How quickly some young adults transition from "Won't it be great having no one telling me what to do!", to "I wish I was a kid again! I can't make all these decisions!"
I'm watching several just-launched independents struggle. We smiled knowingly when they sneered back at us from the edge of the precipice, having enthusiastically jumped ourselves, once. It's amazing how they can thumb their collective noses while freefalling. Observers with vested interest can only watch hoping they'll bounce, then remain ready with restrained support if despair gets the upper hand.
We've been sharing our collection of hardship stories since they were little, but it's nature's way for youth to unhear over-the-hillers so they'll have the courage to create tales of their own. And we are still amazed when they are faced with difficult classes, ominous rent payments, or work, and in spite of our discussions, they whine "This is HARD!"
And so: To the people I know who are newly adults and have yet to "bounce";
Yup. It IS hard. Almost as hard for the people who love you to watch as it is for you to struggle through. But, if you are ready to listen, I can help. My assistance won't be painless, though. It involves being honest with yourself. It means facing some hard realities. And it means spending a few minutes away from the clutter of your day, but that's a big part of my offering - Get rid of most of the clutter of your day.
1: Write it down.
Figure out what matters to you, and put it somewhere you can look at it. I'm not kidding. It may sound like a waste of time, but time is exactly what we're up against here.
Your life is half over. Really. Not measured in years, but measured in growth. Do you remember when you were little, and somebody told you you'd have to wait an hour for something you wanted? An hour was forever. An hour was a thousand toddler experiences. An hour felt like a lifetime. At your age, you are capable of more measurable accomplishments in an hour than you ever were or will be. You can cram four chapters, send fifty texts, type 100wpm (Yes you could!), reach highest score in a video game... and so forth. That's why you need to tackle things like college or a new job now. It doesn't get easier. I'd submit, though, that your mind as a toddler grew more in different ways in the same sixty minutes than you do even now.. Growth defines life in nature. If something (or someone) stops growing, changing, developing, it's dead. You'll be dead soon enough. Resolve to keep growing.
Have you ever been frustrated watching over your parent's shoulder while they slog on the computer, wanting to rip the mouse from their hand to just get the deed done, dying while they suffer through learning new software, setting up a dvd player or a game? Have you heard an older person ask where the last twenty years went? Have you seen them write a check in November with last year's date? It may be funny to you now, but I have depressing news. That's you before you'll see it coming. It seems so distant now...
You've read this far, so there's a chance you'll try this little exercise. List the things that are important to you. Yes, get up, get a pencil, and give up a few minutes to improve the quality of your life. Here's the hard part, though. I want you to be honest. Record the things that are, not the things you would like to be. Nobody but you is going to see the list. Put it in code if you want, but don't lie to yourself. The other thing I want you to be is selfish. I want you to list the things that matter more to YOU now, not what you think should matter, or what matters to anyone who might judge you. You don't know where to start? I'll throw some things out:
God: Once again, be honest. Don't list him because your Sunday school teacher said you should. If religion is important enough in your life that you commit a serious portion of your time and life to prayer and church, list God. If you have faith, but participate sporadically (most of us), that doesn't mean you won't fall back on God at some time in your life. List him. If he plays no part in your life, off the list.
Family: Do you depend on your family? Do you call them daily or on their birthdays? Measure the depth of your concern and communication. Try and feel what it would be like if they were taken from you today. Picture whether you could stand growing distant over time. This is an easy category to underrate when you have just left the control your parents exercised over you, you have sibling issues, or you were abused, but family is on the list for most of us.
Money: List it if your goal is great wealth, or if you are having trouble making payments. If it matters to you, list it.
Country: After 9/11, I felt and noticed a lot of selfless patriotism I didn't know existed. If you feel blessed to be an American, and you are committed to protecting what it stands for, or want to make it better, put it on the list.
Relationships: I'm talking about love interests, here. Casual or life partner, either one.
Friends: Don't underestimate what social animals we are. I hope you have friends, and they are important to you.
Cause celebre: Are you an activist? A politico? An artist? A volunteer?
Body: How important is maintaining your body, brain, and appearance?
Stuff: Flat screen TVs, laptops, phones, play stations, Chevelles, dishwasher... Do you collect? Could you live without it?
Partay!: Do you live for the social scene? Is fun your dominant drive? The pursuit of sex, memories, etc?
Learning for learning's sake, solitude, power, fame, a legacy; if it drives you, write it down.
Part 2: Priorities
Take your draft interests and rewrite them with numbers in front of them. Yeah, I know, you could just slap the numbers on the draft. But rewriting them gives you at least a few seconds to think about them. Again, I don't want you to put them in the order your parents would expect. If the hottie in chem class is THE dominant force in your life, admit it to yourself.
Chances are, you'll have to ask yourself some questions. If your iphone broke, or you found out the object of your desire preferred the other gender, how would your life change? Would your list change? I'm just asking you to order the things that matter to you most right now, considering the flightiness of most of the daily chaos you deal with. Think a bit about what type of events could change your list and what might make you celebrate or break your heart?
Got your new list? If you put yourself into it, you've got a snapshot of your character. You're going to need it. It helps to have an idea of who you are if you are to envision who you will become, and that's what I'm going to ask you to do next.
3: Suit Yourself!
There is one person you owe. If you thought I'd say "yourself", you're right, but with a twist. I want you to envision yourself in one of those forensics aging programs, turning fifty years old. I'm serious. Close your eyes and try to form an image. Design your face, imagine the setting, think of the people in the background. When the image is complete, visualize printing it on the back of your brain. (Hear the paper feed!) I should have warned you, once you capture the image, it's evidence. It's real. The person in that photo is someone you'll have as a consultant whenever there are decisions to be made. They are the person you are responsible to because they are you; and they are not that far away.
Take a look at the person you created. Are they smiling? Intense? Surrounded by family and friends? Do they have good stuff? A nice house, cars, clothes? Try to get into their head. Build a story and a character for them like you were writing a novel. Put some effort into your future self. You deserve it.
And now, treat yourself like an actor in your own movie. Put yourself in character as your future self, and redo your list. Think about how technology will change. Consider how your parents will have aged. Will you have a spouse? Children? What great memories or wisdoms will you have gathered? What will matter in thirty years that doesn't now? What on your current list will be meaningless? Sounds like work? You bet. Maybe more than you know. But what you'll have when you are done is a mentor; someone you can trust when you need advice.
If you pictured your future self behind bars or homeless, kid yourself that you just don't care, don't believe you'll live that long, if you choose not to look because you're scared of what you'll find, or if you accept that you're not worth taking seriously, it's time to grow up, and that's the next step.
When you were two (more or less), you went through one of the toughest times ever. From the whole world rotating around you and only you, you were shocked into the reality that the planet and the people on it were not created for only your pleasure. Demands and tantrums were ignored or even punished, and you had to start exploring ways of getting by, to make it work for you. If your parents were being parents, they helped you cope, to make that transition more easily. Later they helped you adjust to having people tell you what to do (like teachers and bosses), how to apply yourself to earn what you want across time instead of expecting gifts, and how to compromise to grow relationships. If your parents were really good at their jobs, you didn't even realise you were changing, you were so confident and competent. But, unfortunately, you didn't come with a manual, and the perfect parent doesn't exist. So you may have to fill in some gaps. News flash! You are going through another transition, and you are not the only person to have ever gone through it. Let me define growing up for you. It means taking responsibility for the person you intend to become. Things may not work out exactly as you have them pictured now, but having that vision of your quality future self, putting forth real effort to become them, and making short term compromises and sacrifices to that end are what matters.
Not growing up is not an option any more than not growing taller (or aging), so complaining about it is wasted effort. Excessive worry doesn't help, either. When you are faced with a decision, gather all the facts, consult your future self (and the list), act, and don't look back. Take solace in the fact you made the best decision you could at the time based on all the information you had, and understand you are going to make mistakes. Most of those mistakes you'll be able to fix, or at least overcome. The most important part is that you don't keep repeating them.
Again,that's what growing up really means. Making decisions rather than avoiding them, taking the reins of your life rather than letting things just happen to you. Living, rather than existing. Your future self wants some positive memories, honor, health, and self respect. Why deny yourself?
5: Getting Started
If your future self didn't make a list yet, tell them to get busy. You need concrete terms to live by.
Next, you'll need a routine. Remember I said your life is half over and that time is the enemy? Taking control of your time is the hardest part of being an adult. A century ago, most people had lives ruled by routine, but you are lucky enough to have been born into a wonderfully complex age, full of opportunities, but also chock full of distractions from what you need to be accomplishing for your future self.
Make a schedule. Write it down. Reserve time for your needs, first. Make yourself understand that sleep, diet, and exercise are time stretchers, rather than time wasters. You'll function better every day and for a lot more days if you take care of yourself. Don't deplete your sleep bank, but don't use sleep as escapism, either. Wake up at a regular time. It's easy when you get used to it. Have you noticed how many people complain about jet lag when daylight savings changes their schedule by an hour? Circadian rhythms are real, and fighting them makes you less alive.
Exercise is simple. Reserve time to move. What you don't use, you rapidly lose, and your future self doesn't want to do without.
Nutrition is trickier. You can make a production of a meal that is less nutritious than some fast food. Generally, though, you intuit what you need and what is good for you. Reserve the time to put together the right number of decent meals and snacks. You really are what you eat and so many of us are, well, crap. Make up your mind to eat well. Like every routine, diet may be hard to establish, but after a few repetitions, becomes automatic.
Lay out your hygiene needs, clothes and and other personal routines. Keep it simple. Try to create efficiencies.
START NOW! Choose the clothes you'll wear tomorrow morning. Set out your toothbrush, towel, etc. Think about your meals. Block time to move. Resolve to do these routine things every day until they become so automatic you can do them in your sleep. Some day you'll have to.
After your needs routines come your responsibilities. Try to think of your responsibilities as creating a body of work, like a resume. Showing up for work (on time), studying, paying bills, personal finances, growing professionally, and keeping a decent household and vehicle. Responsibilities are fulfilling your contract, doing what you tell others (and your future self) you'll do. Like a credit rating, think of it as an honor rating. Depending on your priority list, you may consider maintaining certain relationships as responsibilities as well. Only you can weight them. But the point here is to take care of your responsibilities before you move on to other things, like wants. I'm not saying your future self is so rigid you can't take a personal phone call before folding the laundry, but if you feel a tinge about leaving necessary tasks, you need to take care of business. Things undone clutter the brain. They nag at you and waste thought and time. Save yourself the trouble. Get it done on a schedule and then go enjoy yourself.
Now the hard part. Wants. With small children, it's all about wants. Part of growing up is learning to weigh our desires against their cost. We should learn early on the value of paying up front with money we have earned ourselves, but we live in such a land of plenty that for generations the American dream has been so easily grasped that many consider it a birthright. Stuff and entertainment dominate our lives. Marketers have trained us to the point of addiction, spending our resources (money and time) on new technologies and distractions to the point we have little time for anything else. An average American spends 4 hrs daily with the TV on. Video games are the new bonding medium for males. Texting, Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace interrupt the flow of hundreds of millions of otherwise productive days. My point here is that only you can decide how important it is to read your "friend's" post that they are going to the bathroom, but if it is distracting you from your adult responsibilities, then you have a problem you need to deal with. If you play video games or surf for more than an hour per day you probably have an addiction. If your passion is porn, methamphetamines, or Halo, you are cheating your future self.
I'm not saying you should not have wants. If your future self would value a high game score over a backpacking trip or a night out, or a credit rating, or... well that's between you and them.
6: Success and Failure
Traditional success may not be your thing, but I'll tell you why it matters. Doing what you should do now opens doors for what you want to do later. When that great investment opportunity or bargain pops up, you need cash in the bank to take advantage of it. When the job you love becomes available, you need the skills and history to land it. When things happen in life that require strength or resourcefulness, you will be glad for having gathered some. If you have to rely on friends or family for support, those relationships will only be as strong as the foundation you've built. Take an honest look, and judge for yourself how much you've contributed to your own future. I can almost guarantee the future you envision won't be the exact reality you'll find, but thinking about where you are headed and moving that direction will make where you DO end up a much better place. Failure is allowing yourself to become stagnant, giving up on yourself. Picture your future self as someone who likes who they've become, rather than someone who "didn't pass the IQ test."
7: Education and Altruism
Look at education as a way to listen to dead people. Humans have been heaping this huge mound of information throughout history, and universities glean and concentrate the best stuff so that you don't have to. You can't learn everything about everything in a lifetime. You can't even learn everything about one topic in a lifetime. All you CAN do is pick a pile of knowledge you think you can use and tackle it the best you know how. You have to trust the dead people, at least a little, to give you mostly truth without too much extraneous BS. You can't learn it all any more than you can finish the internet, but the system is there for a reason, and one reason is to help you succeed. But there's a problem. Educational systems also exist for other reasons. They block stamp needed "professionals", and they do research to further expand human knowledge and experience. Sometimes students are lost in the cross purposes.
A degree defines you as someone with the basic theoretical skills to do a job society needs. The paper also tells the world you have the discipline and self respect (grown upp-ed-ness) it takes to wade through all of the structural obstacles and bureaucracy the system will throw at you. The degree says you weren't sitting on your butt for the last few years. What a degree does not show is whether you have acquired the social skills required to get by in the real world. It doesn't say you've made goals, or you're competitive, or that you care about others, or you have ambitions to change the world. Of course the lack of a degree doesn't demonstrate those things either.
One of the most successful people I admire believed that "school got in the way of his education." He never got a diploma, but studied literature on his own, traveled, and lived one grand adventure after another. He knew he wanted to write. He woke up every day reminding himself of the writer he wished to become and the stories he wished to tell. Others saw him as a renegade, a free spirit, a person living without structure. Actually, he was very disciplined. He worked for money to live and money to move on to the next adventure. He played hard, studied books, and studied people. He was blessed with the ability and desire to keep learning and growing throughout his long life. He's proof that you don't require a paper of approval from a university to succeed if you are sufficiently talented, and lucky.
For most of us, though, it's easier to work within the system, making it work for us, to get what we want. What all of us want is to have our basic needs met first, like food and shelter. That takes money, but it's amazing how little of it, if we choose to live simply. Next we want freedom and love, an interesting contradiction that takes at least the effort required for money. And when those needs are met, most of us crave purpose.
It's tough when you are young to consider your immortality. But growing up requires you to do just that. Some day you'll wake up dead, and you will have made a difference in the world, or not. I hope you will leave the world a better place for those that follow. I hope you will add to the big ol' pile of human knowledge and understanding. It's up to you. It's a choice. It starts now.