Swim From Cuba? You Can Do It Too, In a Manner of Speaking

There's a term for late bloomers like Diana Nyad, who stunned the world this weekend with her swimming feat: ageless explorer. You can be one too.

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Welcome a new ageless explorer to the fold. Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old woman who swam 110 miles from Cuba to Florida over the Labor Day weekend, offers a glorious example of late-life achievement. She has become an instant inspiration to aging populations around the world.

Upon emerging from two days in the water, swollen and breathless, Nyad declared, “We should never, ever give up…you are never too old to chase your dreams.”

With those sparkling words she ascended to a leadership role for her generation and a class of elders that co-author Ken Dychtwald and I, in our book The Power Years, call ageless explorers. We use the term to describe folks entering later life with their passions stoked and still burning to make a mark. We argue that such individuals will proliferate in the years to come as boomers redefine retirement led by the example of exceptional individuals.

Nyad is one of those individuals. She first tried to swim from Havana to Key West at the age of 28. She was turned back then and three more times over the decades before fulfilling her lifetime goal at age 64. This is extraordinary achievement. Yet she is hardly the first to reach greatness late in life. As we write in Power Years:

Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was almost 80. Groucho Marx launched a new career as a television-show host at 65. George Bernard Shaw was at work on a new play when he died at 94. Noah Webster was 70 when he published An American Dictionary of the English Language. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum in New York at 91. Mahatma Gandhi was 72 when he completed successful negotiations with Britain for India’s inde­pendence. I. M. Pei was 78 when he designed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Picasso painted Rape of the Sabines at 81. Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel from ages 70 to 76. Jessica Tandy was 80 when she won her first Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy…At 100, Ichijirou Araya climbed Mount Fuji.

And on it goes. Economist David Galenson at the University of Chicago calls those who achieve greatness late in life “experimental” geniuses. They don’t pop up out of nowhere like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Andy Warhol and take the world by storm at a young age; they build on life’s trial and errors and flower long into the process. Such genius, he argues, is available to all of us and the longer we live with passion and purpose the more likely we are to achieve it.

That’s why retirement-aged people like Nyad, who did something never done before, are so important. There’s a bit of experimental genius—or late bloomer—in all of us. Nyad reminds us that we while we may not all set records in our 60s and 70s, we sure can try, and we just might accomplish enough to make a difference to someone and enjoy being alive.

Dychtwald and I write in our follow up book, A New Purpose:

The rocking chair can wait. It has for John Glenn, who went back into space at the age of 77. After 20 years of directing, Clint Eastwood in his 70s began making the best films of his career… Some of our brightest lights got off to a rocky start. “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little,” read a casting director’s notes after an early audition by Fred Astaire. Walt Disney was fired from an early job for not having any good ideas. Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock produced their best work past the age of 40.

That’s what Nyad did too. Welcome to the ageless explorer’s club, which does more than give hope; it proves what can be done to an aging generation that still wants to get things done.