Why Is Adulting So Hard?
As the instructor passed around unicorns cut out of construction paper and a “Never Give Up” coloring page, that’s when I knew. This was not where I would best learn how to be an adult. And also that I had just wasted $10 and one hour of my life.
I was in the back of a coffeehouse, at the last class in a 12-week series called Adulting 101—“a peer-led experience in learning some of the basics of adulting”—but it was my first time and, coming in, I didn’t really know what to expect.
What I found was about 10 people, all sitting around a conference room table, all there to take part in a conversation about “how to tap your inner Boss B*tch and start winning at life.”
We talked about the qualities of a Boss B*tch. They have a positive energy; they’re brave and vulnerable; they set out to change the world. We talked about the one thing that stands between us and being a Boss B*tch, and that thing is F.E.A.R.: Fight Everything And Run. And to change that, you have to “Find Energy And Rise.” Because, I’m told, rising is easier than running.
It all sounds inspiring, but I wondered how I would put it to work in my life. Or if it was just a cop-out. Empty motivation.
I realized that maybe I was better off figuring this out on my own.
My first job out of college was actually a fellowship—a glorified internship for postgrads—with a big media company that would give my résumé the credibility it needed and me the working experience I needed.
I was excited because I was starting my career in journalism with a bang and relieved because this is what I’d worked so hard for over the past four years. I was also anxious because I didn’t know a soul in Birmingham, Alabama, nor had I ever visited. But mostly I was scared. To leave my family and my friends. To move away from home. To be on my own. Looking back, I know I was just scared to grow up.
I cried as I drove past the Gateway Arch, watching St. Louis get smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror until it disappeared altogether. So many questions overwhelmed my mind: How was I going to survive on $10 an hour? I was going to be broke, wasn’t I? What if I wasn’t good at my job? Would I have friends? What was I going to do on weekends with no friends?!
God, get it together, I thought, sniffling away the tears. You’re an adult.
But I definitely didn’t feel like one.
Back then, I had a plan for my life: get married by 25 and have kids by 27. Except my plan didn’t work. I’m behind. I’m 28, and I have done neither of those things. But what I’ve learned is that that’s OK. I’m fine. It’s normal.
People just want to find support in the struggle of finding their own way.
It takes longer to grow up today than it did in the past. In the traditional sense, anyway. In 1960, the median marriage age was 20 for women and 23 for men. Now, it’s 27 for women and 29 for men, and it’s still rising. It’s not that we think marriage and parenthood aren’t important, so what’s happening?
I asked Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts. He says it’s because so much has changed in the past 50 years in the lives of young people—a reflection of four revolutionary changes that took place in the 1960s and 1970s:
- The Technology Revolution—when the U.S. shifted from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, requiring more education for longer than ever before.
- The Sexual Revolution—when the birth control pill was invented, breaking the link between sexuality and marriage for the first time.
- The Women’s Movement—when educational and professional options opened up to women, changing how they planned their lives.
- The Youth Movement—when young people were no longer in a hurry to grow up, celebrating and prolonging their youth instead.
Arnett says these changes created space for a new life stage between adolescence and adulthood called emerging adulthood, a phase characterized by a lot of change and instability and trying to find your place in the world. He coined the term and wrote about the in-between age in his book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties.
“Emerging adults know they are supposed to have a Plan with a capital ‘P’—that is, some kind of idea about the route they will be taking from adolescence to adulthood, and most of them come up with one,” Arnett writes. “However, for almost all of them, their Plan is subject to numerous revisions during the emerging adult years. With each revision in the Plan, they learn something about themselves and take a step toward clarifying the kind of future they want.”
There’s an excitement in this period of independence, about the possibilities ahead of you, but accepting that kind of responsibility for yourself brings a lot of anxiety, too—that you won’t get what you want, that you’re progressing too slowly, that you can’t answer the question, Who am I and what do I want to do with my life?
It can also make you cry as you’re leaving St. Louis or pay money for a coffee shop class on how to be an adult.
Kelly Williams Brown is the person who popularized the word adulting. She’s experienced those feelings of incompetence. Which is exactly why I decided to read her book, Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.
“What’s that you say?” Brown writes. “You’re a colossal sham who will never have your life in order? One who eats microwave taquitos in lieu of breakfast? One who has many dead bugs trapped between windowpanes in your bedroom, which doesn’t even make sense, because how did they even get there? One whose actions do not reflect the fact that, chronologically, you are absolutely, completely, and undeniably an adult?”
She totally gets me.
To her, the concept of adulting isn’t about a word. It’s about acknowledging that being a grown-up is a hard and complicated and messy process, and we all think we’re doing it wrong.
“I can’t adult today” is something I see and hear and think a lot. It’s not that we’re lazy or irresponsible, and I can’t speak on behalf of my entire generation, but I think we fall back on the adulting thing as a relatable way to feel less alone in this big, unforgiving world. A lot of people just want to find support in the struggle of finding their own way.
And as much as this word is new, the feeling is not. “Of course you think that. Everyone does,” Brown continues. “There is not one adult on this earth who has not felt the deep, unsettling feeling that their life is wobbly and unmanageable, no matter how diligently they sort the recycling and iron their sensible slacks.” Preach.
For me, it’s cooking. I don’t do it. The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is stand in the kitchen. And I’m not good at grocery shopping—I go when I’m hungry, and I never make a list. So I end up eating a lot of Chipotle burrito bowls and frozen meals. And snacks, lots of snacks.
I feel guilty for not being more domestic. Cooking is one of those basic human skills I should be practicing, and even enjoying, right? I’ve tried tricking myself into liking it by signing up for Blue Apron deliveries and saving Tasty recipes for later, but I never follow through. There are so many other things I could be doing instead of Googling “how to cut up an acorn squash” (and failing miserably at it).
I don’t plan on living my whole life as a fast-food queen, but like Brown so nicely reminds us, “You’re not a better or worse person if you have a soup ladle”—or a stocked pantry in my case. And I’m good at other grown-up things: I work hard at my job. I keep my apartment clean and my bedroom neat. I pay my bills on time and stick to a (loose) budget. I feed my cat. I take care of my car. I work out and get eight hours of sleep. One day I’ll add cooking to that list. Just not today.
Sometimes I feel lost. Like I’m supposed to be doing more than I am, or I’m definitely not doing it right, or I don’t even know where to start. It’s an anxious feeling.
The real world is this big, scary, gigantic unknown when you see it for the first time. It was so scary to me that I cried when I drove toward it five years ago. I couldn’t see past my blurry tears that I was going to be OK.
“You are a grown-ass man, or grown-ass woman, and you can act like it even if you don’t feel like it on the inside.”
“For the first 22 years of our lives, we lived in this structured environment, where not only do we know what’s expected of us, we know what’s coming next,” Brown says. “Then all of a sudden, you’re in this wide open, crazy space. Here you are, and you have no idea what you’re doing.”
So what are you supposed to do then? Punch that anxiety in the face and focus on what you can control, stop feeling guilty about the things you can’t and just act like a grown-up. “Adult isn’t something you are; it’s something you do,” Brown writes. “You are a grown-ass man, or grown-ass woman, and you can act like it even if you don’t feel like it on the inside.”
Reading and researching this, I’ve learned that adulting is not necessarily something you can figure out all at once, and especially not in a coffee shop conference room—the same way you can’t necessarily plot the dates of giant life events years in advance. Life isn’t that black and white; it’s abstract and it’s individualized. The older I’ve become, the more I’ve realized that, like a lot of things in life, this is something you figure out as you go, and that’s OK.
In a TEDx Talk two years ago, Arnett told the audience: “During emerging adulthood, you have a rare freedom and a brief freedom, and you should make the most of it…. Don’t let anybody stampede you to adulthood before you’re ready. Adulthood will be ready when you are.”
So maybe that’s what I’m supposed to feel. Not lost. Just free.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.