Adulting (What Exactly Is It?)
A successful life is not about getting into a certain school, or having a certain job or career, or about how much money you have. It’s not about perfection, making a singular noteworthy achievement, or having the most followers. People will hold these things out as the finish line for you to cross. But forget that. There is no finish line. Your work will feel most fulfilling if you’ve spent some time figuring out your unique interests and talents and you go out there and get better and better at doing that stuff. And much more important than the work you do is how you behave with humans. Research proves you’ll feel happiest—during life and at its end—if you find some small set of humans who know the real you and who love and support you no matter what, and whom you love and support in return.
In terms of actually doing the adult thing, it’s less a checklist and more a process that you’ll get progressively better at over time. It requires balancing a lot of competing things. By the time this book is done we’ll have covered a lot. But there will still be a lot you don’t know. Part of the adulting mindset is about getting much more comfortable with not knowing, with figuring things out, and with keeping going. Being an adult will become the most complicated and yet the most natural thing you’ve ever done.
Tag, You’re It (The Terror and Joy of Fending for Yourself)
Fending is knowing it’s on you to handle something and you’re pretty sure you can at least give it a try. If, when we’re teens and young adults, we don’t know how to fend for ourselves, life can feel like a perpetual game of dodgeball against five opponents where you just want to cower in the corner and cover your head with your hands. Or, if someone is managing our life for us, life is like sitting in the bleachers watching someone else play for us, while we just sit there observing. And hey, yeah, it is kind of a relief to see someone else dodging the ball or throwing it back really well on our behalf, but at some point, psychologically, our mind goes, Hey, wait. Aren’t I the one playing this game? When we’re successfully fending for ourselves, life is more like a game with an evenly matched opponent. You win some points, you lose some, you keep going.
Fending means being responsible and accountable. It means you seek the thing—the job opportunity, the apartment to rent, the medication refill, the groceries to make a meal, the jack for the flat tire, the info on how to pay your taxes—and you find it and make something of it, rather than waiting around to have the thing handed to you or handled for you by someone else. Fending is also about assessing options. It’s asking yourself, Well, what should I do, and what am I capable of, and what resources and tools are around me? And you assemble some solution out of that. It’s usually not a perfect solution, but at least it’s a way forward.
You’re Not Perfect (You’re Here to Learn and Grow)
Hearing your parent or caregiver chirp “Perfect” in response to every little thing you did (you slid down a slide, took out the trash, finished your homework) can convey to you that perfection is required—which, I promise you, it isn’t. And it can make you feel that everything you accomplished was in fact perfect—which, I promise you, it wasn’t. (Classic example: “Perfect. You didn’t hit Billy!” Really?) It can also train you to expect that other authority figures in your life, such as teachers and bosses, will tell you you’re perfect all the time. They won’t. Because you aren’t.
Perfection shimmers like a mirage way out there in the desert. Seeking it is misery because it’s a place you will never reach, and you’ll stress out yourself and everyone around you as you desperately try to crawl to it.
The life of your dreams results not from being perfect but from your efforts to learn and grow. Lean into that, and your life will become deeply satisfying, which is a much more delicious feeling than perfect. Of course, just reading that promise here on the page won’t make it so. Kicking perfection to the curb takes intentionality, effort at practicing it, maybe even some therapy. But you can decide today that you want to let go of “I need to be perfect” as your goal and replace it with “I’m here to learn and grow.” And that’s a strong start.
Be Good (Unlock a Major Achievement)
When your death comes, and you’re sized up by your family, friends, God, and the universe, or whatever you believe in and wish happens at the end, the small moments of you just being you will form your final video. Whether you’re a good person or a bad person in the tiny little moments along the way is E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. What we’re talking about here is your character.
That should feel like a relief. Because you actually have control over your character. But what is it? It’s the outward manifestation of your personality and behavioral traits, which others can observe and experience from interacting with you. You wouldn’t need to worry much about your character if you lived on an island alone. But we are a social species, so your character matters because it matters to others. Character can make or break you. You want to make your character good.
Our character is what introduces us to others, and it’s what they most remember about us when we leave the room, and when we leave this life. You want to be able to interact not just productively but well and joyfully with other humans. But you must balance that with your duty to do right by yourself.
Get Out of Neutral (The Tragedy of Unused Potions)
This is your adulthood. It’s already happening. And one day it’ll be over.
Don’t wait around for a sign that it’s time to start. Don’t try to save it for later when you might be better at it or enjoy it more. Don’t expect someone else to do it for you. You get this? You’re free—no longer a child who gets told what to do, and not yet dead, which sadly is a destination that awaits us all. It’s go time.
When you’re transitioning from childhood into adulthood it’s natural to be stuck in neutral sometimes. It’s scary to try things and scary to leave behind the thing you’re currently doing. Even if that thing is holding you back—as they say, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.
But this life of yours is meant to be lived: actively, intentionally, and, more often than not, with some measure of joy. You deserve that. So, get in that driver’s seat and start to power your life. We’re headed toward relationships next, and that’s going to take a whole lot of action and intention on your part!
Start Talking to Strangers (Humans Are Key to Your Survival)
Let’s start with the simplest type of connection. You leave your house. You go places. Who do you see? Strangers. Research shows that even the briefest eye contact with them is good for you. Adding a little smile is better. And talking with them makes you happier still. Counteract all your impulses from childhood and go for it. Research proves it’ll be GOOD for you.
matters. You may have been told that your twenties are all about work and career and that you can focus on your human relationships later, but if you’ve been told that, you were duped. Picture yourself as a train on a railroad track. Work is one of the two rails supporting the train and allowing it to move forward. Your human relationships are the other track. If you fail to build that track, your train goes careening off into the bewildering darkness.
Back to strangers. The Germans have a phrase, “wie Luft behandeln,” which means “to be looked at as though air.” We English speakers might say, “They looked right through me.” Picture it. You’re in a store, at a party, a restaurant, in the center of your campus, waiting for a train. Someone scans around looking for something, someone, and you meet their eyes, but they just pass over your eyeballs as if you’re part of the wallpaper. While many New Yorkers famously pride themselves on not just their ability to ignore each other but on their desire to do so, research shows it’s actually kind of a shitty thing to do.
The U.K.’s minister for loneliness is doing a nice job of promoting interaction with strangers. If that sounds like something you want to try, check out their website (bemoreus.org.uk) for some very cute videos they’ve put together, including one with little children chatting up strangers in a coffee shop and one with comedian Andy Parsons chatting up strangers at a mall. The advice emerging from them is things like “you have to be aware of people,” “it requires a little effort,” and “make small connections every day.”
Take Good Care (of Yourself)
You’re young, which may make you feel immune and immortal. If so, you’re in danger of not listening to me right now. Or maybe you’re not feeling immortal at all. Maybe you’re feeling sad, scared, overwhelmed, sick, or like a disappointment. Or unseen.
When it comes to adulting, there is perhaps nothing more core and personal than figuring out who and what you are and how you best function, so that you can keep on functioning. Owning your own situation requires first figuring out what your situation is, to the extent that figuring it out is possible (which might entail a diagnosis or a recommendation from a clinician or expert of some kind), then accepting and embracing that this is a part of you. This can be a back and forth as we learn different things about ourselves and have different experiences as that self. There can be progress and setbacks. That’s all normal.
If you want to take good care of your self—and you do, because that’s what being an adult requires—then know yourself. Support that individual self as best you can while opening up to others, as appropriate. Despite what you do (and sometimes because of it) things can go terribly wrong in life, and it can be scary as hell when that happens. It’s time to look at that possibility and what you can do about it.
How to Cope (When the Shit Hits the Fan)
Great pain comes for everyone at one time or another. So, if the shit hasn’t hit your fan yet, it will. And if it already has? It probably will again. You may be sucked down into the bowels of hell. You might even get yourself into that pit through choices of your own. But you are more capable than you know. You have it in you to get up out of there and keep going. And to become a fuller version of yourself than you were before—more knowing, more empathetic, more resilient. And strong.
You want to be that fuller version of yourself, and the world wants that for you, too. The world is after all simply a collection of people doing their thing. And the world community would benefit from more of us having the wherewithal and inclination to look beyond ourselves and to ask, How can I be of use? How can I make things better, for others? Some say the very definition of adulthood is knowing that you have to care about more than just yourself.
Above All Else, Keep Going
Some will say it’s a very rough time to be making your way into adult life. A global pandemic and political unrest shed light on the tremendous systemic inequities already affecting opportunities and quality of life among Americans and around the world. Your plans may have been completely upended. It may be hard for you to find any work (let alone meaningful work) while the economy is recovering. If you’re thinking, This isn’t how it was supposed to happen, you’re right.
But these are not the worst of times. Your ancestors endured war and the threat of war, a lack of food and shelter, violence, legal discrimination, and other types of pain. You come from people who survived long enough to give you life. Take in that sweet thought for a moment.
And now it’s your turn. You were born for this.
You will meet moments of raucous laughter, ecstasy, and wonder as an adult. You will meet moments of despair, ruin, and failure. Much is out of your control. The only thing you are in charge of is yourself, though even that self can be unwieldy at times.
But… nature always finds a way.