A Couple of Truths About Adulthood That No One Tells You

Thursday, November 2, 2017 - 4:01 pm

A Couple of Truths About Adulthood That No One Tells You

Maybe I’m just stumbling toward mid-life at long last, but I feel like I’m settling into a new kind of peace with imperfection these days. Whereas I used to jump to outrage easily, revel in dissecting all the faults of a leader or organization, I’ve started to get curious about how dysfunctional we all are — and yet how resilient and capable of change. Here are a couple of things I wish I’d understood earlier:

Adults do not have their shit together. Even the really successful ones.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I remember studying adults — particularly women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — and being awed by all that they were juggling. Surely they had superpowers, highly coordinated systems for running their very complicated, important lives. Surely they woke up each morning knowing exactly what they were doing and executing with finely tuned precision. I imagined spreadsheets, unbroken morning meditation routines, color-coordinated closets.

But here’s the truth: Even the adults I’ve met who appeared to have their shit together don’t. In fact, I think the inverse may be true: The more people appear to have their shit together, the more reliably you can predict that they have a closet somewhere, shielded from public view, bursting with all the messiness of life.

Further, at just the moment that you fall under the delusion that you have your shit together, life will teach you otherwise. You have all the plates spinning, and then the baby gets the stomach flu or you forget your best friend’s birthday or you crash the car and you remember that you are, indeed, human and fallible and just like every other adult, even the ones really good at pretending like, as they say, their shit don’t stink.

Which is all to say, do not equate adulthood with getting your shit together. Equate adulthood with more realistic, if not still challenging, goals: like learning how to give a truly heartfelt apology or thinking in spectrums instead of binaries or mastering the art of picking basil without killing the plant. Maturity, as it turns out, is not really about filing systems or intricately maintained calendars. It’s about showing up in your imperfect form over and over and over again.

The organizations and institutions you admire from afar are riddled with problems — and still worth admiring.

What is true in micro is true in macro. All of the organizations and institutions that are run by these imperfect humans are also imperfect. Sometimes fatally flawed (in which case, don’t walk, run), but sometimes just broken in various, potentially fixable ways for various, complex reasons, and this, too, can become a testing ground for wisdom.

When I first started working in the “real world” and got to pull the curtain back on various organizations, I was shocked over and over again to discover that they were not well-oiled machines. Emails go unanswered. Purported values get dishonored in the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day. Money is wasted. Good work goes unrewarded. Dehumanizing bureaucracies build up. No one ever sticks to timelines, no matter how well-intentioned. Everything takes ten times longer than you estimate it would or think it should.

But this, too, turns out to be a potential balm for your anxiety rather than only a disappointment (although it can often be disappointing). It means that you are needed. Young people with fresh energy and ways of collaborating who are not burdened with years of subpar systems and lowered expectations can come in and ask the perfect naïve question or offer the seemingly small but breakthrough solution. You have skills and networks that even the most admired organizations in the world need (and may not even realize they need because they are dysfunctional fish in murky waters).

There is a lot of opportunity in all this brokenness. If you can stay the course with organizations that fall short of their visions and values, you might just have a hand in shaping something long-lasting and far-reaching. That’s a reward that feels more adult than repeatedly walking away in a huff.

So I’m curious: What do you wish you had known earlier?

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    Having grown up as I did, I never felt that adults had everything figured out and their acts together. At 6 years old I could see this staring me in the face. You are lucky if you enjoyed the privilege of being surrounded by pretty well functioning people!
    Over many decades of life, I have not come to the conclusion that the people who seem really well organized and together are actually the least likely to be so in actuality. In my experience those who appear not to have things together- to be out of control, and dysfunctional – are the most likely actually to be so.
    That said, everyone is full of imperfections. More importantly, there is something easy to love in every one of these imperfect people.
    What I wish I had known earlier is that a young person I love who was living far away was extremely ill in a way that might have responded to early aggressive intervention. I would have turned the Earth upside down to get her the help. Such early intervention might have nipped her extremely serious illness in the bud.
    I know this isn’t a global sort of understanding of how things are, but it is my honest answer.

  • Helen

    Thank you for what you say about organizations/institutions. I’ve come to see that institutions only fail us when we have the expectation that they should be perfect. If we accept them as flawed, as never a perfect reflection of our own values, and we commit to working toward good within the institutions that aspire toward our values, we can see them as necessary structures that can guide positive collective action and constrain our worst impulses. Of course, they also have the capacity to do the exact opposite-permit negative collective action and unleash our worst impulses, and that is why we need to know ourselves and hue closely to what we value, and walk away when we find ourselves unable to effect positive change.

    I don’t think so much in terms of “what I wish I had known earlier”, as I feel that carries too much implied regret. I gave up regret in my 40’s, though it still rears its ugly head once in a while. Instead I think of “what lessons I have learned over the years from life experiences unavailable to me pre-midlife”. Lesson number one is that your fears and anxieties may not be terribly useful for you. Much of what you fear will never come to pass. What does come to pass is probably survivable (more on that). And you will almost certainly have some truly difficult and awful experiences that you never thought to fear in the first place.

    Surviving life’s awful experiences begins the moment you take responsibility for ONLY those aspects that truly belong to you, and divorce yourself from the idea that you were ever entitled to a pain-free life, or that any of the good things that you’ve worked so hard for will shield you from life’s random events, or from the unintended consequences of your own actions. Surrounding yourself with love, engaging in meaningful work, being part of something bigger than yourself, won’t keep bad things from happening, but they can buffer you and support you through grief, through growth, through recovery.

    • amity

      I wish I had known you, Helen.

    • CJ

      Such wise words! That third paragraph, especially, is pure gold.
      Thank you for posting, Helen!

  • UT Jane

    Beautiful reflections. I wish I would have known that dropping plates for self care was not selfish but actually vital to my ability to spin any plates at all.

  • Tammy Smith

    Growing up = growth and vulnerability. When your identity is based off of the outer shell of adulthood, like schedules, if that cracks so will you. In my twenties I learned to mix my responsibilities but sought to root myself deeper in community and meaningful friendships. Now that I’m in my thirties and have experienced loss of loved ones and other ups and downs it’s the roots I set in community and deeper things that have truly sustained me.

  • Steve Penney

    Well said. I wish I had known it didn’t have to be perfect to receive love.

  • Mary Colson

    I wish that I would have known that everyone is just as self-absorbed as I am. I wish I would have know that I didn’t need to worry so much about what other people think of me or to worry about fitting into their view of me. They weren’t thinking of me at all! Perhaps I would have had the courage to take more risks with openness, honesty, and sharing ideas. Thanks for all your writing.

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  • JLC

    I wish I had known that I deserved to be loved for myself. I might not have settled for half-hearted affections.

  • Nandini

    I wish I had known that my parents would not live forever. That they would pass away one day and I would have to figure out the world by myself. I wish I had discussed death more often, asked them how they coped with the death of their own parents. It is an important part of living, accepting death and everything that goes with it so I wish I had spent more time having a conversation about it with my parents before they went. I also wish I knew that every time your heart gets broken, it hurts in a different place.