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How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps
By Kelly Williams Brown
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Kelly Williams Brown
All rights reserved.
Get Your Mind Right
The vast majority of this book is full of practical, interacting-with-the-world sorts of steps—wiping your counters or breaking up with your surly boyfriend or whatever. Most of being an adult is not up in your head, it's in your actions. In fact, let's get this out of the way now: Intentions are nice, but ultimately intentions don't really matter because they only exist inside you. Meaning to send a thank-you note but then not doing it is exactly the same as never thinking to send one—that person is still receiving zero thank-you notes.
So, yes. Actions are greater than intentions. But before we get to those actions, there are just a few things you should know.
Step 1: Accept that you are not that special
This is the most difficult and important thing to accept if you wish to be a grown-up: You are not a Special Snowflake.
Step 2: Appreciate those who disagree with step 1
Well, you are to some people. Your parents, presumably, love you very much and think you are perhaps the most adorable, talented thing ever to prance upon this earth. Your friends agree with them, as do your favorite teachers, as does your significant other. When there is a You Parade, these people will be the flag bearers, the drum majors and majorettes, so make sure you are always flag bearing and drum majoring for them, too. These people who think so highly of us are very special and precious, and we must treasure them. Because here is the truth: Most of the world doesn't give a flying fuck about you.
Step 3: Don't get hurt when the world doesn't care about you
It's not as depressing as it sounds. It's not as though the world hates you—it just has no idea who you are. It is, at best, indifferent to your wants and needs, your preferences, your pet peeves, and so on. When you walk into a new office, new city, new country, whatever, you are starting from scratch and cannot call upon that loving capital that your friends and family have for you. You sometimes find patches of immediately friendly people, but that won't be the rule. It is now up to you to find and surround yourself with people for whom you feel affection and respect.
People will come to care about you, but only if you give them a valid reason. Don't assume they'll give you love like your parents, emotional support like your best friend, and cheerful feedback like a soccer coach for seven-year-olds. Because they won't, unless you give them good reason to. And even then, they still probably won't.
Step 4: Accept that right now, you are small-time
Before you go out into the world to seek your fortune, you make a lot of assumptions about how easy things will be or how quickly you'll rocket to the top. You might hit this wall, hard, when The New York Times doesn't beat a path to your door, but instead it is time for you to go be a reporter in rural Mississippi. Or you graduate law school with glorious visions of the important work you'll do for the Southern Poverty Law Center, but find yourself photocopying briefs in Shreveport. Whatever happens immediately post-graduation, chances are good that it will be at least a little disappointing.
So for right now, being a small-time whatever is your position. It's not shameful and it doesn't mean you're a failure. It means you're embarking on adulthood and starting from the beginning, just like every other person in the world must do. When you begin at the beginning, any progress you make is yours. From now on, it doesn't matter who your parents are or how much money they make. It's time to make your own money. You are the captain of your own destiny, even if it isn't all that glamorous or fabulous at the moment.
Step 5: Set reasonable goals for yourself
There will never be a time when every item in my house is meticulously organized in cute storage solutions. It will just never, ever happen. So looking at a bunch of organization blogs and despairing that my living space doesn't look like theirs is not a healthy thing for me to do.
A big part of being a well-adjusted person is accepting that you can't be good at everything. Some things will always be hard. Decide what you can do in those arenas, without making yourself crazy or setting unreasonably high expectations, then feel proud when you do it.
Step 6: Stop enjoying things ironically. Just enjoy them
Know what? I love Britney Spears and Forever 21. And I could pretend like it's this whole meta thing where I'm not actually ennjoying it but rather just making this esoteric statement on lowbrow culture, but (insert handjob motion here).
The truth is that I love trashy dance pop and the garments that are its clothing equivalent. You don't need tttto make your tastes a self-conscious statement about who you are. Just unapologetically like the things you like.
Step 7: Avoid shame boomerangs
I'm just going with shame because it would be too cumbersome to call them "Shame, Anxiety, Remorse, Dread, and Any Number of Ugly Emotions Boomerangs."
Here's how that process works:
Inciting shame incident -> bad feelings -> forgetting and/or getting distracted for a little while -> shame boomerang returns -> bad feelings the sequel, et cetera, all damn day
This is the excellent strategy put forth by Internet friend Emily:
Step 1. Acknowledge the problem, and take any possible steps to correct it.
Step 2. Figure out how you will avoid making this same mistake again.
Step 3. Decide on a coping mechanism mantra that you will repeat when the shame boomerang returns ("It's done, and I won't do it again") and then play a diverting mental game, like thinking up what you would name a trio of Siamese kittens.
She didn't put this in, so I will:
Step 4. Really try not to make the mistake again. If the mistake happens again and again, then take a hard look at what you are doing and why.
Step 8: Remember your circle of concern versus your circle of action
Grief counselor Susan Gelberg was the one who told me about this, and said it's helpful for people who are experiencing anxiety and anguish.
There is a big circle, one that contains all of your concerns, ranging from the super mundane ("Why can I never get the stupid wispy sides of my bangs straight? What if they're somehow made of a lost colony of pubic hair?") to the overwhelming ("Global warming! Fuck!"). But there's a smaller circle inside that circle, which is your circle of action. Inside that circle are the things you can actually effect change on. Work on those things. Those are the things that will help you feel as in control as any one person has the ability to be.
Step 9: Begin to separate, in your mind, things that are a Valid Long- Term Plan versus Not A Valid Long-Term Plan
Lots of things are NAVLTP. That is a fun word to try to pronounce out loud, but a bad thing to have in our lives. Common NAVLTPs include:
Boyfriends you really love but know you don't want to spend your life with.
Jobs with little to no possibility for advancement. Not that you need to be the ruthless climbing-the-ladder type, but most people want, eventually, to have a job that is slightly more challenging and lucrative than their current position.
If you have a drinking problem, you need to deal with that sooner rather than later. One caveat here is that many people who drink a lot in their early twenties do, in fact, kind of naturally taper off as time goes on and hangovers become tougher to deal with. This will happen almost overnight, and it is God's way of preventing thirty-five-year-olds from drinking until 3 AM and making bad life choices. But if you find yourself drinking more, not less, as you age, that is something to consider.
Step 10: Be okay with being alone
Lunch, the bus stop, shopping, parties—all these situations and more, you should feel fine being alone in. Here is what you think others are thinking when they look at you:
Oh my God, that girl has no friends and no significant other. Wow. How has she made it through life this far without finding a single solitary person to care about her?
Here is what they are actually thinking:
I wonder if I remembered to turn off my hair straightener, where is Laura? She was supposed to be here by now, ugh, I hate PT Cruisers so much; how do people not understand that those cars look like giant ugly eggplants? ... [other thoughts completely unrelated to you because no one notices or cares that you're by yourself] ...
You, meanwhile, will be with yourself for the rest of your life, so you'd best learn to enjoy your own company.
Look comfortable alone. You are not itchy, you are not fidgety, you are not looking around desperately for whoever will rescue you from the terrible fate of not being engaged in boring small talk. You're fine.
Step 11: Recognize six-month problems
When you get really upset about something, ask yourself if this is something you will remember in six months. Most things aren't. Most things are six-day problems, or six-minute problems. If the answer is No, I will not remember this, then you need to try to do your best to move on. If the answer's yes, you also need to do your best to move on, but at least a no answer puts you in the proper frame of mind.
Step 12: Distinguish between horses and zebras
I am constantly seeing medical dangers and significance everywhere. I don't have a head cold, I have meningococcal meningitis! And will soon die! I start thinking about how tragic this will be for everyone I know; how sad they will be when they hear how this bright young life was snuffed out so needlessly. What will they say at my funeral? Et cetera ... and then I get over whatever extremely minor ailment it is, and forget all the dreadful predictions I made. Until the next time I get sick, and it isn't a headache, it's brain cancer! Or maybe a tapeworm has gotten in my head!
Once, I had a mosquito bite on my arm, and it was infected, so obviously it was the same antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating bacteria I saw a story on CNN about. I called my godfather (who is also a doctor) to confirm my suspicions that I should head to the emergency room.
Luckily, my brilliant godmother (and intermediary to my godfather) answered, and gave me the best quote ever. She was saying it in the context of medical maladies, but I believe it can apply to many other things, too:
"If it's making a galloping noise, it's probably a horse, not a zebra."
In other words, the simplest explanation is probably—not always, but probably—the correct one.
So when you are unreasonably fretting about something and coming up with zebra explanations ("My boss is quiet this morning, so I'll bet she's going to fire me!"), try to steer yourself back toward horse-thinking ("She's probably tired or busy").
Step 13: Pay attention to natural consequences, then learn to anticipate them
Natural consequences is actually a parenting concept, but one I use on myself, because sometimes my ability to thoughtfully reflect on a difficult situation is in line with a four-year-old's.
A natural consequence is, essentially, a situation where a parent doesn't have to punish a child for wrongdoing because the universe sort of takes care of that. A natural consequence of splurging when you don't have the money to do it is that you can't go out with friends. A natural consequence of hooking up with someone at work is that you then get to remember it in all its Technicolor, bodily-fluids glory every time you sit across from them in a meeting. And so on.
I have taken to whispering, to myself, Natural consequenceeeeessssss! when I am experiencing one, to give myself a little Pavlovian incentive not to do it next time.
Step 14: Remember that, for better or for worse, you are in control of your physical self and surroundings
You can make your bed (see step 33) or not make your bed. You can buy paper towels or not buy paper towels. Neither makes you a better or worse person, but you should accept that if you want your bed to be made, there is but one person in the world who is going to do it and that person is you. Extrapolate this principle to many, many other things, because more often than not, it applies.
Step 15: When necessary, look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself some Real Talk
Are you familiar with the concept of Real Talk as popularized by R. Kelly? It means just what it sounds like. We all need a little Real Talk in our lives, but there is only one R. Kelly and so many of us, so you'll need to give it to yourself.
This sounds a little crazy, but looking yourself in the eye in the mirror and saying something aloud is oddly effective. It makes whatever you are trying so hard to mentally avoid into something that exists in the real world. It reminds you that the lies, or truths, you tell yourself are as significant as the lies and truths you tell others.
"This relationship is over, and you need to end it."
"Right now is not the right time to be crying at work. You are a grown-ass woman, and you're going to splash cold water on your face, take a minute to compose yourself, and then go slay it out there."
"Your needs are not more important than other people's needs."
Please note: There is a big, big difference between berating yourself and Real-Talk-ing yourself.
Step 16: When something bad happens to you, do not rush immediately to figure out why it wasn't your fault
Step 17: Get used to giving more than you get
A natural transition, as we go from being kids to adults, is to go from being self-oriented to other-oriented. When we're little, all this love flows to us, and none is expected back. That ratio has now changed, and if you don't acknowledge it, you will not be a pleasant person to be around.
ADULTING DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
1. What is your worst-ever shame boomerang?
2. Who is the least-special Special Snowflake you know?
3. If you had a pet zebra, what would you name him? Here's a few to get you started: Edwin Brewster, Señor Stripes, Karen, Pickles, Trotters.
One of the most jolting days of adulthood comes the first time you run out of toilet paper. Toilet paper, up until this point, always just existed. And now it's a finite resource, constantly in danger of extinction, that must be carefully tracked and monitored, like pandas?
It's not just the toilet paper. There are so many endless tiny details to attend to. Food does not spontaneously manifest itself in the fridge. Surfaces become increasingly sticky and dust-covered if not wiped. Disgusting things, like overflowing toilets and dead squirrels your cat leaves on the bedroom floor, are on your shoulders. No one else will remove that spider biding its time in the shower until it can lay eggs in your ears. No friendly stranger will knock on your door to ask if any ketchup has spilled in your fridge and hardened into indelible red paste, then offer to scrape it up. Half-empty beer cans will release foul, regret-scented gases until you empty and recycle them.
But now, the good news: Billions and billions of people around the world manage to live in a home without directly killing themselves or others via their irresponsibility, and chances are very good you are one of them. There is a 98.5 percent chance that you will manage to keep toilet paper stocked regularly, especially if you ...
Step 18: Buy toilet paper in bulk
Sure, this is a specific rather than general step, but it can be extrapolated to this whole chapter. You see, toilet paper is something that you will always, always need. Let's look at this graph illustrating that very principle:
Excerpted from Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown. Copyright © 2013 Kelly Williams Brown. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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