Author | Illustration Mariel Kelly

ADULT LEARNING: WHEN YOU’RE THE FIRST TO PEAK AND THE LAST TO GROW UP

Dear Audra,

I feel like when I was in my 20s, life was replete with potential and fun. All my friends and I were going places. We had passion and we were working towards careers in our passions. People knew who I was, and thought I was a force with which to be reckoned.

Now all my friends are boring and working in stupid boring jobs and they can’t stay up late and have ideas with me because they have kids and they have to get up the next morning. Even the ones that are still working in the arts are busy with their day jobs. I admit, I’ve come to a bit of a creative impasse too: I don’t book as many gigs and I haven’t taken on any new projects in a while. I feel like adulthood has stolen my friends from me, but I refuse to give in to Philistinism and become a Boring Person with a Job.

I don’t really know what to do. I resent my old friends for abandoning our shared dreams and awesomeness. My new friends are all really young though, and I don’t feel like I can keep up with them. And I haven’t really lived up to my own potential, but I feel like if I just give in and do the “grown up” thing, I never will.

How do I balance my desire to have fun, keep working at my artistic endeavours, and also not starve or become a bitter old has-been?

Yours,
The Oldest Guy at Open Mic Night

Dear Mic,

Wow! First of all, you have a lot going on, and that must feel really overwhelming. By my inventory, you are feeling loneliness, disappointment, and resentment all at once, with a dose of embarrassment and anger sprinkled all over everything, which is absolutely not helping. That sounds so challenging!

It’s tough for folks who get a lot of praise early in life. There is solid evidence that telling someone they are good at something kind of sets them up for failure. For example, if you tell a kid, “Wow, you are really good at math,” they are more likely to abandon a math problem they don’t automatically know how to solve. Whereas if you tell a kid, “You did great on this, you worked very hard,” they will likely keep working very hard, even as the work becomes more difficult. This might not seem relevant, but I think it might be. It’s possible you thought your life was going to turn out a certain way, but then you came up against some unexpected challenges that made you feel like a failure for a while, and that failure paralyzed you on your way towards having an adult life.

It seems you have two conflicting images in your head when you think about what a “grown up” is. One is a person who wears a suit and carries a briefcase and lives a soulless existence. The other is the person you expected to grow up to be, living some kind of whirlwind creative fun-times life. You don’t see yourself reflected in either of these images, so now you don’t feel like an adult. This kind of binary thinking on your part is probably not doing you, or your friends, any favours.

There are a lot of memes and stuff floating around about running from adulthood, but the truth of the matter is most of us don’t want to run from adulthood – we only want to choose the parts of it that are appealing. We say, “Yes please!” to staying up late and having our own apartments and making our own choices and wearing the clothes we like. We say, “No thanks!” to learning how a breaker works, going to the bank to do paperwork, or having stressful conversations with friends about feeling abandoned. When we work up the nerve to do those things, we make humblebrag posts online about “ADULTING!” but as Madeleine Davies recently pointed out on Jezebel, “adulting” really means just doing the basic things we need to do to have the lives we want.

I get that things are hard. I struggle a lot for sure, and I reach out for help and support often. I am all for being proud of ourselves for undertakings that feel impossible; at the same time, I feel like not considering ourselves to be adults can sometimes keep us from feeling responsible for the consequences of our actions, or from having healthy expectations of ourselves. If we have friends who are never late, fellow artists who seem to always be getting grants, or siblings who always bring something other than chips to the Thanksgiving dinner potluck, we decide it must be because those things are easier for them. And maybe they are! But also, maybe they are just trying harder, or hiding their struggles better.

Part of maturing is realizing that we are not the only characters in the movie we are watching of our lives. I remember getting on a plane for a long flight in my early 20s and thinking there was no way I was going to get stuck in the middle seat of a middle row. Then something weird clicked in my brain and I looked around and realized that everyone was having the exact same thought: None of us wanted to sit in the middle row of the aisle seat. Someone was going to be relieved, and somebody was going to be disappointed, and there was nothing special about me that made my disappointment somehow more tragic overall. (That is a very embarrassing story to share on the Internet, so I hope you appreciate it!)

Here is the good news: Once you internalize the basic Other-People-Are-People of Being An Adult 101, from there you basically get to decide what “being an adult” means for you. If you want to make your living just doing creative work, you might need share a house with a bunch of friends. That’s fine! Living with friends doesn’t make you a bad adult. If you want to live alone in a cool neighbourhood, you will probably need some kind of non-creative work to do that pays your bills. That’s also fine! Nearly every artist in Canada has a side-hustle.

You can be an adult and not do your dishes every day. But either you have to do them eventually, or they will become someone else’s problem. Successful adulthood means recognizing that you are responsible for the outcomes of your decisions. A desire to avoid “adulting” often indicates a propensity for downloading your challenges onto your community, without considering the impact it will have on them.

What I am saying is this: I think it is very dangerous to think of yourself as the opposite of an “adult,” especially in a way that sets it up as both an object of scorn and an unattainable reality. I think it’s probably coming between you and your friends.

Everyone has things about their lives that they wish were different, and ways they feel that they let themselves down. This is humbling to realize, but also kind of liberating. Because it’s fine if you make bad art for a while before you get back to making good art. You’re just a person making art, and trying to do a thing. The world is not especially waiting for your thing to happen, and it is certainly not really aware that it’s not happening yet. You talk about the fact that people used to know who you were, and you seem a bit wistful about that. But actually I think you should think instead about the clean slate you have now. No one’s expecting anything of you, which means you just get to blow your own mind!

Appreciate your friends, regardless of their ages. Remind yourself that the friends who are most likely to be able to drop everything and pick you up at the airport might also not be able to stay up late with you. Also remind yourself that the ones who are young and fun and thrilling are also still figuring things out and will change a ton over the next several years. (Also: you absolutely should not try to date any of them.)

Introduce these friends to each other. If you don’t want to, it might be because you are not being an authentic version of yourself with either group, and that’s probably not good for you. Throw a potluck, it’ll be fine. You can cook something and then smile affectionately when your young friends bring chips.

More than anything, figure out what kind of adult life you want to have, and then take concrete steps towards making that happen. Because the grown ups aren’t coming back. You are the grown up now, and you can’t will it away. You are going to be miserable as long as you try.

All the best to you!
Audra

Have a question for Adult Learning? Send Audra an email: ask.adult.learning@gmail.com.

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