Kick-ass women who achieved success later in life

A phenomenal success story for every decade of your life

That crack of light under the door reveals what you’re up to.

You, who gets up before the sun and your family, before the never-ending duties of the day commence, to work on your manuscript.

And you – you with the full-time job, exhausted at the end of a 10-hour day, resisting the urge to plonk down in front of Netflix,  choosing instead to work on your business plan.

It’s slow work. Sometimes you feel like you’re not moving. You get discouraged. It’s such a gamble. Sure, there’s the odd person who becomes successful later in life, but who are you to think that will be your life story?

Truth is, there are many, many people who reached success and made their personal goals come true later in life. And while these people are often portrayed as overnight geniuses who, through some stroke of luck or sudden inspiration became an overnight success, truth is, they are just like you.

Because there are no overnight successes. Those people who launch the successful start-up at 40 or start a successful writing career at 50 are usually just like you, steadily working towards a goal and honing their skills.

To inspire you, here are some late bloomers who took the slow and steady route before making a big splash.

Toni Morrison 

– Published her first novel at 39


There’s something about mid-life approaching that allows us to see things clearly. With renewed vision, we get rid of that which doesn’t serve us and double down on making those dreams we’ve always carried within us come true.

This may have been true for Toni Morrison, who published her first book, The Bluest Eye, just before she turned 40.

Years later, when asked about successful writing tips, she said, with a twinkle in her eye, “publish your first novel when you’re 40.”

One might argue that the perspective needed to write an insightful book often can only come when one has lived a little.

It’s a course of action that certainly worked for Toni, who had a long and successful writing career, becoming one of the best-loved and most admired authors of American literature and a Nobel Prize winner.

Your life is already artful, just waiting, waiting for you to make it art.
― Toni Morrison


Vera Wang

–  Launched her fashion label at 40


One of the most well-known bridal wear designers in the world, Wang’s exquisite designs are the envy of women around the world and have been worn by high-profile clients like Mariah Carey and Michelle Obama.

But Vera didn’t go independent until she was 40. Before that, she worked at Vogue for 17 years, then did a two-year stint at Ralph Lauren.

In fact, Vera is a big proponent of working for other people, saying:

“Don’t be afraid to take time to learn. It’s good to work for other people. I worked for others for 20 years. They paid me to learn.”
― Vera Wang

So next time you’re fed up with your job, you might gain that extra motivation you need when you remind yourself that you’re really getting paid to learn.


Ernestine Shepherd

– Became a body builder at 56


Ernestine Shepherd started doing aerobics with her sister when she was 56. Her sister, Mildred Blackwell, then suggested they start weight training.

“You know what we’re going to do. We’re going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records as two of the oldest female bodybuilders,” Mildred said. “And what’s gonna happen is we have something else. We’re sisters… Within a year’s time, if anything were to happen to me, I would want you to keep this up.”

Little did Ernestine know her sister already had health problems and was to pass away shortly after. Using her sister’s legacy as motivation, Ernestine continued on her body building journey.

Today, at 83, Ernestine is a well-known bodybuilder, sought-after personal trainer and popular motivational speaker. Many of her clients are inspired by Ernestine exactly because she started getting fit so late in life. If she can, they figure, so can they.

“As long as I can move my arms, move my feet, have presence of mind, I will continue this until my last breath.”
― Ernestine Shepherd

Lyn Slater

– Became a fashion icon at 64


With her distinctive style, social work professor and style influencer Lyn Slater inspires women the world around to embrace and celebrate their age, their unique differences and their authentic sense of self and style.

While she is often touted as being ‘discovered’ by a random photographer, in truth Lyn wrote this new chapter in her life herself.

In fact, it all began with a blog she started.

‘I wrote this blog because I was feeling very stifled in the way that I could write about things that I really cared about in academia,’ Lyn says.

‘I wanted to use something that could engage a lot more people into conversations about important things, and so I actually chose fashion as the lens through which I was going to do it.’

Slater calls the idea of her just randomly being discovered a ‘fairy story’ and is living proof that it’s never too late to set your sails in a new direction, aimed with the skills you’ve already acquired.

“My age does not define me, and age is certainly not a variable.’”
― Lyn Slater


Louise Bourgeois

– Gained recognition for her art at 71


Louise Bourgeois was always an artist. She spent her life making prints and drawings and, most of all, sculptures and installation pieces.

Later in life she also became a mentor, passing on her skills to younger artists as a lecturer and even inviting them to parties at her home to be critiqued by her.

While Louise’s work was respected, it wasn’t until a 1982 retrospective of Louise’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that she became well known in the art world. She was already 71.

Professional recognition came late in life for Louise. Maybe it mattered. Maybe it didn’t. Most importantly to her, she was doing what she needed to do. As she said:

“I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands.”
― Louise Bourgeois

Gladys Burrill

– Ran her first marathon at 86


Affectionately known as Glady or Gladyator, names that match her cheerful outlook on life and tough, adventurous spirit, Gladys took on the enormous task of training for her first marathon at the advanced age of 86.

And she kept setting herself new goals, becoming the oldest women in history to complete a marathon at the age of 92.

“It’s just a way of life for me,” says Gladys, who has always loved being active and adventurous, whether it’s been running, swimming, climbing mountains or even piloting a plane.

It’s a way of life that seems to agree with Gladys, who celebrated her 100th birthday with friends and family last year. She still walks regularly around her home town of Waikiki and you’d never guess her age. It’s simply irrelevant.

“It’s so important to think positive. It’s easy to get discouraged and be negative. It makes such a difference in how you feel and your outlook on everything.”

― Gladys Burrill

Nola Ochs

– Got her degree and became a guest lecturer at 95


Like many women born in the 1930s, Nola Ochs spent her life looking after her family and their Kansas farm.

But Nola always had a thirst for knowledge. So instead of slowing down as she reached her nineties, Nola went to university to study history, becoming the world’s oldest college graduate at 95. She graduated alongside her 21-year-old granddaughter.

“Through the years I quit counting my age… And for several years actually I didn’t know how old I was,” Nola said. “And so when I was in the classes here, within myself I didn’t think about being so much older than they are.”

And when you’re 95, there’s no time to beat around the bush about what you want in life. So the minute she graduated, Nola set about making her dream come true: ‘To be a storyteller on a cruise ship.’

And with the hard work, determination and pure chutzpah that had fueled her life until that moment, Nola fulfilled this goal when Princess Cruisers hired her as a guest lecturer on a Caribbean cruise, an adventure she shared with granddaughter.

But Nora wasn’t about to stop. She had her sight set on a master’s degree. So once her wheat harvest was in, she went back to school becoming the oldest recipient of a master’s degree in the world at 98.

“It is never too late to pursue your dream. Get out and do something you would like to do, something you enjoy doing. You have to work at it. Set a date to begin. Don’t just sit there!”

― Nola Ochs


Sarah Yerkes

Published her first poetry anthology at 101


Sarah Yerkes had had a creative outlet all her life – first as a landscape architect, then as a sculptor. When, in her 80s, she and her husband moved into a smaller home, there was less room for sculpting, so she had less motivation to work.

But bright and creative minds can’t stay idle for long and soon Sarah discovered poetry when attending a workshop with a friend.

Research shows that creativity stays with us well into old age, as long as we are open to new ideas – something that’s true of Yerkes, whose writing tutor was struck by how she would take a writing prompt and run with it.

Sarah worked hard at her craft for many years and published her first poetry anthology, Days of Blue and Flame, at the age of 101.

Her editor, Kendra Kopelke, said, “When you are older, you have to adapt to a smaller universe, but you bring to that all the tools you have learned throughout your life and apply them in new and interesting ways. At a time we normally think of as winding down, Sarah’s imagination is unfolding.”

In her poem, Quilts and Verses, about a woman who saves patches of colored cloth for patchwork quilts, Yerkes sums it up well:

 “Both verse and quilt need reasons to survive —
 expressions of a message, a design,
Creators all will find that in them, curled
a valued insight waits to be unfurled.”

― Sarah Yerkes

Whatever insight is inside you, waiting to be unfurled, it’s time for you to bring it out into the world, no matter your age.

It’s not too late and you’re not too old


You’re not the person you were in your 20s and that’s a good thing. Because you know what you want now, and you’re working towards your goal.

You put in the hours and keep pushing those boundaries. You’ve learned so much and you keep learning more.

Picture the day when you’ve launched that business or run that first marathon. You’re finally here. All your hard work has finally paid off. You’re feeling euphoric, light and free.

You will get there if you keep going. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t give up now. Your future is waiting and it’s bright as broad daylight.


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