The Almost-Adult Complex — Part Two
This time, I have a new, groundbreaking theory: there’s no such thing as grown-ups.
A few years back, I wrote about the confusing nature of college — how, for all intents and purposes, you’re an adult, and yet you don’t know how to do anything without calling your parents for help. Like making doctor’s appointments or navigating tax season or the ever-fun “will this catch on fire if I leave it as-is?” call.
Now, as a 23-year-old with a college degree, an apartment of my own, a full-time job, and a 401k, I have concluded that there is truly no such thing as a grown-up—at least, not in the way we’ve come to understand it — or, at least, the way I’ve come to understand it.
When I was younger, I used to think that when you got to a certain age you kinda just all-of-a-sudden got it together. In hindsight, of course not—that’s not how knowledge works. But I think that’s still what we expect, albeit in a less literal sense. We picture ourselves at a certain age or reaching a certain milestone in life (like first big-girl job, first child, first mortgage) with all of the wisdom that the new role demands pre-programmed. In our heads, we picture being the best dressed at a new job because we’ve somehow suddenly solved our complete inability to find clothes that actually look good. Or we see ourselves running a meeting with the smoothness and charm of a Leonardo DiCaprio character as if our fear of public speaking never existed. We assume that once we reach a certain milestone, all of the other pieces of our lives, the parts we haven’t quite figured out yet, will just fall into place.
Yet, here I am. Working full-time in my field surrounded by all the things
that should make me a grown-up, still with all of the ineptitude of a
I am realizing that adulthood—and, moreover, life—is a game of trial and error. Education and guidance from parents and other wise loved ones
can only go so far; at some point, your learning comes exclusively from messing up.
Like learning the hard way why mom never liked it when you ate on the futon when your brand new couch grows a collection of colorful food stains. Or when you try to get some cheap patio furniture from Aldi only to find out it won’t fit into your car — after 30 minutes of trying to push and pull them into your backseat in the parking lot. Or when you misread a recipe and put a whole tablespoon of salt and a whole tablespoon of pepper into a cauliflower dish and then find yourself mysteriously sick after having a few bites.
Luckily, I have long believed that mistakes are often the best way to learn — it’s why I preach joining student media to any journalism student I meet. But it can be so much scarier to mess up when the stakes are so much higher. Without the safety nets of residence life or parents, you become the person responsible for solving your mistakes — and cleaning up your messes — and what if you don’t know how or can’t?
Something incredible about living in a dorm at college is that there are no grown-ups. In a technical sense, everyone you meet is an adult, but that still doesn't mean any of you know how to do your laundry correctly or will remember to clean the bathroom. You’re all figuring it out together, one little bit at a time. So when you mess up, you can all put your heads together to find a solution.
However, as a real, on-your-own adult, suddenly you’re the only kid around for miles — at least, sometimes it feels that way. You’re telling me that everyone else in this building owns an iron and knows that tires don’t explode when they run out of air and not to use a whole tablespoon of pepper in a dish for one person? Your groupthink is gone, and suddenly all the questions you have feel too stupid to ask.
So, when you’re the only almost-adult around, with no other almost-adults to bounce ideas off of, you make plenty of stupid mistakes. Luckily, and sometimes unluckily, this means you learn a lot.
My point is: if you are a young person like me, the only difference between you and your parents, or your parents and your grandparents for that matter, is more time to make more mistakes. That’s how they’re so wise: they’ve had so much longer to mess up and put things back together than you have. Their wisdom is marred by lines of super glue.
Some of their wisdom can be imparted to you vicariously — like hearing the story of the time your dad flooded his car and had to borrow the mayor’s or how your mom learned the importance of sunscreen the hard way after waking up red and peel-y after a day out. But other things you just have to learn yourself through big and small mess-ups.
And just because you may be the only one around making stupid decisions and messing up all the time in your new role, doesn’t mean that you’re the only one who had to mess up or make those stupid decisions to learn not to.
Again, I propose my theory: there is no such thing as grown-ups in the sense that we’ve always believed. I offer that we are all just idiot teenagers until we’ve messed up enough times to learn our way around.
If you take away all of the titles, I am still just a stupid teenager who somebody mistakenly gave a savings account, a bachelor’s degree, and a full-time job. I can’t cook a meal that isn’t burned, mushy, or entirely inedible. I can’t hang a painting on my living room wall to save my life (there IS a story behind this and no I will not tell it). I still don’t know how to do my taxes — and have accepted that I never will. I have no idea what the permanent press option on the washer does. But I’m learning little by little, one mistake at a time.
Don’t let the apartment and the big-girl job and the 401k fool you — you still have no idea what you’re doing. But that’s okay. You’ll figure it out — you’ve got nothing but time.