Today’s post comes to you from a coffee shop in downtown Edinburgh… (for those of you wondering where to get really good coffee in Edinburgh, try the Brew Lab in South College Street.)
So, I’ve been travelling for 10 days or so, and one thing that’s come to mind over-and-over again, is the notion of what it means to be a grown-up. I mean, here I am, travelling, using credit cards, driving a hire car, drinking in pubs, and doing these things with my wife. All these activities were impossible to consider (let alone do) as a child – but I still don’t feel ‘grown-up’. In fact, throughout my ‘adult’ life, I’ve often had the feeling of being a bit of a phoney – I mean, sure, I’ve spent lots of time studying and training and living, and I’m good at the things I do, but it always feels a bit like I’m making it up as I go along, filling time until I’m a proper grown-up (and given I’m 43 now, I’m not sure when that might be).
It turns out that I’m not the only person to feel this way – in fact, nearly all of us feel like this a lot of the time. This has me wondering why…
It seems to me that it comes down to three main things: the lack of an obvious transition point from childhood to adulthood, poor preparation for adult life during our schooling and, perhaps most importantly, the expectation that, at some point in our lives, we’ll all of a sudden start behaving in an adult way and (concordantly) know what to do and how to act. Combined, many of us go through our lives waiting for this magic transition to occur, and getting quite confused when we don’t wake up one morning knowing how we should live our lives. I’m becoming more and more convinced that this expectation (that we should know what to do and how to behave) is a strong contributor to many people’s feelings of emptiness, unhappiness, and a major progenitor of anxiety and depression.
Maybe it’s a western cultural thing (I can’t speak for other cultures), but in Australia, the UK and the US, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on turning 18 (or 21). When we achieve this ‘magical’ age we’re, all of a sudden, allowed to drink alcohol, drive, vote, sign away our lives, get married, or be killed for our country. I can’t speak for you, but when I was 18 (or 21), I wasn’t really qualified for any of these things. In fact, there was no ‘official’ age at which I felt prepared to cope adequately with the consequences of any of these activities.
A problem, I believe, is inherent in the notion that we are (or should be) competent at a particular chronological age. As most of you have probably found out, chronological age doesn’t count for a lot. In fact, psychologists have suggested a variety of age measures, including chronological, biological, emotional and intellectual. But none of these measures provide an adequate cut-off point at which childhood ends and adulthood begins. In fact, this distinction between implied incompetence (childhood) and competence (adulthood) adds to the problem. Combined with a ‘legal’ age, it suggests that at an arbitrary date, set by other people, we are somehow supposed to be effective, competent, and responsible. Worse, if we make it into our 30s or 40s without a corresponding feeling of ‘adulthood’, it’s likely that we’re going to struggle with our identity.
The notion of identity is a murky one. I’ve already talked a lot about the illusion of self (here), and why being strongly fused with our self concept can be bad for our psychological wellbeing. But this doesn’t stop people from developing and fusing with very strong feelings of ‘self’. My profession (and the unfortunate profusion of ‘self help’ books that have followed) hasn’t really helped with its insistence on the importance of self confidence. Consequently, most people develop a confused sense of self that has more to do with the expectations of others (and of society) than the notion of a stable core of competencies or values. Much of this confusion is propagated by ideas about how we ‘should’ behave, and may of these ‘shoulds’ come from notions about adulthood.
So what does it mean to be an adult? Well, the fuzzy notion that I’ve already talked about is focused around feelings of competence, responsibility and purpose. But because most people don’t feel this way most of the time, many of us feel incompetent at being an adult a lot of the time (the feeling of being a phoney). Instead, perhaps conceptions of adulthood should encompass feelings of confusion, incompetence, and uncertainty. With fewer expectations about what we should be, there is greater freedom to just ‘be’, alongside all the vagaries of adult life. Thus, instead of ‘five-year plans’ and continuous worry about the future and our place in it, we have some room to work on our actions in the present – preferably actions guided by an understanding of our values (i.e., what’s actually important to us – read here).
As children, we’re capable of innocence, mindfulness, and wonder. But we’re also highly dependent on adults for our wellbeing – we just don’t have there wherewithal to cope with the complexities of an adult world (which seems mysterious, dangerous, and largely opaque). Nevertheless, from an early age, we’re schooled that, one day, we’ll be adults and, because we observe adults pretending to be competent (even though they themselves don’t feel that way), we expect (unrealistically) that one day we’ll also be competent. Sadly, instead of magically acquiring said competence, we just get worry, obsession, dissatisfaction, ennui, and self-doubt.
So here’s the crux. Instead of measuring ourselves and our achievements by a highly flawed (and perhaps even mythical) metric, how about learning to see the world as it is in this moment? Yes, OK, I’m talking about being mindful again (see here for a refresher) – turns out, however, that it’s one of the very best ways of learning to be satisfied, stable, and focused in an unstable and unpredictable world.
I’m still not sure what I want to do when I grow up, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever actually be a ‘grown-up’ – until then, I’m going to try to just live my life the best I can and in the service of the things that I believe to be important – I think that’ll be enough.