Is there a set age you should expect success to happen in life? At what point should you stop trying and realize that your dream may be over? Never. Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all doctrine for the right age to start a business, there is no set timeline for when success will strike. For most of us, our 20s are a blur of job-hopping and career mistakes. And while it certainly doesn’t feel like it at the time, those years can prove to be crucial to building a successful future.
Just because your career doesn’t happen by the time you’re 35 doesn’t mean it’s over—quite the contrary, actually. There are many wildly successful women who have found their calling later in life and are living proof that success has nothing to do with age. For these women, it’s all about hard work, timing, and a little bit of magic. So don’t stress if you didn’t make the Forbes 30 Under 30 list this year, because your time is coming. And trust us—it will be worth the wait.
To prove it, we’ve highlighted 14 incredibly talented ladies who were late bloomers in their careers. These women demonstrate how hard work, passion, and grit go a long way in making your dreams come true.
You might think that “coming from nowhere with no connections” might stack against you, but you could say it worked in Jessica Chastain’s favor. While she wasn’t sure how to get there or what the path would look like along the way, she always knew where it would lead. From a young age, Chastain recognized that she wanted to be an actress. “I always knew," she told Off Camera With Sam Jones. "As soon as I knew it was a profession, I knew that it was mine."
“I didn’t ever have to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up," she said. "For me, I just knew I wanted to be an actor.” At age 31, the theater actress had still never been in a film, and after countless rejections, she was finally cast in widely successful films including Tree of Life and The Help—both of which earned her an Oscar nomination. It didn’t happen for the now 37-year-old actress overnight, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I would have been a disaster,” she told Glamour. “If I was 19 and I had the attention that I’m getting now, I would have just said stupid things. I would have partied more. All these expensive dinners and people giving me champagne? All these stupid things that we criticize 19-year-olds for doing when they’re famous, I would have done.”
Then, just as her career was starting to take off, Chastain turned down Iron Man 3 (and the big paycheck) for her Broadway debut as the lead in The Heiress. “What’s really rare here is to have an actress at the peak of her career say, ‘Stop, I’m going to do Broadway,’” veteran Hollywood producer Paula Wagner told Vanity Fair. Now Chastain has no shortage of Hollywood scripts or luxury beauty campaign offers being sent her way. In fact, she’s the face of Yves Saint Laurent’s Manifesto fragrance, so we imagine there will be more endorsements in her future.
Our Takeaway: Don’t force something to be when it’s not ready to be. If you have the will and work hard for it, it will happen when the time is right.
Kerry Washington first landed on our radar for her role as the powerful Olivia Pope in the hit TV series Scandal. This Hollywood ingénue landed the lead role at age 35, and now 40, she admits that she’s still blooming—and not about to rest on her laurels anytime soon. Her patience, grit, and determination have been key to her success.
Washington told Oprah Winfrey that she believes she didn't make it earlier in her career because of the pressures to conform. She didn't truly thrive until she was fully herself.
“In the beginning of my career I was often told to fix things like fix your teeth, wear your hair differently or dress differently or I was too ethnic or I didn’t speak black enough…Whatever it was,” Washington told Winfrey. “These were the reasons why I wasn’t making it in the beginning of my career.”
"So I don’t think I was gonna be awarded for being someone else because I never have been and also I just don’t have the energy," she said.
“Honestly, I’ve never had this thought before sitting here with you, but I think I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to be somebody else so I just don’t have the energy at this point," she said.
Our Takeaway: Being yourself tends to pay off, even if it takes a while for people to get you.
Before she was one of the world’s most famous bridal and fashion designers, Vera Wang was a competitive figure skater (she was even inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame) and a journalist. After graduating with a degree in art history from Sarah Lawrence College, she worked at Vogue, where she became a senior fashion editor at just 23 years old. After working at the magazine for 15 years, she spent a short time as an accessories design director at Ralph Lauren. Ok, so this is all very impressive, but note that she is now a fashion designer—a career that requires an entirely different skillset.
Frustrated by the lack of chic bridal options available while planning her wedding, Wang, then 40, entertained the idea of becoming a bridal designer. She is now globally renowned for leading a major fashion and bridal label.
Our Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to switch up your career. Gone are the days of staying in one job for the rest of your life. Just be flexible and take new opportunities as they come.
Despite playing almost every leading female Shakespeare role during her 30-year stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Judi Dench didn’t star in a leading theater role until she reached 34 years old. Her career in the U.K. continued to take off on screen and on stage, with 26 BAFTA nominations to prove it. But it wasn’t until her 60s that she graced our screens in the U.S. as James Bond’s boss in the 1995 film GoldenEye. Then at 64 years old, Dench won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.
Our Takeaway: Take the time to really hone your craft so you’re ready for the opportunity when it comes.
After directing a few small (and fairly successful) action movies, including Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow began gaining widespread recognition for directing the 2008 drama The Hurt Locker. At 57 years old, Bigelow became known as one of America’s most influential female directors—thanks to the film’s Academy Award wins for Best Picture and Best Director. Because Bigelow is one of few female directors in the film industry, she’s become a spokeswoman for gender discrimination in Hollywood.
“I have always firmly believed that every director should be judged solely by their work, and not by their work based on their gender,” she told Time. “Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward-thinking and progressive people, yet this horrific situation for women directors persists. Gender discrimination stigmatizes our entire industry. Change is essential. Gender neutral hiring is essential.”
Our Takeaway: Always believe in yourself, no matter how much the odds are stacked against you. When you really want something, don’t take no for an answer.
Viola Davis is one of the most hardworking, talented actresses of our generation. After graduating from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, Davis made her Broadway debut with a starring role in Seven Guitars. She went on to receive a Tony Award for her performance in the drama King Hedley II and then took on smaller roles in hit TV shows like City of Angels and Law & Order. But it wasn’t until she landed a role opposite Meryl Streep in the 2008 film Doubt that the world started to take notice of the then 43-year-old. Davis received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the film, followed shortly by a Best Actress title for The Help. At age 49, she became a household name thanks to her leading role in the ABC series How to Get Away With Murder—which led her to become the first African-American actress to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
Davis’s childhood explains a lot about her work ethic today. Growing up in poverty, she often faced hunger—even resorting to digging through dumpsters to find food. But she didn’t let this crush her. In fact, it fueled her and pushed her to do better for herself. “I tell my daughter every morning, ‘Now, what are the two most important parts of you?’ and she says, ‘My head and my heart," she told Glamour. "Because that’s what I’ve learned in the foxhole. What gets you through life is strength of character and strength of spirit and love."
Our Takeaway: Never take anything for granted. Perseverance, passion, and love will make things happen for you.
If you have your sights set on being Vogue’s next editor in chief, let Anna Wintour’s career trajectory be your guide. It wasn’t until her late 20s that she secured a fashion editor role at the erotic women’s magazine Viva. Despite being published under the same umbrella as Penthouse, the raunchy publication served as the perfect breeding ground for Wintour’s career experimentation, including expensive, large-scale photoshoots. Wintour moved around through various magazines roles (even working as fashion editor of Savvy and New York Magazine) before she was promoted to the role of British Vogue’s editor in chief in 1985. It wasn’t until she was 39 that she assumed her current role at Vogue.
Our Takeaway: Everyone starts somewhere. No matter how small or insignificant your role feels at the time, just know that it counts on your way to the top. Even the most iconic, reputable, and lauded female leaders often worked their way from the bottom up. Also, experimenting with different job roles can help to build character and develop a strong sense of self.
After completing an internship at the White House while attending George Washington University, Huma Abedin went on to become an associate editor at the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs at 28 years old. She then became a staff assistant at the White House before Hillary Clinton took her on as traveling chief of staff at age 31. In a 2007 interview, Vogue called the now 37-year-old “Hillary’s secret weapon,” who progressed from a young college graduate to a "Chanel-wearing, deeply confident 32-year-old woman whose BlackBerry contains some of the most famous names in America.” In the same article, Clinton said, “Huma Abedin has the energy of a woman in her 20s, the confidence of a woman in her 30s, the experience of a woman in her 40s, and the grace of a woman in her 50s.…I am lucky to have had her on my team for a decade now.”
Our Takeaway: Your college internships may end up benefitting you later in life and you don't even know it yet.
When Vivienne Westwood’s partner Malcolm McLaren started managing The Sex Pistols in the ’70s, she did what any fashion-inclined woman would do: She dressed the band. In the ’80s, her career picked up when she and McLaren started showing their collections. But it wasn’t until her 50th birthday that the world really took notice of Westwood and her creation of the iconic mini-crini skirt. Now in her 70s, Westwood has been deemed “the fairy godmother of the British fashion industry,” according to the Independent.
Our Takeaway: When you discover your passion, stick with it. Don’t give up on your dreams.
Christina Hendricks is proof that your 20s are the building blocks to a great career and, in her case, the time when you develop a thick skin.
“I’ve been to a million auditions and have been rejected a million times,” she told Flare. “It’s something that I’m used to. You’re either right for it, or you’re not right for it. You could leave thinking you had the best audition in the world, and they say, ‘You don’t look like the person I imagined.’ It has nothing to do with your talent. Someone could have just broken up with a redhead the other day and not want to hire me.”
Someone did eventually hire Hendricks, casting her in the “life-changing” role of Joan Harris in the award-winning television drama Mad Men. At age 39, she told People her life had “pretty much changed in every single way. Except for my friends and my family.”
Our Takeaway: Don’t let other people’s opinions of you drag you down. Learn how to develop a thick skin. Shrug it off and keep your chin up, with your eyes firmly on the prize.
Jane Lynch certainly wasn’t a stranger to the screen before landing her big break on the hit TV show Glee. In fact, most of Lynch’s breakout roles came to her while she was in her 40s. Before she was cast as Sue Sylvester on Glee at age 51, she appeared in films including Best in Show and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. She’s very happy about the timing of her success. “If you were to tell me five years ago that this would have happened for me, I would have told you that you were lying," she told USA Today. "But it just feels so right and so wonderful. I think if this had happened for me younger, I would be so unstable in my energy—fearful that it would all be taken away.”
Our Takeaway: Trust the process, and when you finally get to touch your dreams, hold on tight and don’t let go.
You might remember Connie Britton from her small recurring roles on The West Wing and Spin City, but it wasn’t until Friday Night Lights that she really lit up our TV screens.
Before she was cast as Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights at age 39, Britton experienced her fair share of “heartbreak” from roles that got away—including missing out on the female lead in Jerry Maguire to Renée Zellweger. She never let that stop her, though. With a positive “everything happens for a reason” attitude, Britton accepted the role as the football coach’s wife on the hit network series. The role quickly turned her into a “40-something sex symbol and role model,” redefining what it meant to be an actress in her prime." We agree with The New York Times: “Jerry Maguire may have been the best thing that never happened to her.”
Our Takeaway: If something doesn't go your way, maybe it's because there's something even better out there for you. Be open and embrace change.
It’s hard to believe that one of America’s most iconic TV chefs and authors didn’t even learn to cook until she was 36 years old. In fact, Child originally had plans to be a novelist and reportedly wrote plays and short stories, which she submitted to The New Yorker but were never published. After moving to France in 1948, she adopted the country’s sophisticated cuisine and altered it to the American palate for her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her world-famous cookbook was a best seller for the next five years. At 40 years old, Child became a TV icon on the TV show The French Chef, which aired on WGBH and was then syndicated to 96 stations.
Our Takeaway: Stay curious. Your new passion just might become your new career.
Despite a notable career as a stylist in New York, it wasn’t until Patricia Field opened her Greenwich Village boutique that doors started opening for her in television and film. In 1995, at age 54, she met Sarah Jessica Parker during the filming of Miami Rhapsody. From there, Field’s career really took off. The creative duo worked together on outfits for Parker’s character in Sex and the City, which went on to become one of the most iconic television shows of the late ’90s. Since then, the stylist has been nominated for five Emmys (one of which she won) and six Costume Designers Guild Awards. She’s also worked on numerous shows and films, including Ugly Betty and The Devil Wears Prada.
Our Takeaway: Never stop networking. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You never know who you will meet.