Perpetual Learners and Amazing Feats at Any Age

University of Europe Laureate Digital

Success can be achieved at any age, especially if you are a perpetual learner. How many eighteen-year-olds do you know have a comprehensive plan for their post-secondary education and subsequent career path? Many people are under the impression they have little choice but to go directly from high school to college or university, then onto an entry level job in their field, and moving up steadily from there. If this direct path is the best way to go, that means you have to know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life at the young age of eighteen. Needless to say, life is usually a lot more complicated than that.

Luckily, there is no age limit when it comes to learning. Thanks to a volatile economy, changing industry demands, and the role technology plays in the workforce, many middle aged people are choosing to go back to school to upgrade their skills or pursue a dream they put on hold when they were younger. According to a study completed by the UK’s National Union of Students, in the 2009-10 school year, there were more than 170,000 mature students over the age of 30 studying for their first degree at UK universities. Between 2005 and 2010, mature applicants to post-secondary schools increased by 46.7%, compared to 28.9% among young applicants.

In addition to being a positive way to engage in lifelong learning, online study is becoming an increasingly attractive option for anyone considering a career change, and working professionals looking to upgrade their skills.

With a little ambition, perseverance and passion, accomplishing all your goals is doable at any age. Just look at these 5 people who didn’t reach their full potential till their later years:

Charles Darwin: Naturalist
Found success at 50

Charles Darwin, an English naturalist and geologist, is best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. He started to pursue a career in medicine, but his interest in nature caused him to neglect his studies. Instead he decided to focus on being a naturalist and at the age of 50, his book On the Origin of Species was published. He spent the years that followed researching human evolution, sexual selection and plant sciences, sharing his findings with the scientific community. He continued his research until right before his death at the age of 73, and his concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection is now the main unifying concept of the life sciences.

JK Rowling: Bestselling novelist
Found success at 32

Thanks to the massive success of the Harry Potter book series and subsequent film franchise, JK Rowling is household name all over the world. Before she got the idea for the series, Rowling graduated from the University of Exeter and worked as a secretary. She was a single mother living in Edinburgh pursuing a teaching certificate when she finished the first Harry Potter novel in 1995. It wasn’t until 1997, when Rowling was 32, that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in the UK. The series won countless awards, thrust Rowling into the spotlight, and became a worldwide sensation. She has gone on to write four adult novels and continues to work on Harry Potter-related projects.

Joan Birman: Mathematician
Found success at 41

Now 89, Joan Birman still holds the title of Research Professor Emerita at Barnard College, Columbia University. She earned her B.A in mathematics from Barnard College in 1948 when she was 21 and her masters two years later. She took some time off from her studies to work as a systems analyst in the aircraft industry and focus on raising her three children. In 1961, she returned to school and received her PhD from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in 1968 at the age of 41. Her book Braids, Links, and Mapping Class Groups has become a standard introduction to braid theory and many of today’s researcher’s still consider it a staple.

Harland Sanders: Businessman and Founder of KFC
Found success at 49

You may recognize Harland Sanders as Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. After spending years in a number of odd jobs like steam engine stoker and insurance salesman, he started serving food out of a service station before opening his first official restaurant in 1939 at the age of 49. He franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken, which was already successful thanks to his “special recipe” for frying chicken in a pressure fryer, in 1952. After that, he traveled the US looking for more franchise opportunities, finally selling the highly successful empire for $2 million in 1964 at the age of 73. By the time he died at the age of 90, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 different countries. Not bad for a guy who didn’t find his calling until he was almost 50 years old.

Edward Witten: Physicist
Found success at 39

Although his father was a successful physicist, Edward Witten chose to pursue a B.A in history instead. After a semester as an economics graduate student, he switched over to applied mathematics, eventually earning a PhD in physics from Princeton University. In 1990, at the age of 39, Witten was the first physicist to ever be awarded the Fields Medal by the International Mathematical Union, proving that he’s just as much a mathematician as he is a physicist. He has contributed to the development of at least eight major theories and continues to win major awards for his work on string theory. At 64, he’s still widely considered to be the world’s smartest living theoretical physicist.

In many ways, studying as a mature learner provides additional advantages. You come to the table with more wisdom and added drive after choosing a specific subject consciously. These individuals and countless others – most of them likely just as successful, though not as famous – are living proof that it’s never too late to learn, and it’s never too late to work towards a lifelong dream or interest that may have been placed on hold. This principle holds true even more so today, considering the prevalence of online education and the vast amount of resources available at your fingertips.

So why wait? There’s no better time than now.

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