The Modern Survival Guide #98
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I am an adult. At least, I am sufficiently over the age of 18 that I can claim a majority age, I’m sufficiently advanced in life that I think I can claim self-direction, and I’m emotionally intelligent enough to avoid offending most of the people I meet, and…
You know what, being an adult is kind of complicated to talk about.
As a matter of fact, we probably need to talk more about what being an adult means, because we put a lot of pressure on adults in society, and we desperately need more adults in the room in a LOT of situations.
So let’s get into this: what does it mean to be “adult?” This topic is a non-trivial question. There’s the simple answer — age — but that’s barely scratching the surface of what we mean when we say “adult.” Our society expects or at least encourages a lot of behavior from its “adult” members, and knowing at least some of what that entails is a major survival point in the modern world.
Adults get responsibilities. Adults are expected to perform duties and obligations. Adults are allowed to do things that non-adults are not. And adults are expected to know things. People who are not adults are not trusted, not extended opportunities, not given responsibilities… and that’s just a recipe for stagnation, boredom, and emptiness.
Now here’s the tricky bit… there are a lot of majority-aged people running around who are arguably not adults. There are also points in our lives when we will stop being adults, at least for a moment, and other events that can remove our adult status permanently.
Let’s start with the qualities of an adult, then talk about the ways in which we gain, lose, and sometimes temporarily set aside those qualities.
The Eleven Qualities of an Adult
Being an adult means, simply, that you are not behaving like a child. More precisely, it means you have left most of the negative qualities of childhood behind. It means you have grown, adapted, learned, and developed into a higher state of being — a mature person. I think this boils down to the following eleven qualities:
- An adult has and exercises self-control: An adult is not dominated by their passions and desires. They exercise willpower and have a clear idea of their personal goals and objectives, and the personal weaknesses that might prevent them from achieving these things.
- An adult makes their own choices: An adult is not dominated by the will of another. They choose their own path and do not give others undue influence over their fate. This isn’t to say they don’t accept guidance, but it focuses the agency of choice on the person, not their guide.
- An adult takes responsibility for their actions: An adult understands that they are responsible for the things they do and say in the world. They do not try to dodge this responsibility, and they do not take credit for the work of others. At the same time, they understand the limits of their own personal responsibility.
- An adult is reasonably knowledgeable about the world: An adult knows enough about the world to recognize their own interests, find solutions to their problems, and recognize experts for areas of knowledge that they lack. On the flip side, an adult does not make a claim to knowledge they do not have.
- An adult gives trust based on proof: Blind trust is for children. Adults give trust based on past actions and verifiable facts compiled over time. An adult does not give their trust based on another person’s personality or unverified words.
- An adult is considerate of other viewpoints: An adult recognizes that they are but one of billions of wildly different people in the world, and recognizes that their viewpoint and worldview are dependent on their life experiences. Accordingly, an adult will consider and tolerate other viewpoints, within reason.¹
- An adult does not recklessly give offense: An adult recognizes that a good enemy is a fine thing, but also that in general enemies are to be avoided where possible. Accordingly, adults do not offer deliberate insults any more than necessary, and try to avoid accidental insults whenever possible.
- An adult communicates: An adult recognizes that other people are not psychic, and talks to other people as their primary method of resolving problems. Adults do not expect others to recognize their thoughts, opinions, wishes, or needs without communication.
- An adult reconciles “me” and “us”: An adult knows that there are times when they will have to put their personal well-being as second priority to another’s well-being, and recognizes that there are times when personal desires come second to supporting a group or cause.
- An adult has integrity: An adult says what they mean, does what they say, and is reasonably honest.
- An adult shows respect: An adult recognizes that people and situations deserve an appropriate level of respect based on the accomplishments, position, or simple humanity of the person, and the solemnity or importance of the situation.
I think that being an adult means acknowledging and acting according to these qualities. This begs the question — if I’m not living by these qualities, am I not an adult? And if I’m not an adult, what am I?
Failing at Adulting
Not all of us are going to be able to maintain the qualities of an adult all of the time, and I think it’s reasonably self-evident that each of us will fail to meet at least one these standards with some frequency. Adulting is hard and requires a lot of introspection and self-awareness.
So let’s clear this up: in my humble opinion, if you miss even one of these principles you are failing at adulting.
This is not the indictment it might seem to be. Failure is part of being human. Acknowledging one’s failure is, in fact, part of being an adult in the first place (falls under the “responsibility” heading). We are all going to fail at adulting from time to time, and it’s important to understand that.
That doesn’t make us children; the key difference between adults and children is that children, by and large, cannot be adults because they are physically and psychologically incapable of meeting adult qualities. Instead, a failure at adulting simply means that we are being immature. This is an acknowledgement that we are capable of being an adult, but aren’t.
The difference between a child and an majority-aged person who is acting immature is that the immature person always has the option to act like an adult. Whether they have the training and motivation to do so is another question entirely.
There are also points in life when we are simply no longer adults. Permanent injuries and age-related diseases can and will limit our ability to act in an adult capacity. For example, a person with advanced dementia is not a child, but no longer an adult. Legally speaking this would be referred to as a loss of mental capacity or mental incompetence, and in most cases there’s no coming back to adulthood from these types of situations.
For most of our lives, though, when we fail at adulting it is incumbent upon us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, recognize our failure, and remedy the situation. If we are extremely lucky we will have friends, family, or colleagues who can help us through this process. If not, it’s still on us regardless. Being an adult is an important part of living in society, and acting immature as a majority-aged person is not only a failure of the self, it’s a failure to fulfill one’s social roles and expectations.
So take it seriously and prepare for failure. To err is human. You are presumably human. Therefore you are not perfect, and “perfect” is the enemy of “good” in any case.² Dust yourself off and try again.
The Importance of Being an Adult
Acting like an adult is important. No getting around it. Our societies and personal lives are built on certain concepts that implicitly rely on people being adults, at least most of the time.
For example, it’s tough to live in a multicultural democracy if you don’t maintain the adult quality of being able to see other viewpoints. For that matter, it’s tough to get through a family reunion if you can’t at least tolerate other people most of the time.
It’s tough to balance a budget if you can’t maintain self-control. For that matter, it’s tough to get out of bed if you can’t maintain self-control.
It’s tough to live in a working society if you can’t recognize that sometimes people have to do things for the greater good. For that matter, it’s tough to keep a family together if you can’t put personal needs aside and care for others.
And so on and so forth. Being an adult is good for you, especially over the long term. It means you’re taking charge of your life, getting stuff done, and interacting with others. It means you’re not falling prey to bad habits and bad philosophies. It makes you a better human.
It’s also good for society as a whole, and ultimately that comes down to a couple of points:
Having adults in society creates circumstances where everyone can work in a stable environment with reasonable certainty about what happens next.
Let me put that another way: having adults in society means that bills get paid, work gets done, there are commonly understood rules, and your neighbor is unlikely to stab you in the back and steal your stuff. It means that tomorrow is pretty sure to follow today, and look more or less the same as today (hopefully with good changes as opposed to bad things over the horizon).
Failures of adulting en mass can lead to failed societies, failed cultures, and failed states. It represents a group of humans slipping back into our atavistic past. It’s not the only thing that can lead to these kinds of situations, but it’s a major part.
The hell of it is, it’s not that hard to get people to stop adulting. Politicians and religious leaders have been doing it for thousands of years. For every adult in the room, there’s some immature son of a bitch who’s prepared to watch the world burn if it means they get power over others or stand to gain something they desire. These people are always around, always toxic, and the allure of their ideas is always something to watch out for, because they will actively try to recruit you.
So be the adult in the room, if at all possible. It’s good for you, it’s good for your livelihood, and it’s good for society. It represents you doing your part to make the world a little more reliable, a little more sane, a little easier to live in for everyone. If you can’t be anything else, be kind. Once you’ve been kind, be an adult.
¹A “reasonable” person might, for example, reference the Harm Principle in determining whether to tolerate another viewpoint.
²Slipping into project management terminology here, this is a phrase with some baggage. The idea is that perfection is not an achievable goal. “Good enough” is what you shoot for, with “excellent” as an outside option. Designing things to be consistently good is how you occasionally achieve excellence. This is useful to remember for other parts of life beyond designing IT software or working on a construction project, because it applies just about everywhere. Trying for perfection gets you stuck. Shoot for “good enough,” and stretch yourself for excellence when you can.