Let’s face it, your 20s can be intimidating, difficult, and downright stressful. Following typical societal expectations, you’re meant to graduate college, meet the love of your life, and build a blossoming career in 10 years.
Sometimes you just need a reminder that not all paths in life take the same course. In fact, some of the most famous people in history didn’t find their true callings or become notable until much later in life. For every mega-successful person who rose to fame in their 20s, there are also some late bloomers.
Below are 30 notable historical icons and exactly what they were doing in their 20s.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his doctorate young.
After earning his B.A. at 19 and his B.D. at 22, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. graduated with his doctorate from Boston University in 1955, when he was 25. In 1954, MLK became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and had previously joined the NAACP. In 1955, he would lead the famed Montgomery bus boycott. During this time he was arrested, abused, and his home was bombed.
At 28 years old, Dr. King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He would become the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35, just four years before he was assassinated.
Alexander Hamilton joined the revolutionary war before he was 30.
Founding father Alexander Hamilton was a highly successful government official in colonial America by his early 20s. Hamilton said he had his first job at age 11 and moved to New York at the age of 16 to attend what is now known as Columbia University but left to join the Revolutionary War before graduating.
This post has been updated to correct that Hamilton did not sign the Declaration of Independence.
Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job.
Despite the setback, Winfrey went on to host the show “People Are Talking,” where she’d spend the remainder of her 20s making a name for herself as a television personality. She didn’t land her namesake show until her early 30s.
Harriet Tubman joined the Underground Railroad in her thirties.
Born into slavery, Tubman did not have the privilege afforded to most on this list. Tubman spent most of her 20s as a slave until she escaped in 1849 at 29 years old. Soon after arriving in the north, Tubman joined the Underground Railroad and helped free at least 70 slaves throughout her time as a “conductor.”
Freddie Mercury was 25 when he joined Queen.
Perhaps one of the most notable vocalists in modern history, Freddie Mercury was a rock icon by the time he was 30. Joining Queen at the age of 25, it didn’t take long for the versatile front-man to prove himself as a musician. In fact,Mercury was 29 when “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released and subsequently became a Top 10 hit in both the UK. and US.
Albert Einstein was denied jobs in his early career.
After graduating from college at 21, Albert Einstein applied to several academic positions, all of which he was denied from. Faced with an uncertain future in his career, Einstein began to tutor children, but was fired from many of these jobs as well. In 1902, Einstein was offered a job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office.
In 1905, at the age of 26, Einstein would have what many would call a “miracle year.”In a matter of months, Einstein would publish five papers that would revolutionise the world of science, including his famed E=mc2 equation. He would obtain his doctorate this year as well. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.
Sacagawea made her mark on history before she was 20.
Although only 25 years old when she died, Sacagawea’s contributions to the Lewis and Clark expedition in the northwest region of the US will never be forgotten. Sacagawea was said to be the only woman on this two-year excursion.
She was about 17 years old and two months postpartum when she set off with the explorers in 1805. She received no compensation for her contributions to the expedition, but is remembered today as perhaps the only reason Lewis and Clark survived their long and dangerous excursion to the pacific northwest.
Benjamin Franklin didn’t rise to fame as a founding father or scientist until late in his life.
Benjamin Franklin accomplished a whole lot in his life. Not only is he credited with the invention of electricity, but he was also a founding member of the US, helping write portions of the Declaration of Independence. But these impressive accomplishments didn’t come until much later in Franklin’s life.
In his early 20s, Franklin had just relocated to Philadelphia and was working a number of odd jobs. At 22, Franklin opened his own print shop and made a living by publishing pamphlets and books. He was named “official printer of Pennsylvania” at 24 and established America’s first subscription library by 25. Be bought “The Pennsylvania Gazette,” created a volunteer fire union, joined the Freemasons, and published a series of Almanacs all before the age of 30.
Amelia Earhart started flying in her 20s.
One of the most renowned pilots in the world, Amelia Earhart took her first aeroplane ride at 23 years old and started lessons almost immediately afterward.
She earned her National Aeronautics Association licence at 24 and set her first aviation record(the first woman to fly solo above 14,000) shortly thereafter. The famed pilot continued to set record after record into her thirties, which is pretty impressive considering she started flying less than a decade prior.
Frida Kahlo had a tumultuous life.
During this time, Frida took up painting and reconnected with Diego Rivera, a fellow painter, and her future husband. She would marry him when she was 22 years old and follow his career around the US and Mexico. Kahlo wouldn’t garner fame for her work until later in life.
John F. Kennedy had a privileged start in life.
JFK was born into privilege, so it’s easy to see how he was able to accomplish so many impressive achievements at such a young age. As a Harvard student, JFK travelled across Europe as his father’s secretary and published an acclaimed book in his early 20s. He was 24 years old when he joined the Navy and earned a medal for heroism after a boat he commanded was attacked in WWII.
Although he had plans to become a journalist, at his father’s request, JFK returned to Boston after leaving the military and ran for office. He was elected to Congress in 1947 at the age of 29. He would become the first ever Catholic president at the age of 43.
Jane Austen’s fame came after her death.
Austen would dedicate the remainder of her 20s to several other works and move with her family from Steventon to Bath. Her first novel was published in her late thirties anonymously and saw some success. It wasn’t until after her death that it was revealed Austen was the author of popular books like “Sense & Sensibility” and “Emma.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a prodigy.
A musical prodigy, Mozart spent most of his 20s as a court musician in Salzburg, until he made the move to Vienna in 1781, following a successful opera release in Munich earlier that year. Before he was 30, Mozart had established himself as the “finest keyboard player in Vienna,” saw continued success as a composer, and had garnered a small fortune as a concerto pianist.
Rosa Parks joined the NAACP in her 30s.
Born in 1913, Rosa Parks spent most, if not all, of her life dedicated to civil rights. She received her high school diploma at 21 and worked as a seamstress while she and her husband became “respected members of Montgomery’s large African-American community.”
George Washington fought in the French and Indian War during his 20s.
Prior to his 20s, Washington had become an official surveyor of land as a teenager. He became the head of his household at age 20 when his brother and niece died, leaving him in control of Mount Vernon.
At the age of 22, Major George Washington led an attack on the French that would be considered the battle that triggered the Seven Years’ War. Washington was made commander of all Virginia troops at the age of 23 and resigned a few years later. He was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses at 26, launching his political career.
Washington didn’t join the colonial resistance until his thirties, and he would not become president until he was nearly 60 years old.
Betsy Ross was 24 when she designed the American flag.
After eloping at 21 and starting an upholstery business shortly thereafter, Betsy Ross was widowed during the Revolutionary War in 1776 after only two short years of marriage. Later that same year, Ross would design and sew the first American flag – although this has been subject to controversy amongst historians. She was 24 years old when she is said to have created the flag.
Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president when he was 77.
Nelson Mandela didn’t become president until his late 70s. Mandela became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s and would join the African National Congress in his mid-20s after forming the ANC Youth League. Mandela spent 20 years directing nonviolent protests against the South African government before spending 27 years in jail. He would become the first black president in South Africa four years after his release.
Marilyn Monroe’s career blossomed in her 20s.
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, Marilyn Monroe had a complicated childhood, but quickly made a name for herself as a Hollywood starlet and 1940s “it” girl.
Her early 20s were a defining moment for the young actress, who signed her first movie contract in 1946. This was also the year she established herself as “Marilyn Monroe” and died her hair platinum blonde. She would garner fame and fortune after her film “Niagara” was released in her late 20s. She would star in some of her most memorable movies before the age of 30.
Charles Darwin showed an early interest in biology.
After obtaining a degree from Christ’s College in 1831, Charles Darwin begins his scientific explorations to various islands in and around South America. He is 22 years old when he joins the famed Beagle voyage.
He would spend five years on this voyage documenting species and theorizing. It is said that Darwin came up with the idea of evolution between 1837 and 1839, but wouldn’t publish his theories (“On the Origins of Species”) until he was 50 years old.
Shakespeare wrote his first plays in his 20s.
Although far from famous, Shakespeare is said to have written some of his first plays in his 20s. The first of which is said to be “Henry IV,” parts I, II, and III, which was performed in 1590. The first “recognition” of Shakespeare in London was said to be in 1592.
In his late 20s, Shakespeare is said to have written”Richard III,” “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and “The Comedy of Errors.” During this time, Shakespeare also begins his sonnet collection with the publication of “Venus and Adonis.”
César Chávez became a community and labour organiser in his 20s.
After being honorably discharged from the military at 19, activist César Chávez worked as a ranch hand and in a lumber mill during his early 20s. In the 1950s, Chávez worked as a community and labour organiser after being trained by the CSO.
Dolores Huerta became an activist in her 20s.
After teaching in her early 20s, activist Dolores Huerta served as a leader in the CSO and founded the Agricultural Workers Association all before the age of 30. When she was 25, Huerta was introduced to CSO director César Chávez and together they would form the National Farm Workers Association. Huerta would achieve all of this before the age of 35.
Louis Armstrong found his love for music at a young age.
After a difficult beginning in life, Louis Armstrong’s passion for music began as an early teen. Armstrong would work odd jobs to support this musical endeavours. He would move to Chicago at the age of 21 to join King Oliver’s jazz band.
He would make his first recordings and his first recorded solo in 1923. He would make records under his own name in his mid-20s with the Hot Five.By the time he was 30, Armstrong had created some of his most influential work and already joined a Broadway show.
Leonardo da Vinci was THE Renaissance Man.
A painter, architect, and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci led a very successful life as an artist and academic during the Renaissance. As a painter, da Vinci would begin his apprenticeship with artist Andrea del Verrocchio at 15 and remain in his student until he became an independent master at 26 years old.
Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in his early 20s.
Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass spent his teen years attempting to educate fellow slaves. At 20, he successfully escaped to New York.
By his mid-20s, Douglass had begun to attend abolitionist meetings and joined the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” tour across the US He was attacked multiple times on this 6-month tour. He would publish his first (and most famous) autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” and begin the abolitionist newsletter, “North Star,” by the time he was 30.
Barack Obama didn’t become president until he was 47.
Before he was president, Barack Obama spent his 20s interested in law. After earning a degree from Columbia University and working in business for two years, Obama moved to Chicago before starting law school at Harvard in his mid-20s.
Here, he would become the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. He would be 30 by the time he graduated. His political career wouldn’t begin until his mid-thirties when he ran for a seat in the Illinois State Senate and won. He would be elected the 44th president of the US, and the first African-American to hold office, in 2008.
Mary Shelley was 21 when she wrote “Frankenstein.”
Before she was 30, author Mary Shelley had written three books: “Frankenstein,” “Valperga,” and “The Last Man.” Although published anonymously at first, Shelley released “Frankenstein” when she was 21 years old. She spent her late 20s writing her other novels and promoting the poems of her deceased husband, Percy Shelley.
Abraham Lincoln held a variety of occupations in his 20s.
Without a formal education, Abraham Lincoln had no desire to be a farmer, so he worked a variety of jobs in his early 20s. Some of his occupations included a rail-splitter, a flatboatman, a postmaster, and even a surveyor. He enlisted as a volunteer in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and was later elected the company captain. Self-taught, Lincoln became a lawyer after passing the bar exam in 1836 and practiced law for the remainder of his 20s and into his 30s. He would become president of the US at 52 years old.
Winston Churchill was a soldier and journalist in his 20s.
Winston Churchill attending military school and would travel around the British Empire as both a soldier and a journalist for most of his 20s. His first book was published when he was 24 years old. He would later be sent to cover the Boer War where he was captured and subsequently escaped.
By the time he was 26, Churchill would have five books published. This was also the time Churchill began to show an interest in politics. At 26, he joined the House of Commons as a conservative, but by the time he was 30 had switched over to the liberal side. He would become prime minister in 1940 in his 60s.
Eleanor Roosevelt focused on family and her husband’s career in her 20s.
Women’s equal rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt might be remembered best for her extraordinary efforts as First Lady to FDR, but she spent her 20s focusing on everyone but herself. Although her late teens and early 20s were spent involved in social service work, after marrying her husband and having six kids, the feminist icon gave up her interests in favour of nurturing her family and husband’s political career.
She would re-up her volunteer work in her thirties at the start of World War I. Mrs. Roosevelt would go on to reestablish the role of a First Lady in the White House and become an advocate for women, the poor, minorities, and the disadvantaged.
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