switch moment at some point. And I think what happens to some people is they stay in explore for so long, that they never sort of say, you know, to hell with it, we’re going now. Now you can be 60 or 70. At that point, right? Whatever age it is, I’m not trying to say like, Oh, if you get to 40, it’s time to switch. But it’s really, really important that you do choose to switch,


Will Bachman  28:10

at least in my exposure. The it’s much more common for people to not explore sufficiently. So it’d be rare for me to encounter someone who’s done so much active exploring, because what you really emphasize in the book is, it requires work and over a sustained period. So perseverance is a real key theme in the book. So you can’t just like move to New York City or Silicon Valley and hope that, you know, something in the water is going to work for you. It’s it’s taking some active steps of either, you know, going to lots of social events, or finding some reason to meet people or have an act of self study program. Or there’s, you know, these people who had second acts, there was a long period where they were really investing outside just the day to day of earning a living, they were doing something right, like Malcolm X was a great example. You know, studying in prison, but these people were all like they made serious investments in self improvement or in their relationships or networks.


Henry Oliver  29:24

It was that wasn’t that became because on the live practice, and how we’re practicing and how we’re building our skills, but I don’t think that’s quite been spoken of in the terms you’ve just said, which is what I emphasize in the book, which is like maybe that’s going to be quite wide ranging. Maybe you’re going to be practicing outside of your day job. Maybe it’s going to involve socializing, learning, and well, here


Will Bachman  29:56

let’s just pause even Mozart just The second just for Henrietta’s sake, is just I’m gonna make a note here. We had a little glitch in the audio. Let’s both turn our videos off Henry. And they will get better connectivity that way. Oh, I’m sorry if I got a bad connection a little bit a little bit. Alright, so why don’t you start that answer again, when I when I finished up asking you about how it’s like a lot of hard work, and you have to be active in your exploration faith.


Henry Oliver  30:25

So I think, ever since 10,000, that rule became a well known thing, we’ve had a lot of focus on deliberate practice and like, training yourself and your skills, what we need is a bit more emphasis on the idea of exactly as you’ve just said, that, that might not just be practicing what you already do. But, you know, adding practicing in new areas, adding the networking, you know, adding, adding, going out and meeting new people, whatever it is. But the, the, the idea that you can just like wake up and become a late, sometimes say this to me, they’re like, Oh, I think I’m gonna be a late bloomer. And I’m like, Oh, what are you doing right now that you’re going to be a late bloomer on later on? And they’d actually then they’re like, Oh, I’m not really doing anything. Now. I think it’ll happen to me later. happen to you. Right? Net like never. You don’t wake up and discover that you’re Tony Morrison. There’s there’s a lot of quiet work that’s been going on for several years before. There’s going to be ready to take your opportunities.


Will Bachman  31:32

That is the Henry Oliver rule of 10,000 hours of deliberate exploration, perhaps, or at least some number of hours of deliberate exploration.


Henry Oliver  31:44

Totally, totally, I’m very sold on the idea of explorer exploit being at the heart of talent development. Yes, absolutely.


Will Bachman  31:52

So because you don’t know in advance, you know, like, what is the right community? So it’s the sort of explore exploit is not gonna be the last thing that you encounter. But I believe that there’s actually somewhere an algorithm for how many blind date people You should date before you get married? And, or how many, how many employees you interview before you hire someone? I think there’s like a square root of something. In terms of the right time, so we talked about right people right place now talk about right time, a little bit.


Henry Oliver  32:29

So the idea is that when you make this change in your circumstances, as we said, all all the right time, which is a question of luck, right? If you want to be Margaret Thatcher, it really helps to be elected in the late 1970s, during a period of crisis. If you want to be Samuel Johnson, right, the dictionary, it really helps to be alive at the time when people are starting to take dictionary seriously. Yeah. And this looks like kind of blind luck, like the Wheel of Fate turns. And that’s just what happens to you. And you can’t control the times you live in. But I think there’s a very strong case to be made for the fact that people make their own luck, they make themselves luckier, largely through very basic things like being really busy. Because of course, the more you do, the more you get out there, the more you know, you’re more output you have, the more chances for luck that you are creating for yourself. But also you change the way you look at the world. And there are some studies, they’re not like super reliable studies. They’re kind of correlational. But people who are looking for luck, people who are looking for opportunities, you know, we’ll find more of them than those people who aren’t. And so I think being in being like, there at the right time, as it were, is is not just a question of like, waiting it out and hoping that something happens to you. It’s very much a question of constantly, you know, being ready for these opportunities. And in doing that you sort of see them as they go past more. So So I would just emphasize that for the right time issue, I think.


Will Bachman  34:26

So I forget if you use this concept in the book, or if I just brought it to it, but the concept of like increasing your luck surface area. Yes. is in line with what you’re talking about. And what are some of the things that the people that you sketched in the book did to increase their luck surface area? Maybe talk about Ray Kroc a little bit because, you know, what he did was, you know,


Henry Oliver  34:52

he’s a great one. So Ray Kroc was obviously the guy who turned McDonald’s in to, like the biggest business in the world. He was 53 when he drove into the car park and McDonald’s and he was a milkshake mixer salesman. And this is a very unlikely scenario for someone who is going to become the biggest CEO in the world, right. What he found was a small family restaurant that had perfected the fast food kitchen. It was quite common at that time that your burger and fries would take like 15 minutes to arrive. The McDonald’s restaurant had turned that into 50 seconds. So they’ve really perfected this. But what they couldn’t do was scale it. They tried franchising. It completely fallen apart. They couldn’t get people to stick to their standards. Other chains had tried franchising, and it just hadn’t really worked. Ray Kroc had a very long history, in sales of being really, really persnickety. Like, if you had a hair out of place, quite literally, he would pull you up on it, he used to give his employees combs and nail clippers, and he expected everyone to be, you know, exactly. Neat and presentable. And really nothing sort of got past him. So he was the perfect person, it turned out, to stumble across this little business, and make it into a franchise and maintain standards while he did it. The way he found them is, is quite remarkable. He was selling milkshake mixes. And the McDonald’s brothers called him and said, I can’t remember what the number was they needed like six or eight mixes, which was a very large order, right? No one ever ordered that many. In one go. Ray Kroc thought that was so extraordinary, that he decided to fly to California, to go and see these people he was working in, I think on the East Coast, or maybe in Chicago. So he basically crossed the country to visit this restaurant on the basis that they’d ordered a few extra milkshake mixes. Not everyone would do that. Right? Not everyone would say, Wow, that’s a big order I need I really need to find out what’s going on. I need to go and see that place. But the fact that he did go and see it, he had this life changing it. Well, you know, when you walk into that kitchen, and you see how you produce a burger and fries every 50 seconds, he was completely blown away. And that began him on the journey of expanding McDonald’s, but he totally increased the surface area of his luck, because he was prepared always I’m gonna get in the car, I’m gonna get on the plane, I’ve got to go and see. And I’ve got to go and find out which of his salesman’s instincts, right. But he really pushed that, like, as far as he could


Will Bachman  37:48

love his story. In the book, you’re primarily, you know, illustrating the concepts with kind of well known figures, mostly well known, some people have extraordinary, she’d like these extraordinary things that that I had not heard of like Audrey Sutherland, who was this amazing kayaker at the age of 80. You don’t have as many stories about just kind of ordinary, everyday people making, like more modest shifts that a reader might, you know, have more reasonably aspire to, most of us are not going to be the Prime Minister of England. But tell us a little bit about your research coming across people like I don’t know, a social worker who goes to night school in her early 40s, and becomes an attorney, or someone who is a you know, a blood technician and goes to medical school and becomes a doctor, you know, those sorts of more modest every day. Second acts, talk to me about some of that what you learned around that I’m sure you have digested and looked at many stories like that. Tell me some of your takeaways from those sorts of stories.


Henry Oliver  39:04

So there are there are, as you say, fewer of those examples. There are people like that in the book. I feel quite strongly that we should want to learn from the best. And that the stories in here of the people who’ve done remarkable things are the most useful, the most inspiring for all of us. But I did put those other examples in to show that it can work at all levels. I think there’s a woman in there who went back to do her high school certificate Nikoli in her 80s or 90s. And there are people who did PhDs at similar ages and things like that. I think all of the lessons that I have drawn from the social science, and from the sort of famous figures are equally applicable to those people. I think the car mechanic who became a doctor, for example, lots of pieces instance. Right, Amanda in Korea? You know, changing his circumstances like all of these factors apply very strongly to him. Someone pointed out to me that having worked as a car mechanic actually isn’t bad preparation for going to go to medical school and think about the internal tubes and systems of the body. Right, interesting observation, I thought. But there are two, there are two sort of things why they these people don’t get more space. The first, as I say, is I think we learn from the best. And I think I think that’s very important. The second is that, like, these people exist in news stories, and there are profiles of them. But we don’t know them in detail in the way that we know these other figures. And so for fleshing out really sort of illustrative examples, I wanted those details, I wanted people to see how it actually plays out. Like if you think about the story of Vera Wang, which she gets, I think, a couple of pages, not that long profile, but we try and go into some detail. Yeah,


Will Bachman  41:10

I love that section, you know, very cool, he was at Vogue, and then she couldn’t find a good wedding dress. Love that,


Henry Oliver  41:17

right. And you need all of those details, right? You really need to see the twists and the turns and how it relates to her personal life, and her dad has to get involved. And she’s always had this, but she hadn’t known and like, you don’t get that for the less well known people, you just get these kinds of inspirational stories about like, I went back and changed my life. That’s great. And I celebrate it. And I want the book to to inspire more of that. But the Vera Wang story is more useful to you to see that like, hey, you know what, she did three other things. First, she had a really bad time personally. It took it like she had the idea, but she needed the encouragement from someone else. It didn’t take off right away. You know, like, all of these things are really important details. And what I felt strongly was, the internet is full of very good resources of like lists of late bloomers, right. It’s never too late kind of articles, but they don’t get into the like, what actually happened? Like, how, how did she go from vogue to being Vera Wang? Right? That’s a big question. So I felt that to get the answer, like, how do Late Bloomers work, like what’s going on? I felt we needed to dig into these bigger examples to get that detail.


Will Bachman  42:33

So this topic has been on your mind for a while you talked about you would thinking about it during your 10 years as an employer brand consultant. How did your views change? As you really did the research and wrote this book.


Henry Oliver  42:51

I was very focused on the biographical side. And then I became much more focused on the social science side. So finding explanations in network science, in sociology, in economics, in psychology. All these areas, I think those explanations for the in people’s lives was the was the new side of it. And that’s where like a lot of the research went. Because I really wanted to be able to explain, you know, how does someone go from being like a hack journalist to the guy who wrote the dictionary? And I don’t, I think the biographical explanation is fundamental. But you have to add network science to actually get the answer to that, right. Just like with Ray Kroc, you have to add, I analyze him through the work of an economist called David galenson. You have to add these like theoretical constructions, empirical structures to to give you a proper answer, which, of course, is something that like, I wasn’t unused to as a consultant, taking a story and trying to understand it with, you know, with with the real frameworks.


Will Bachman  44:06

What, if anything, was most surprising to you, as you did that research or counterintuitive?


Henry Oliver  44:14

I didn’t know if anything was counterintuitive. I I was surprised at the importance of networks and the extent of their importance, and I think it’s still underrated. How being in the right group of people, being being under the influence of the right sort of people can make a huge difference. And if you’re not happy with the way your life is going, changing who you associate with, I now think is like really fundamental, and I just hadn’t appreciated how important that was before.


Will Bachman  44:53

Have you made any changes to who you associate with because of that finding?


Henry Oliver  44:57

Well, writing a book is great. which change we associate. And I had to leave my job to do it. So like, the day to day pattern of who I’m communicating with has completely changed. And when I, when I left my job, I got a grant from a thing called emergent ventures, which is a fund that gives grants to people who want to do ambitious things. And that has given me access to a network of people who I certainly otherwise wouldn’t be associated with. And they’re there on the whole, you know, very, very highly accomplished much more highly accomplished, and very interesting people. And


Will Bachman  45:37

that’s run by Tyler Cowen at the Mercatus Center. I’m a huge fan of Tyler Cowen. He’s been a guest on the show. And, of course, he’s the author of talent. So that is, that’s very cool that they help support this work. I wanted to spend a minute talking about your substack common reader, which is, I’ve been a fan of it. It’s mostly about literature, bring in some other topics as well. Tell me about what’s your kind of motivation for driving that? And what what are you hoping to accomplish with with with the common reader?


Henry Oliver  46:16

My motivation is that I need somewhere where I can write on a regular basis, or I’ll go crazy. I’m afraid it’s a very selfish motivation. I want to accomplish several things. I think there are a that everyone can read the great works and benefit from them. I don’t want to be one of those literary people who’s like, this is the most important thing, and you’re all idiots if you don’t do it, I just want to constantly put out content that says like, look over here, this is really interesting, right? And find the people who want that. But I also think there are there ways of thinking about literature that aren’t just literary. So I’m I’m quite convinced that Jane Austen should be on the reading list of, you know, consultants and MBAs and people like that. Because like, Emma, for example, is a novel about living in a small community of people. And being very convinced that you know, what’s going on with the relationships between those people, when in fact, you haven’t got a clue? And you’re going to get some nasty surprises? Because you’ve misread everything. I think that’s very applicable to modern office life. Mansfield Park is one way of reading that book is like, I’m stuck in a meeting that I can’t get out of, and I feel like I’m going to spend the rest of my life here. And like, how do you how do you deal with that? What is the best way to manage that situation? I don’t want to oversell Jane Austen as the like the corporate office novelist. But I think she’s very, like she’s clearly read Adam Smith. She’s clearly writing about moral philosophy and economic themes. And I think of her novels as like, thought experiments in how you can deal with those sorts of situations, the fact that they’re set in like English towns among upper middle class people getting married. It’s not incidental. But that’s not all that’s going on there. She’s trying to get to something fundamental about human interaction. Just like reading Shakespeare is, you know, very, very useful for questions of power and ambition and leadership. And I’m not trying to say like, oh, read King Lear in the office, and it’ll help you deal with your clients. But there’s something to that, right.


Will Bachman  48:50

Do you find that you are that, you know, having the sub stack and a place to put your writing? Let’s actually generates more ideas as you’re reading because you have an outlet to put them in? Or tell me a bit more about that, you know, the kind of going crazy without having a place to publish your writing?


Henry Oliver  49:17

Well, I mean, I just I want to write, and if you want to write I think, I think you should, and I think it’s it’s good for you. But you’re absolutely right, that if you’re if you’re reading with, I mean, everyone knows this, right? When you read at work, you’re reading with a purpose. And so your reading is like, much more engaging and efficient. And you’re and you’re looking for something and you’re finding it and you’re thinking about how it fits with everything else. And because I have this substack like everything I read is like that, which I think is way better. I think that’s like the best way. And it means that I ended up I wrote recently a piece about how to raise a happy genius on this question of like, if you give your kids an Intel receive education, do they become brilliant, but actually, it makes them depressed and miserable. Which is maybe a little off topic for my substack. I don’t think it’s particularly off topic, but but you can do that because you’ve, you’ve picked it all up from what you’re researching, right. Whereas if you don’t have somewhere to organize your ideas, these just kind of become things on the cutting room floor of your life. And I don’t want to lose all of that. I want to keep it all.


Will Bachman  50:30

Tell us about it. If you don’t mind, what are your sort of five to 10 year aspirations? Is it going back to being an employer brand consultant and building out that career or giving speeches, keynote speeches on Late Bloomers or, you know, writing more about literature? Or all those things? I’m curious sort of what your where your aspirations are taking you?


Henry Oliver  50:55

Yeah, no, I mean, all of those things, for sure. I still do freelance consulting work for employer branding. And, and enjoy it very much. And it keeps me in touch with, with what’s going on. Right. I do a reasonable amount of writing, paid writing. And I’ve started, you know, doing podcasts and going into organizations and talking to them about not just late bloomers, but like talent, more generally, questions of ambition, how does patronage fit with meritocracy various topics? So, yeah, I suppose my ambition is to like maintain my freedom, in that sense.


Will Bachman  51:38

Your point about talking to employers, and combined with this book, what are some of the the takeaways you’d want employers to think about in terms of, you know, bringing in that more experienced level of talent into the organization, including at potentially, you know, mid level or even Junior roles, about bringing in career changers Who are you know, that older than the fresh graduates?


Henry Oliver  52:06

The difficult thing is that the best way to assess talent is individually. Right. And that’s, I think, basically one of the major lessons of this book. But the most efficient way to assess talent is in batches with criteria so you can screen people, right. So that you can manage cost. But that’s, that’s how you miss some of the sorts of people who are in this book. So sometimes, when I give a presentation, I like to start by talking about Katherine Graham, who became the most successful CEO of the 20th century, ran the Washington Post company, with all of its attendant newspapers, magazines, television stations, right. Warren Buffett invested, it was a hugely successful business. She took that company over age 46, when her husband killed himself. She had no gender she had, what I try and detail in the chapter is she had all the experience she needed, right, and she was very well prepared. But not in business, not in executive roles, not in any of the types of jobs that you would expect to see on her CV to do that work. And so I like to sort of give a little precis of her career and say, I don’t think any of you would have hired her. But she turned out to be the best CEO of the 20th century. Now, obviously, like, it’s one story, how much does it generalize. But I think it’s worth taking seriously the idea that sometimes the best person is not going to look like the best person. And there has been a big move in corporates in recent years to like, relax the criteria. On what kind of degree you can have to come and work here or what kind of university you went to, to come and work here. Right, remove Credentialism of that sort. And I think that’s the right direction. And I think the more you can go with that, where you’re going to stand individually, the more likely you are to find further like very capable, high potential people who would get screened out in a more kind of automated process


Will Bachman  54:28

of that. Henry Oliver, second act, when is your book coming out? And where can people find it?


Henry Oliver  54:36

It’s out in May, and it’s on isn’t and preorder it now. You should get copies on to a friend. Be very flattered. You see so much potential for the


Will Bachman  54:50

right, preorder those do help. Quite a bit, getting a book having momentum, and we’ll also include in the show notes a link to A common reader your substack is been so fantastic having a chance to speak with you about your book after reading it joying it Thanks Henry for coming on the show today


Henry Oliver  55:12

thank you so much well I had a great time

Related Episodes


Automating Tax Accounting for Solopreneurs

Ran Harpaz


Integrating AI into a 100-year-old Media Business

Salah Zalatimo


Author of Second Act, on The Secrets of Late Bloomers

Henry Oliver


Third Party Risk Management and Cyber Security

Craig Callé