When I was a kid I used to think adults had some sort of secret knowledge. My Dad never seemed to feel shy. My Mother never seemed to be at a loss for words. My teachers might be boring but they never seemed scared. Adults knew how to fix cars, get a mortgage, start a business, while in comparison everything I did seemed tentative, half-assed, silly. I wondered when I would be ushered into the club of adulthood, when I would know the secret, when I would get my shit together.
Well it turns out the answer is never. It never happens. There is no secret. You’re always making it up as you go along, and so is everybody else. Sometimes your shit works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s got nothing to do with how old you are. Your doctor, astronauts, and the President of the United States are just as fucked up as you are and yet, somehow, things still seem to get done.
It’s not that nobody knows anything. Some people are really good at stuff, especially if they’ve been doing it for a long time. That’s one of the great things about getting older: just by dint of simple repetition you get good at whatever it is you do a lot. Which is one reason you should pick something good to get good at when you’re younger. But young people are terrible at picking things to do, so many of us never get really good at the things that would make us feel the best.
But that’s okay too, as the first sign you might be an adult is:
1. You’re Comfortable With Who You Are
This is one of those things people say, and when you’re younger it sounds like bullshit, like something old people think, which it actually is. But young people don’t know shit because they lack experience. When you get older you come to realize that everybody’s in the same boat: everybody fucks up at least half the time. Everybody tries and everybody fails. The sheer weight of evidence shows you that you’ve been trying your best for 40 years, so you start to cut yourself some slack. You’re a person, too: why would you want to be a prick to yourself all the time?
To younger people this appears as a kind of confidence, and I’m confident that it sort of is.
2. You’re grateful
It’s impossible to get young people to be truly grateful, because they’re really selfish, and they often haven’t lost anything serious yet. Even little kids who’ve grown up in awful, war-torn environments seem to bounce back really quickly. When you’re older you’ve lost a bunch of shit, you’ve had your heart broken a couple of times, some people have died on you. You know a little bit about the world and you realize how precious good things are, so you’re grateful for what you have. (If you cling to things and get too materialistic all the good effects of this are lost – you’re not really grateful, you’re childish.)
3. You don’t want to waste time
To an infant, a day or a week is an eternity – so much experiencing and learning is going on that time crawls by, almost as if there were no time. But the older you get, the shorter a month gets. To a middle aged person, five years goes by rather quickly. Time actually speeds up with age and the accumulation of lived experience. This means that if you are thirty, your life is much more than a third gone: it is maybe 80 percent gone. If you are fifty, it is 95 percent gone. There’s not nearly as much time left as you thought there was.
Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong
When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I was addicted to the Civilization series of computer games. I could quite happily devote ten, twelve, even twenty hours to a campaign and it was fun. I read about Civ, I practiced it. I got really good at it.
There’s no fucking way I’m ever going to sit down to another ten hour game of Civilization in this lifetime.
4. You’re more tolerant
When you’re younger you labor under the illusion that, with the proper effort, everything will turn out the way you want it. This is partially your parents’ fault: they quite rightly try to encourage you by telling you that the world can be yours if you just work at it. And they’re kind of right. Except it turns out it’s the work that counts, not the result.
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever met someone who wasn’t trying their best. Often their best was kind of shitty, even terrible. Often their best actually fucked up my own life in some way. But I truly don’t think I’ve ever met someone whose desire was to do their worst, whose motivation was “Do Evil.” (Let’s be clear: people do terrible things. But even if their desire is to “do something terrible” it’s because they think that it will be good for them. So their intention is to do something good, but it’s terrible, because it’s completely selfish.)
So I’ve come to understand that people are at the mercy of causes and conditions. When they do something terrible it’s because they thought it was the right thing. So, not only did they fuck everything up, but they fucked everything up when they were trying to make everything better!
5. You’re scared of teenagers
Well, maybe not so much teenagers, but people, mostly men, from the ages of about 18 through 25. This is because these people, again, especially the men, are the stupidest and most dangerous creatures on the earth, maybe all the Earths. Who knows why? They just don’t give a shit.
But adults do give a shit. It’s kind of the defining characteristic of adulthood. You’ve got kids, or some shit to do, and you know how precious life is, and how rare, and you’re more tolerant and grateful, and you don’t want to waste time recovering from a brain injury because some drunken bro called you out in front of a nightclub on a Saturday night.
So, because you’re comfortable with who you are, you keep an eye on them, and maybe a wide berth, and you let that shit slide.