The 25 club: a short history of youthful over-achievers

I turn 25 in a couple of weeks. For reasons I can’t quite explain, the imminent approach of this milestone has provoked a sadomasochistic urge to research and write about people who have achieved something exceptional by their 25th birthday.

This blog is the result. It’s a catalogue of disgustingly successful inventors, entrepreneurs, musicians, writers, sportspeople and politicians, who have in some sense ‘arrived’ by the time they reach the mid-point of their 20s. It’s not meant to be exhaustive; it’s merely a collection of anecdotes and stories that for some reason or another appeal to me.[1]

rowan atkinson 2

I’ve split the list into five categories, each representing a different field or ‘type’ of over-achiever. Because I’m a historian by training, I’m interested in trends over time, and so each category has its own mini-history.

In some areas of life – notably the world of high-tech start-ups and popular culture – it’s become more common in recent years for success to come at an early age, whilst in other areas – notably politics – it’s arguably become less common.

And then of course there’s that special breed of creative genius whose talent is so immense that it just can’t wait to burst out.

So, without further ado, here’s my list of youthful over-achievers:

  1. The Silicon Valley set

The computer and the internet (the latter has itself recently turned 25) have had a transformative effect on billions of people’s lives. They’ve also facilitated the emergence of some of the youngest business tycoons, inventors and, in some cases, billionaires in history.

The late Steve Jobs was 21 when he co-founded Apple. Mark Zuckerberg was just 19 when he created Facebook in his college dorm room at Harvard a decade ago. By the time he was 23, he was a billionaire and today (aged 29) he’s worth $28.5 billion.

And high-tech entrepreneurs just seem to keep getting younger. The latest one to make a splash is Nick D’Aloisio, who sold his app, Summly (which automatically compresses long news stories into easily digestible summaries), to Yahoo for $30 million, aged 17. Absurdly enough, he is nominally still at school (at King’s College, Wimbledon) studying for his A-levels, but jets off to Silicon Valley one week every month to spend time face-to-face with his 10-strong team of software engineers at Yahoo, who are working to further develop Summly and create other similar apps.

  1. Popular culture and the cult of youthfulness

Rewind to the immediate post-war era, and the stars of mainstream popular culture (which at that time, much more so than now, meant the stars of Hollywood) generally had a slightly older, more world-weary look than their contemporary counterparts.

Think Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (released shortly before his 43rd birthday) or Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (he was 39 at the time). Bing Crosby was also 39 when his iconic rendition of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas went to number one in the charts in 1942. And Julie Andrews was considered exceptionally young to become a star when she won an Oscar for Mary Poppins in 1965, aged 29.

Of course, there were 20-somethings who became cultural icons during this period, but they did so by kicking against the mainstream rather than joining it. The most famous of these self-consciously ‘angry young men’[2] was probably James Dean, whose early death in a car accident in 1955 (aged just 24), means he is forever imprinted in the public imagination as the youthful face of a brash new culture (and a new model of male sexuality).

It was in the 1960s that youthfulness (and in particular boyishness) went mainstream. At the forefront of this revolution were The Beatles, all of whom were in their early 20s when they became international pop icons. Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are, alas, just the latest products of this post-Beatles cult of youthfulness.[3]

  1. Creative geniuses

The individuals in this group are emphatically not a product of the circumstances of history. They are simply people with an irrepressible creative talent that flowed out of them from very early on in life.

The most obvious example is Mozart. By the time he was 25, he’d written more than 35 symphonies and 14 operas. On his 25th birthday in 1781, Mozart was most likely out in Munich, toasting the success of his latest opera, Idomeneo, which is still standard repertoire in most major opera houses worldwide more than 200 years later.

Encouragingly though, for those of us who have been somewhat less prolific in our first quarter century, most of Mozart’s best music still lay ahead of him at 25, including his four most famous operas – Cosi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute – and his epic Requiem (there’s some equally epic conducting from Leonard Bernstein in this clip of the Dies Irae).

Zadie Smith’s multiple award-winning first novel White Teeth was mostly written whilst she was a final year undergraduate at Cambridge, and it was published in 2000, when she was just 24. It has subsequently been adapted for TV and included in Time magazine’s list of the ‘100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005’.

Rowan Atkinson is another who was already well on his way to stardom by the time he turned 25. He was, by then, a regular on the popular satirical show, Not the Nine o’clock News. And in 1979, at the age of 24, he appeared alongside comedy greats such as John Cleese and Peter Cook at The Secret Policeman’s Ball, stunning audiences with his unique ability to turn seemingly unpromising activities like reading a list of names and playing an imaginary piano into sheer hilarity.

One person who might have achieved something spectacular before the age of 25 but didn’t, was Maria Callas. Her great breakthrough came in 1949, shortly after she turned 25, when she was singing Brünnhilde in Venice.[4] The other production running at the same time was Bellini’s opera I Puritani, and when the soprano singing Elvira fell ill, Callas stepped in at short notice. She was an immediate hit and in the years that followed would make the Italian bel canto repertoire her own.

But her breakthrough might have come sooner. Before her 25th birthday she had turned down an offer to sing Madam Butterfly at the Met in New York. Why? Because she a) thought she was too fat for the role, and b) didn’t like the idea of opera sung in English.

  1. The politicians: ambitious young men in a hurry

From time to time you hear political commentators grumbling about how being young and photogenic has become a pre-requisite for being a successful politician in the television age. Clearly there is some truth in this and wise old heads do often get ushered offstage sooner than they might have been in a bygone era.

But truthfully, 20-somethings have been crowded out of public life just as much as 60-somethings in recent years by the triumph of the current crop of presentable middle-aged mediocrities and sycophantic party loyalists who tread the increasingly well-worn path from SPAD to MP to cabinet minister.

In 1783, William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister of Great Britain at the age of 24. By the same age (almost exactly a century later), Theodore Roosevelt had written a highly acclaimed book on The Naval War of 1812, been married, had a child and lost his first wife to kidney failure, and been elected to the New York State Assembly.

Admittedly, these were rare men even in their own day. But their stories are, at least in part, symptoms of the fact that life simply happened faster to most people born pre-1945 than it has for the generations born since.

Death loomed much larger in people’s early lives than it does for most people today. And the structure of education systems (to the extent that these existed) was more fluid. Pitt went to Cambridge at 14. Roosevelt’s education was punctuated by extended trips (each lasting several months) to Europe and the Middle East during his early teens.

The stricter, more regimented approach to education we have today, while undoubtedly bringing huge benefits, has made it much harder for individuals to gain by their early 20s the kind of maturity that Roosevelt and Pitt both had by that point.

  1. Sporting icons

Sport has, of course, always favoured the young (apart from golf I suppose). The advent of satellite TV has transformed local heroes into global icons, but other than that nothing much has changed since the ancient Greeks ran around naked at the original Olympics.

Usain Bolt was just 21 when he first broke the 100m world record and won Olympic gold. Tiger Woods was the same age when he won his first US Masters, and by his 25th birthday he had racked up no fewer than 5 major titles (belying the notion that golf isn’t a young man’s game). Roger Federer bettered that with 8 grand slam singles titles before he turned 25.

And, on a slightly different scale of greatness, my own boyhood hero, Mike Atherton, was opening the batting for England and on the brink of assuming the England captaincy by his 25th birthday.

***

So how should this list make those of us who have reached 25 without making our first billion, or becoming prime minister, or winning 8 grand slams, feel? How do we measure up in terms of the use we’re making of our allotted time?

A word of encouragement: these guys are all outliers. Not just from the general population. They are rare even among over-achievers – most successful people don’t become successful in their first 25 years. You could come up with an equally interesting list of people who went on to great things but were complete nobodies aged 25.

So there’s hope for all of us yet.

If you think I’ve made some glaring omissions in compiling this list, then I have no doubt you’re right. Please feel free to add to it by posting in the comments section below.


[1] It’s been pointed out to me that my list contains hardly any women. This is not deliberate, although it probably does say something about my unconscious prejudices and the deeply embedded male-centric worldview I have picked up from god knows where.

[2] This term is normally used to refer to a group of English writers also active in the 1950s; particularly John Osborne, whose 1956 play Look Back in Anger marked an important watershed in the history of English theatre. He was 26 when he wrote it though, so just misses out on being a member of the 25 club.

[3] Please note, I’m not blaming the Beatles for Bieber and Cyrus!

[4] For the singers amongst you who are wondering, this is not a typo! Maria Callas really was singing Brünnhilde at 25.

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