Adulthood, and the Liberation of Lowered Expectations


Having recently turned fifty, it seems like a good time to ponder the question of what it means to be an adult.

Ingrid and I were talking the other day about adulthood, and how it isn’t anything like we thought it would be when we were kids, or even when we were in college. When we were young, we assumed that adults had it all figured out: that adulthood meant security, and consistency, and always making the sensible choice, and things running smoothly, and never being blind-sided by life.

I have no idea why I thought this. It’s not like my own parents, or the other adults in my life, were always secure and consistent and sensible with smooth-running lives that never got blind-sided. Far from it. Very, very, very far indeed. So I don’t know where I got this idea: whether it was simplistic and deceptive messages I picked up from pop culture, or if it’s just how a child’s brain is wired, or what.

But I did expect this. And Ingrid and I realized that, to some extent, we’re both still waiting for it: that moment when all the problems are solved, and all the systems are in place, and we can just relax and enjoy. And there’s a part of us that feels like failures because we don’t have this: because we still have worries about money, because we still let things slip through the cracks, because we still get overwhelmed and freaked out by all the stuff we have to take care of, because we still sometimes make dumb frivolous choices that we know are dumb and frivolous even as we’re making them, because our life still isn’t perfectly armored against a monkey wrench sailing in from out of nowhere and grinding the gears to a halt, because we still sometimes blow off our responsibilities and watch “What Not to Wear” instead.

Before fifty different people send me the link: Yes, I’ve read “This Is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult” at Hyperbole and a Half. It’s a huge inspiration for why I’m writing this now, in fact, and if you haven’t read it you absolutely have to stop and go read it now (not to worry: it’s short, and it’s very funny). It perfectly captures a big part of what I’m getting at here: the feeling that adulthood is a constantly moving treadmill of more and more responsibilities, and no matter how much stuff you take care of or how well you take care of it, there’s always more, and it’s never going to be good enough. My favorite line: “Wait… what is this? I have to go to the bank? What am I, some sort of wizard?”

Which is ridiculous. It’s not like going to the bank is a huge fucking nightmare. But when you’ve already spent the morning returning emails and booking plane tickets and picking up the dry-cleaning and calling the vet, going to the bank seems like an exhausting, overwhelming, impossibly Herculean task. Hell, doing anything other than flipping on the TV and watching “What Not to Wear” seems like an exhausting, overwhelming, impossibly Herculean task. I’ve read in neuropsychology books that the part of the brain that makes decisions gets tired after it’s made too many, and that once you’ve made a whole bunch of decisions, your brain basically says, “Fuck you,” and emits a soporific cloud of green fog like a supervillain knocking out Batman, trying to get you to cut it out already and give it a break. Well, okay, that’s not exactly how the neuropsychologists put it. But you get the idea.

So yeah. Adulthood. Not what I expected.

But.

The stubborn, obnoxiously relentless optimist in me has to say “But. ”

There’s a positive flip-side to this as well.

Positive Flip-side Number One: I’ve read — I can’t remember where, but it was in multiple places so it must be right — that most people have a very poor understanding of what makes us happy. We think that happiness means letting go of work and responsibility and effort, that it means lying on a beach with a margarita in our hand and nothing to do. Nope. That’s good for a little while… but we soon get bored and restless. What really makes most people happy is working on a task we care about, one that’s challenging but within our capacity to accomplish. So this fantasy of a perfect adulthood where everything is handled and there’s nothing left to do? BOR-ing. We need and want things to do. That’s what keeps us engaged with the world.

So letting go of the expectation of perfect security and having one’s shit together… that’s hard, and frustrating. But it’s also hugely liberating. And it has the capacity to make us genuinely happy.

Positive Flip-side Number Two: A life that can blind-side you is also a life that can surprise you. And I want surprises. I want to pull into a diner in a strange town and have the best bread I’ve ever had in my life. I want to wander into a shoe store on a whim and decide that yes, despite years of actively resisting the very idea, I am falling in love with those four-inch stiletto pumps and absolutely have to try them on. I want to go see a band that my friend’s co-worker is in, and be transfixed and transported, to the point where I continue to follow them for the next twelve years. I want to have the people in my life who I didn’t even know existed two years ago and who are now among my closest friends. I want to go on a date for what’s supposed to be a casual holiday fling, and two weeks later call her to tell her I love her, and five years later ask her to marry me, and fourteen years later still be crazy in love with her. (Well, okay, I don’t want to do that again…)

Sure, there’s a part of me that wants security and safety and for everything to run smoothly with no worries. But when I think carefully about what that would actually look like, it makes me want to run screaming for the exits. It’s like Heaven: I can’t imagine any version of it in which I would (a) still be myself and (b) be anything other than bored to the point of raving dementia. So if I want a life that has the capacity to surprise me, then I have to take the bad surprises along with the good.

So again, letting go of the expectation of perfect security and having one’s shit together… that’s hard, and scary. But it’s also hugely liberating. And it has the capacity to make us genuinely happy.

And finally, Positive Flip-side Number Three:

I once read somewhere — again, I wish I could remember where, if I were more professional I’d spend 45 minutes trying to dig it up, but fuck that noise — that my generation, and the generations after it, have been re-defining adulthood as playtime. We see adulthood, not as the time when we automatically get slotted into marriage/ parenthood/ a stable career that we stick with until we retire, but as the time when we can choose for ourselves what’s important to us and what we most want to do. Not our parents, not our teachers — us. And if some of what we want to do is go rock-climbing, or drink ridiculous cocktails, or sing karaoke, or play Grand Theft Auto, or dress up in corsets and stockings and go to the Edward Gorey ball… then we get to do that.

Of course we have to make the choices that allow us to do these things — hold down a job, pay our bills, etc. But adulthood means the freedom to make these decisions for ourselves. We get to decide whether we’d rather have clean laundry or watch “America’s Best Dance Crew”; whether we’d rather eat chocolate cake for dinner every night or lose twenty pounds; whether we care more about traveling across the country or saving money to buy a house; whether we want to keep that comfortable well-paying job or live on beans and rice for a few years while we try to make it as an artist/ writer/ musician/ circus performer.

And that is awesome.

Again, I don’t remember where I first heard this… but I’ve seen responsibility defined as seeing and accepting the degree to which you are the cause of what happens in your life, and acting accordingly. That can be hard: it means that when things go south, we have to accept, at least sometimes, that our behavior is what made the southness happen. And there is that whole thing of getting overwhelmed, when there’s too much to deal with and too many decisions to make and our brains are emitting the soporific supervillain “stop thinking” fog. But it’s also freaking awesome. It means our lives are our own. It means we get to decide what matters to us, and we get to try to make those things happen.

We tend to hear the word “responsibility,” and think it means “burden,” or “blame,” or “being boring and always making the safe choice.” But it doesn’t have to mean that. It can also mean freedom: the freedom to make our own choices in the world, and to use those choices to shape our lives to at least some degree.

Adulthood doesn’t mean freedom from responsibility. It means the freedom of responsibility.

And responsibility doesn’t mean perfect security and having one’s shit together. That’s not an option, and we wouldn’t want it even if it was. Letting go of that expectation… that’s hard, and unsettling. But it’s also hugely liberating. And it has the capacity to make us genuinely happy.

Yes, when I was growing up, I saw adulthood as secure and sensible and having everything figured out. But I also saw it as boring, and joyless, and dour, and predictable, and trapped. And I am so glad to be wrong about that, I can’t even tell you.

Comments

  1. Konradius says

    Shouldn’t we be making some top 1 list of favorite atheist writers somewhere, like here?

  2. Randy says

    Very groovy post… it’s something I constantly remind the kids at my university. There’s no point at where we’re magically granted access to the answers at the back of the book of life. We’re all muddling through as best we can. Time and study might give us some insight into what decisions to make, and give us a slightly higher probability of making good ones. As you demonstrate, it’s scary but liberating at the same time. Thanks!

  3. Meagen says

    What really makes most people happy is working on a task we care about, one that’s challenging but within our capacity to accomplish.

    Ah-ha! But video games provide me with an ENDLESS STREAM of tasks that are *specifically tailored* to be challenging but within my capacity to accomplish! If I had no financial concerns I could, in theory, do nothing but play video games all day and be perfectly happy.

  4. karmakin says

    It’s like when I think about it, and when I’m 60-70 I’m going to be probably doing many of the same things that I am now.

    The problem, of course, is that there’s a pretty big cultural divide between those that realize and embrace this and those that think that we need to “grow up”, and fit whatever vision of “adulthood” that they particularly have. Especially when my generation and below probably will never ever be able to obtain any sense of stability at all.

  5. movablebooklady says

    Yes yes yes!

    When I was young, I wanted to be an adult for the freedom to choose. I also wanted to be mature (not necessarily the same thing).

    Now that I am 68, I see adulthood/maturity as the ability to foresee consequences and to choose whether to do something anyhow. I now know what I like and don’t waste my time on what I don’t like, though I do try new things all the time, just in case.

    I do the minimum of “have to” in order to do “want to.” And I frequently opt for “America’s Best Dance Crew” just because.

  6. F says

    This is one of those occasions where I simply have to say, “Yep. Pretty much.” Both Greta and Allie have very insightful and entertaining ways of writing about this.

  7. Math Teacher says

    I just turned 32. I’m successful (a teacher!) and I own a house and I’m running a small business and most of the the time my kitchen is tidy. But I SO DON’T EVEN A LITTLE BIT feel like a grown up. Thirty-two? 3-fucking-2? How can that be my age? I thought I was supposed to have my shit together before I got to my almost-mid-thirties? *sigh*

  8. evilDoug says

    adulthood meant security, and consistency, and always making the sensible choice, and things running smoothly, and never being blind-sided by life.

    (You have to say this aloud, in exactly the way that Edna Krabappel, who is perhaps an outstanding exemplar, would): Ha!

  9. says

    I never understood why everyone was like ‘man, being an adult will suck!’ My reaction to that was ‘no way! I can finally do what I want!’ And it’s kind of true. I have time to chose to write or do chores, but if I don’t do chores, the apartment will stink, and it’ll get disgusting at a level I cannot tolerate. So, do some chores, write some book, and then do events XYZ.

  10. Azkyroth says

    I’ve read in neuropsychology books that the part of the brain that makes decisions gets tired after it’s made too many, and that once you’ve made a whole bunch of decisions, your brain basically says, “Fuck you,” and emits a soporific cloud of green fog like a supervillain knocking out Batman, trying to get you to cut it out already and give it a break.

    This explains a lot, especially considering that there’s as much as an order of magnitude more decision-making involved in defeating the efforts of neurotypicals to make it impossible for people with my condition to function in society. >.>

  11. OpenMindedNotCredulous says

    I turned 51 this month and I have to say this post affected me like few others I’ve read in the past year. I didn’t “feel” like a grown up until I was into my late 30’s and even then I realized that everyone feels younger than their biological age.

  12. says

    I knew a guy once who just seemed to long for the days of childhood. I could never understand that (granted, my childhood lacks the happy memories he apparently had), as I love the benefits of adulthood, even when I sometimes gripe about the responsibilities (although I also enjoy those — sometimes).

    One great thing about Positive Flip-Side Number Three?

    When people are pouring hot wax on your chest and you’re giggling like a fool, prompting the guy holding your wrists down to ask “And how old are we?” This allows the response “Pft. Age has nothing to do with maturity . . . I have six maturities”

    Couldn’t do that when I was a kid :D

  13. Ariel says

    Having recently turned fifty, it seems like a good time to ponder the question of what it means to be an adult.

    Fifty is close (although I’m not fully there), and it seems like a good time to write down something utterly childish :-)

    Long time ago my mother bought me new trousers. Oh my, how they sucked! They sucked absolutely! I didn’t want to wear them. They were so girlish! (Yes, I know, but could you please forget about feminism for two minutes?) Guys at school will laugh at me, my life will become miserable … no, I will not wear them! And my mother answered: “Your friends are certainly not that silly. And if they are, don’t pay attention. There is nothing wrong with your trousers, you should know it and the rest shouldn’t matter. Put them on at once!”

    Yeah, that’s my idea of adulthood in a nutshell. Silly comments do not matter. Laughter and ridicule don’t matter. Do you want to climb a tree, wet your pants and yell like Tarzan (seems like an excellent idea, after all!)? If you are an adult, you just do it, and let the silly people go to hell. That’s what real adults do. Believe me. My mom taught me that.

    As I grew older, I started appreciating a simple truth, which permits me to get closer to the ideal of adulthood. It is: the people around you usually don’t give a shit. Whatever you do, they will probably not notice, not really (that is, unless you spill your coffee on them). They will be more interested in stains on their new shoes than in your antics and grimaces. You will be news for one minute, two at most. You want to be an adult? Absorb this simple truth emotionally (not just theoretically). Easy!

    As for me, I’m almost there. As I said, fifty is looming on the horizon. And I’m almost there. Dear God, just give me fifty years more and I will become a real adult, I promise‼!

  14. Sarahface says

    “I want to have the people in my life who I didn’t even know existed two years ago and who are now among my closest friends.”
    This really resonated with me, even though I barely qualify as an adult. I moved house (and across the country) about a year and a half ago, and some of the people I’ve met *have* pretty much become my best friends, and I love them dearly. It’s odd for me to think that it would have been very easy for me to not have met these people at all, and yet now, I find it difficult to imagine a life in which I hadn’t met them at all.

  15. Scotlyn says

    This paper provides some suggestions towards an alternative approach to adulthood – through play. I’m not at all sure about the scholarly qualities of this paper, or the soundness of its conclusions in relation to hunter gatherer culture, but I’m fascinated by the suggestion that adult life approached through the “rules” of play can powerfully counteract a social tendency to create structures of dominance.

    A propos of the OP, play, as described here, also allows adults to get on with adult responsibilities, without being overy burdened by a sense of its seriousness.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  16. Barn Owl says

    The Edwardian Ball sounds wonderful! Adulthood isn’t what I expected, either, and I have fewer classic adult responsibilities than many people, because I don’t have children. I was also pretty late to the home ownership thing, but that hallmark of (US) adult responsibility has changed considerably, with the mortgage crisis.

    But when you’ve already spent the morning returning emails and booking plane tickets and picking up the dry-cleaning and calling the vet, going to the bank seems like an exhausting, overwhelming, impossibly Herculean task.

    Substitute “grocery shopping” for “booking plane tickets” (I rarely have the opportunity to travel) and “do a load of laundry” for “pick up the dry-cleaning” (none of my clothes require dry-cleaning), and that sounds like a typical Saturday morning for me. If it’s a weekend before an exam, I usually have a lot of e-mails to answer. Stopping at the bank wouldn’t be a big deal – what I find much more exhausting is when people I work with interfere needlessly and act in obstructionist ways. In my experience, this happens with annoying frequency in academia, and I might not always respond in a mature fashion. I often wish for a mooning smilie to include in some of my work-related e-mails: here’s a big buttcrack for you, obstructionist “colleague.”

  17. Dean Allemang says

    Oddly, almost nothing in this post (or in the link, “This is why I’ll never be an adult”) resonated with me. I never thought that was what adulthood would be like, things like going to the bank take time, but there’s no decision going on, so I don’t feel the superhero decision-fog effect. But the last bit did – that adulthood means we can make our own decisions, and that looking at my parents, adulthood seemed dull and trapped.

    Years ago, a bunch of my friends were discussing what it means to be an adult, and how you tell that you’ve got there (friends in an age range from 18-65). There were a lot of good candidate markers; moving out? getting a job? having kids? The one that I felt fit best was this: “being an adult means that you realize you don’t have to live your life the way your parents lived theirs”. For example; my parents’ life seemed dominated by household chores, like mowing the lawn. I chose to live in a situation without a lawn. That was my choice, and I can do it. I have never had a lawn in my whole adult life, I probably won’t start.

    This awareness of your own decision power can come before you have kids, or fail to come after you do. It is probably hard to come to this realization without moving out, but maybe you can.

  18. Cynthia says

    Oh, you make me laugh! And the green fog over the brain? Totally get that! Adulthood seemed, from my childish viewpoint, to be a magical place, where you always knew what you were doing and how to do it. Funny, that, because my parents were always honest about the struggles. I just continued to assume they were magical. And the casual date that led to a lifetime commitment? I am crying from laughter. You’re not the only one that happened to, either. I’d love to hear how many other people find the right lover thru flings and one-offs. All that careful ‘choosing’ seems to be a real waste of time now!

    I am adding this post to the list of ceative writing examples for my homeschooling high schoolers. You have become a teaching tool in all the best ways; hope you appreciate it. The kids seem to relate better to your style than Faulkner or Shakespeare (imagine that!), so it really helps them get the lesson.

    And of course, they know they get cute kitty pics here, too.

  19. says

    Yeah, I often bemoan the fact that I feel nothing like what I thought a grown up would feel like.

    Then I do things like my following epiphany of adulthood.
    Me: “I want ice cream.”
    “Adult me”: “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s 10 am, you can’t have ice cream for breakfast.”
    Me: “I guess you’re… Hey, wait a minute! I pay the rent on this apartment! I bought that ice cream, and the chocolate sauce, and the peanuts! I can totally have ice cream for breakfast!”

    Fifteen minutes later, my husband walked out to me happily eating a bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce and peanuts while playing Diablo II, and said, “Ice cream for breakfast?”
    To which I responded: “I’m a grown up!”

  20. attica says

    I’m on the train that looked forward to adulthood, and have not been disappointed. (51 now.) I remember wanting to be in charge of myself since being a teenager, so when I finally was (halfway through college was when I first felt that way), I was giddy. Liked doing all the grownup things, for the satisfaction of accomplishment. (Yeah, I do my taxes, what up?)Liked being able to choose the grownup things not suited to me, like buying a house. (Lawn care: how do people manage that?!?) I especially like knowing that the path I choose may not be standard-issue, but it benefits me in ways that make me feel, in the small recesses of my mind, unspoken, superior to many of my acquaintance who follow a more conventional path. (I have no illusions; they probably pity me as well — different strokes, right?) Yeah, I worry about money and whether my landlords will extend my lease and other stuff like that, but on the whole, it’s a good gig, and way preferable to adolescence.

  21. interrobang says

    I totally feel this. I’m in my late 30s and still struggling with “not feeling like an adult, in part because I still ask my mom and dad for advice on a lot of things.

    The other week I was in the grocery store and contemplating buying a container of glace fruit because I love glace fruit and like to eat it, but I thought to myself (having been well-trained by Mom not to eat the glace fruit in the baking cupboard at home), “No, you shouldn’t buy that if you aren’t going to make fruitcake with it,” and I can’t bake to save my life.

    Later on, I thought to myself, “Waitaminit, I am thirty-mumble years old, I live on my own, I have a job, I earn my own money…if I want to buy glace fruit and eat it, I should be able to.”

    Then I called my mom and we laughed about it. You figure it out, because I sure can’t.

  22. says

    Best article on adulthood ever. I can’t even tell you how much this resonates with me and also makes me SO HAPPY!

  23. says

    I think that as children, we think that adults have it all together because we are naive. We don’t know what all the responsibilities are or how difficult it is to keep it together because we just haven’t been exposed to it. All we see is the grown ups in our lives moving forward every day and it looks easy.
    It’s interesting. Everything you wrote made sense to me logically but I still can’t help but feel that my responsibilities are getting in the way of doing many of the things I enjoy doing. I have rent and utilities and food to pay for so I need to have a job in order to provide for myself. After I’m done with that job, there’s only so much time left over to engage in all the things I find fun. Part of my issue is that my personality is a bit contradictory: I need to have a certain level of security regarding work so I do something that I moderately enjoy because there will always be a job for me in that field. But I wish I could be one of those people that makes a living doing something I really love. There’s just too much of an uncertainty about that path for me to be able to take the plunge. I also think that I lack the talent needed in order to make a living doing something I really love. I think I might actually suffer from being too much of an adult.

  24. says

    Aside from the one nagging thing of my teenage years I wish I had addressed when I was still a teenager (gender identity) I’m happy to be an adult. I can sit around in my apartment in my underwear playing games all day if that’s what I want to do. No one can tell me what to do and that’s the best thing about it all! I have a warm kitty for company, I have almost every system out there (getting a PS3 soon,) and I get the chance now to play and have fun all day!

    Being an adult rocks.

  25. Russell Moore says

    this was very well written, and with a message that was like a slap in the head and a hug at the same time

    thank you

  26. says

    I thought adulthood would be boring too. It definitely isn’t, but it is not what I thought it would be, either. The endless responsibilities I could absolutely do without!

    I am waiting for some grand maturity to happen, but I don’t see that occurring anytime soon. That’s probably a goof thing! :)

  27. Timothy (TRiG) says

    I really really want to get to see Tim Minchin’s adaption of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and the song “When I Grow Up” from that musical seems to fit this post perfectly.

    Children have an interesting idea of what it means to be an adult.

    TRiG.

    (Please delete previous copy of this post with malformed HTML.)

  28. Nigel says

    @ TRig

    Regarding Matilda – This was my post on youtube – seeing the show sent shivers down my spine. I defy anyone who drives, commutes, works, changes nappies, hires people, or fires people to not reflect that when they were going to grow up it was going to be somewhat different.

    If you have the opportunity and can afford – go and watch

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