You can succeed at any age. The character actor Brian Dennehy didn't make a serious go as an actor until he was 38. Henry Ford didn't incorporate the Ford Motor Company until he was about 40, and the Model T, Ford's flagship product, didn't hit the market until he was 45. Colonel Harland Sanders worked as an insurance salesman and filling station operator before the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened when he was 62.
Still, for most, it'd be better to succeed while young.
Too young, no. You can read about a litany of child actors who were millionaires before they could drive. Gary Coleman, Willie Aames, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, and many more. Life seemed to peak early. The amount of attention, money, and erstwhile praise they garnered later never equated to what they got in their primes. The saddest of the lot try, for the rest of their lives, to earn that elusive status back.
For the purposes of this discussion, we can define young in broader terms for most avocations. Most of the time, as general as "before age 30" will suffice.
Obviously, in fields which depend on athletic prowess, we have to define young in more literal terms. A basketball player with NBA-aspirations can't wait until age 29 ½ to finally get his basketball career underway when ages 25 to 31 are considered the prime performance years for team sports. If anything, in sports, succeeding while you're really young is all the more critical.
Accumulative advantage, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it in his book Outliers. He uses Canadian hockey players as a glaring example. Canadian youth hockey leagues segment eligible players by the calendar year in which they are born. A group of 1984-born hockey aspirants starting the sport in 1990 will all be playing amongst each other. But, as we all know, size differs markedly among kids by a single year at those ages. A kid born on January 1, 1984 is basically a year older than a kid of the 'same' age born on December 31, 1984 and looks it. The kids born earlier in the calendar year have in-built size and maturity advantages, and when coaches decide who to promote to the varsity teams in each age group, where skills get honed further, a disproportionate share are born in the earlier months of the year. The earliest leaders continue to be given more and more advantages. By the time, those kids get to be 18-20 and are trying out for positions on professional hockey teams, is it a real shocker that a greater share will hail from the earlier birth months, even though by the time a person reaches age 20, absolute size and strength have no relation to the month one was born?
Normally, accumulative advantage is not defined so narrowly by a birth month. More often, you see it in terms of class. A child born to Ivy League college graduates enjoys a series of accumulated advantages. His parents are educated and likely of an economic background able to afford the high tuition for such schools and so he was raised in a similarly educated advantageous environment that will give him a better chance of admission to an Ivy League school himself. Margaret Ellison founded Annapurna Pictures when she was only 25. Within 3 years, she'd produced 3 films which all earned her Oscar nominations, getting her onto Time's list of 100 Most Influential People In The World in 2014. It helps that her father is one of the ten richest people in the world. Former Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot Sr is worth over $4 billion. His son, H. Ross Perot Jr is worth $1.6 billion. Lloyd Bridges was a successful TV and film actor. So are his sons Beau Bridges and Jeff Bridges.
I am not arguing that any child born to Ivy League parents can get into an Ivy League school; that any child of one of the richest people in the world can start a successful production company; that the son of a well known billionaire will, in turn, become an independent billionaire himself; or that the children of a famous actor have stardom magically handed to them.
I am arguing that, in every case, the child enjoyed accumulated advantages all along the way that significantly enhanced his or her chances of capturing the prize over similarly educated and talented individuals not enjoying those accumulated advantages.
I am aware that the examples I've mentioned are extreme ones. Most kids who attend(ed) Ivy League schools don't have parents who similarly attended one, myself included. Most successful Hollywood producers got to that stage without a billionaire relation. Most of the Forbes rich list is not composed of lucky kids who inherited billions from mommy and daddy. And while plenty of famous actors/actresses have kids who go into the same business, very, very few reach or eclipse the fame of the parent.
Let's use some less extreme examples to illustrate why succeeding young can be so important. We'll pretend it's 1994 and you're a male actor in your mid-twenties regularly auditioning for TV and film roles in Hollywood. You've enjoyed some minor successes: some tiny guest spots on well-known long-since-cancelled TV series, a supporting role in a movie starring an up-and-coming actor of a similar age, your own TV series when you were 18 which failed quickly and another just the year before which also tanked.
Your agent sends you out on an audition for a new TV series about six twentysomethings bonding together as a family in New York City called Six Of One. Over one hundred and fifty other guys, some of them well known, are also auditioning for the same role as the sarcastic socially stunted one. You show up for your audition, give it your best shot, but aren't called back for a second reading.
The part winds up going to an actor of identical age with almost an identical acting history as your own. You shrug. How many roles for other TV pilots did you audition for and never get? Easy come, easy go. Odds are the show won't get past the pilot stage, and if it does, it will get pulled from the airwaves by its first year, just like your previous TV series were.
But the show doesn't get canceled. It's a smashing success after its first year. And its second year. And its third. The show on which you failed to secure a role, since renamed Friends after the pilot, goes on to run for 10 years.
Matthew Perry, who got the role instead of you, starts out with a first year salary of $22,500/episode. Two years later, he is earning $75,000/episode. Five years later, $750,000/episode. With the massive popularity of the show, Matthew starts getting offered regular film work during the show's hiatus, starting at $1m per film and rising to $5m near the end of the show's run. By age 40, Matthew Perry has a net worth of over $60m.
By the time Friends ends in 2004, there is a huge chasm between you and Perry. The accumulated advantages he's picked up from getting cast in Friends put him in another league. No less than 4 TV series get crafted around Matthew after Friend's cancellation. Meanwhile, you, who started out in the identical position as he in 1994, with substantially the same net worth and talent, continue to eke out an existence the same way you always did.
We could be talking about anything. Take two aspiring writers starting out together both publishing their first book at the same time while they continue to work key jobs as English teachers in high school. Five years later, one of the first writer's books enjoys massive success such that she can quit her teaching high school altogether and write fulltime. The second writer must continue to work the day job. As time continues to pass, you would expect, in most (though not all) cases that the gap between the two writers' careers continues to grow, especially as how the first writer can now devote all her attention to writing while the second must continue to juggle that with teaching.
You can especially see it in the world of entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs are usually serial entrepreneurs. They start out with one company which becomes successful enough to sell or go public. With that newfound bucket of wealth and now enhanced credibility in the business world, a lot of the obstacles they encountered when they were starting their first shoestring operation are no longer there for the second, third, fourth.
Now you can apprehend why you see successful
directors and actors eventually turn into producers, too. Once you've
succeeded, you can use your credibility, insights, or merely just your brand
name for other people's projects and help them succeed and make a nice cut off those, too. Successful entrepreneurs become venture capitalists. With more money than time, they can extend their reach into other projects for minimal investment, sometimes just advisory services in exchange for equity. The downside risks are almost nil. Entrepreneurs who haven't yet succeeded wouldn't be privy to these high return, low risk ventures.
It is as if there are two worlds. In the first and much larger one, you have everyone who hasn't yet made it, every guy who has an idea he's trying to get off the ground. Residing here are the screenwriters in Hollywood who don't yet have one screenplay under their belt, the bootstrapping entrepreneur trying to stop bleeding cash, the writer with five novels no one has yet read. In the second and much smaller word are the people who've already arrived. Producers are calling these screenwriters and offering them work and paying handsomely for it. The entrepreneurs have cashed out and are now busily acquiring secondary enterprises or starting their next businesses. The writers already have a following, even if writing is just a side job next to their acting/stand up/business. These writers are the ones who get million dollar plus advances for their very first book.
Where would you rather be?
Let's stack money to the side for a second, because anyone would rather be rich and successful than poor and a failure, and focus on the core objectives here. Anyone would rather do work others appreciate and value than work no one ever sees. In the first world, you can waste a helluva lot of time and money trying to get yourself noticed over actually producing valuable work that will make you money.
Transitioning from the first world to the second can be done in three not-so-easy steps. First, you have to do what you do well enough to convince yourself that you're good at it. You should have some reason to believe you have something to offer this field.
Next, you need to achieve documentable and worthwhile credential building proof that you're a success. This step is not so straightforward. Everyone in the first world is claiming exactly the same thing, and you have to figure out a way to get your voice heard above the others. It could be a business idea that hits at the right time or you scoring a great part in a series like Friends. I wish there was a magic formula for hurdling this step. I'd publish a how-to book tomorrow and be given permanent membership in the second world.
Last, you use the social proof of your unbridled success to widen the gap between you and your former competitors left behind in the first world to firmly entrench your position in the second. That last sentence is critical. The older you are when you take a stab at making it into the second world, the wider a distance you need to bridge between yourself and all your competitors currently basking there.
There is value in the first world. Normal everyday people live there with normal everyday values, and if you were raised that way, you'll likely find these people make better spouses and friends. Being able to maneuver around this world is worthwhile, because these people will largely make up your future customer/fan base.
But there's no lasting reward in getting stuck there. It is far better, in my opinion, to spend the lion's share of your working adult life connected with people in the second world who can assist you in expanding your visions, if you have any.