What true adulting looks like

My friends used to call me immature all the time. Like one day, a cyclist buddy of mine found me working on a short story at a coffee shop. Apparently a sin. He smirked and said something like, “I’m just wondering when you’ll start acting like an adult.”

I’ll never know what prompted his remark. Maybe the fact that I was writing in a public place. Or writing at all. How vain of me, to think I could make it as a professional writer in this climate.

I said, “The story’s about a miscarriage.” As if the topic mattered. Who knows? Maybe he thought I was writing about talking puppies. Miscarriage was such an edgy subject. It made me feel very sophisticated.

My friend shrugged and walked off.

That story got published in a journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Not bad for a college sophomore.

But my success didn’t matter to most of my friends. To them, adulting meant internships at law firms and veterinary clinics. It meant money and a brand of small talk that I could never excel at.

They thought Jack Kerouac was just a “famous weirdo.” Not a writer. Not a cultural icon. Not an adult. Just some bum.

My dad’s friends rolled their eyes when I told them about my plans to pursue a PhD. His boss told me, “I’m sure that’s what your dad wants — for you to mooch off him for another decade.” It didn’t matter if I paid all of my own tuition and rent. To be taken seriously, I had to fit his version of adulthood. And that version didn’t include school. It only included work, family, and church. For him, adults had to act the way flannel looked.


People hold a lot of misguided ideas about adulthood. Posting selfies doesn’t make you immature. Neither does playing video games. Having kids doesn’t make you a grownup. Neither does wearing a suit.

My upstairs neighbor had one of those. (A kid, I mean. Not a suit.) Her parents raised him while she threw parties every weekend. She skipped class every weekday, to stay home and blast Taylor Swift on her stereo system. I’ll bet she did that to cover up the sounds she and her boyfriend made in bed.

One time the girl left me a note apologizing for a bunch of trash her friends had left in the yard and stairwell. The note read, “Im reelly sowry abt the miss! Will klean it up pranto…Pls donnt complane to landlord.”

Nobody really knows what counts as an adult. But we have some basic ideas.

Laundry. If you can do your own laundry, you might be an adult. You don’t have to enjoy doing your laundry. You don’t have to do it on a fixed schedule. But as long as you have clean clothes to wear, you’re doing okay.

A job. You might go through some brief periods of unemployment. But if you can manage to bag groceries or run a cash register without getting fired, welcome to the club.

Bathing. Do you take at least three showers a week? Congratulations, you’ve earned 10 more points toward adult status.

Admitting fault. Adults own up to their mistakes. They fix them. They reflect and take action to prevent future fuck-ups. Children do the opposite.

Sacrifice. You don’t have to offer people your kidneys. But adults know that sometimes they’ll have to delay gratification and relaxation to fulfill their basic responsibilities.

Every so often, another teacher doesn’t do their job. They disappear from their classes. They forget to turn in their grades. One time, I worked for a program that accidentally hired a teacher with no background in her subject. Another time, a teacher quit on us overnight.

Each time, I stepped up and took on extra responsibilities. Not for extra pay. Not for glorification. Because it was necessary. Now, that’s some advanced-level adulting. If you can help out other people, even when you don’t have to, you’ve reached the ultimate domain of maturity.

Organization. It’s not rocket science. You buy little folders and boxes and put things in them. You arrange little icons on your computer and slide files there. You take a minute and type meetings into Google Calendar.

Every office I’ve worked at has a child. Ours looks like an adult, but she can’t keep her dates straight. She shows up late to meetings and blames people for it. She can never find documents, and gets flustered easily. As a coworker, she’s useless.

Straight talk. Adults don’t have time for passive-aggressive nonsense. If they have a problem, they say so. They work out a solution. They don’t use politeness as a weapon. You can be more direct or less depending on the person and the problem. But adults always try to communicate.

Dealing with it. Sometimes you can’t solve a problem. At least not right away. Sometimes I want to fire people. But I can’t. At least not until the end of the semester. So I deal with them. Novel concept for some. You can’t throw your hands up and quit.


Some things don’t make you an adult, even if you think they might. I’ve already mentioned kids. But there’s a few more things.

Advanced degrees. You’d think they would. But they don’t. Sadly, grad school these days means nothing by itself. One summer, I had to supervise a guy who talked about his doctoral program constantly. He didn’t know that I already had a PhD. So he acted condescending and rude, to me and half the staff. Everyone in our program hated him.

This guy lost his job in the end. He stayed awake until 4 am watching Netflix, and then dragged himself into work 30 minutes late every morning. He tried to drive a car down a flight of stairs, because he was late on a supply run. He cried one afternoon after a parent reprimanded him in front of a bunch of kids. Yeah, not much adulting here.

Marriage. Just watch any reality TV show that involves a wedding. A 12-year-old could put some of these people to shame. Married couples can still do all the stupid shit that other immature singles do. Ideally, making a vow to spend the rest of your life with someone else might call for some level of honesty, dignity, reliability, and selflessness. But ideals are just that.

Nice clothes. You always hope someone who dresses well can manage the other aspects of their life. But for some people, it stops with fashion. One of our office aids dressed impeccably, and yet she didn’t know how to operate packing tape. We showed her three times, and it never stuck.

Complaining. We see adults complain in movies a lot. They’re snarky. Sarcastic. They point out other people’s flaws. They’re the first to jump on an idea and slice it to death. There’s nothing wrong with snark. But sitting back and offering dry commentary on everything doesn’t make you mature. It makes you irritating.

Waking up early. That’s the biggest myth of all. People who wake up super early don’t enjoy a monopoly on adulthood. I know early risers who don’t know how to check their email.