Why it’s far harder to be 21 than you remember, and how we older people can help

It looks so good, right? Young, full of energy, attractive, plenty of time to learn from your mistakes, possibilities like jewels at your feet. What on earth could there be to complain about? It turns out, quite a lot. And it’s reasonable as hell! Do you remember being 18 and being expected to go out […]

It looks so good, right? Young, full of energy, attractive, plenty of time to learn from your mistakes, possibilities like jewels at your feet. What on earth could there be to complain about? It turns out, quite a lot. And it’s reasonable as hell!

Do you remember being 18 and being expected to go out there and “make your way”? And do you remember how badly you sucked at it?

Well I do.

And do you remember how hard you were on yourself, telling yourself you should know what to do and how to behave and knowing all the while that you didn’t know squat?

I really do.

Thing is…I thought I was the only one.

I was talking with one of my colleagues at work, recently – one of my two favorite 21-year-olds that I have connected with there – and she has a tough row to hoe! She has some deep family demands that 40-year-olds would have a tough time with, and she is also going to school part time and working part time. It is hardly surprising that she comes in to work looking exhausted.

She’s stressed! I was seated next to her for two months – they moved us about quite a lot for a while there – and I liked to make her laugh, and to give her space to talk about what was going on for her in her non-work life. One day she used the “s” word: “should”. The lightbulb went on in my head and I told her something I wish someone had told me when I was 20 (and 30 and 40, honestly): No one teaches us how to be adults.

No one!

The expectation and assumptions are there: you’re 18, you’re an adult now! Good luck to you! And you are supposed to know how to make good decisions (and to know what a good decision even is for you, which you won’t until you’ve made your mistakes), how to handle money, how to comport yourself in the workplace, how to, how to, how to. But that’s not what you’ve been learning to do in school at all! You’ve been learning to obey, not to create!

So, the 18-year-olds go out into the world and try to be themselves. The conforming world doesn’t like people being themselves.

Or the 18-year-olds go out into the world and try to conform. Most are not good at doing that in a way that allows for a lot of individuality, so they either dim their light so severely they become depressed or angry or resigned, or they take an alternative path and seek for some years before finding their unique way, which is the way I trod.

Very few, if any, 18 year olds have the mentors or the good karma they need to grow up elegantly. This is the unsung benefit of college: that in-between training ground for one foot in the educational world and one foot in the exploratory world of new-found freedom, what to do with it and who you are in the use of it.

So here was this 21-year-old young woman feeling defeated because she couldn’t seem to figure out how to do things “right” and I miraculously found the right thing to say. I know my impressing on her that she couldn’t possibly be expected to just “know” how to be an adult was helpful because she came back the next day and said she had thought about it, and it had definitely landed. Looking at her face, I could see the easing of some of her stress. Success! So…


No one teaches us how to be grown-ups. It’s far harder than anything you’ve done before because you’ve never done it before, and unlike school where they download information into your poor defensless head and then tell you you’re a success if you successfully regurgitate it back, this is something that is built on qualities and experience and skills like asking for help, embracing change, reclaiming childlike learning (not childish, but childlike, as in innocently taking in information), learning to grow in absolutely non-rote ways.


Tell your young friends, your children, your grand-children that this growing up “thing” is a life-long growth and consciousness-raising thing, and that you are there to help because you have been there, and “shame” is not a word in your vocabulary, where “resource” is.


We have all been dipped repeatedly, every single day of our lives, into the expectation that our 20’s are our happiest times of our lives; that we are freest, the most pregnant with possibilities, and that we ought to be the happiest. The contrast between that commercialized idea and our reality couldn’t be starker, and that contrast leaves all of us stymied and self-judging, self-blaming and prone to compare ourselves – always negatively – to those who are younger than we are.

Challenge your assumptions, because those suckers are wrong!

The only thing we share in this journey toward maturity is the fact that we are all making it up as we go along. We find toe-holds in the mountains, and we find hands to help push us forward or pull us up. We offer our own hands as we learn a little something, and we turn around and continue on with the never-ending journey of learning who we are and how to make our lives more joyous, more loving, kinder, wiser – for ourselves as well as for others.

If you’re 21, reach out for help with what is confounding you, and if you’re 61, reach out to help. Also if you’re 61, share your journey of your continuing learnings with your 21-year-old friend. Show her that you too ask for help. Show her that this is the path and that it doesn’t end, it just gets juicier and more skillful and that you, like her, are always growing and changing and being humbled and positively changed by life’s lessons. She will learn from you what true adulting looks like.

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