As I believe I have mentioned, I am bad at math. When splitting a check in half — half! — I reliably figure it out wrong. (How is this possible? I don’t know either.) I do a lot of crying while balancing my checkbook, and not just for the usual reasons. I chose my college in part because there was no math requirement. I now muddle by with the help of calculators and software, though if I’m doing basic figuring – money, distances – I usually try to do it manually first, to stay in the habit of doing the actual work of math. Why? Because a grown-up needs to be able to maintain a budget and not run away when her kid asks her to check her homework. That’s just how it is. Mary Elizabeth Williams
Ms Williams writes on Salon (Nov 18, 2103) about her 5 rules for being a grown-up. (Thanks, Stephen Abram, for the tweet about this.) The genesis of her article was a reflection on a Atlantic piece by Miles Kimball and Noah Smith that proposed that when considering competence for something like math “inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.”
Williams rules are, that as grown-ups:
- We have to move [exercise]
- We have to feed ourselves [cook and eat healthily]
- We have to be able to write a coherent sentence
- We have to think about other people
- We have to do the math [maintain a budget and help with homework]
I have two problems with this list.
First, with the exceptions of numbers 1 and 4, these tasks can be outsourced. Yes, given enough time and energy, a human being can become competent at nearly anything. The question is if the time spent in gaining competence is worth the pay-off. I could learn to become a great pastry chef, although that is not an area in which I have much interest or talent. I could indeed take classes, practice, and probably get pretty good at baking a world-class pumpkin pie. Or I could use my time to write and earn enough from that writing to buy a pumpkin pie at Bakers Square. I can hire others to cook, write, and do math - if I have other talents I can trade in exchange.
My understanding is that psychologists have demonstrated that we are better off spending time developing our strengths than trying to compensate for our weaknesses. Such an approach seems to me to be one that would lead to greater productivity and a more fulfilling life.
The second problem I have with this small list is that it seems terribly modest to me. I have higher expectations of adults (grown-ups). In my eyes, true adults:
- Are independent and take responsibility for their own lives. They have left blaming one's parents, teachers, circumstances of birth, physical make-up, etc. behind. They play the hand they've been dealt - and play it for all it's worth. "Responsible adult" is redundant. An adult also recognizes when he/she needs help - and seeks it without shame or embarrassment.
- Take responsibility for being as healthy as possible. 90% of good health and physical well-being is probably genetic. One doesn't have a lot of choice of being tall, short, fat, thin, pretty, or plug ugly. But the other 10% can make the difference between an active, fulfilling life and one spent on the couch.
- Recognize that their actions have an impact on others - including future generations. This ranges from taking the last scrap of toilet paper and not replacing the roll to using environmentally unfriendly detergent to using bad language around children. Adults live lives of purpose, and the best purpose is making the world a better place for others in some large or small way.
- Understand that monetary wealth does not necessarily bring happiness - and that the source of happiness may be different for different people. Real adults don't use money as a means of calculating personal value. Relationships, adventures, creative projects, and service are the big parts of one's obit, not the size of the estate. But then if adults honor the right to pursue happiness in personal ways, far be it from me to criticize the savers and the hoarders. I don't understand monster truck or ballet aficionados either.
- Develop a spiritual life and live by a set of personal values. Whether through organized religion, mediation, literature, appreciation of nature, or commitment to the Star Trek fan club, adults seek meaning. And they think about their values - and their value.
Schools should find ways to allow student practice in acting in adult ways - making independent choices, experimenting, and, yes, making mistakes and living with the consequences. Good teachers, like good parents, work themselves out of a job when they are effective.
And I know, at 61, I am still trying to become a grown-up.
What in your experience is a rule for being an adult?