In 2016, I wrote a post, On Adulting, that included ten somewhat tidy points on how I gauge one’s ability to function as an adult in the real world.
I thought to revisit that post and add additional reflections on how we can engage the concept of adulting with both the lightheartedness of the original blogger, Kelly Williams Brown, as well as the seriousness of gauging your own progress if you find yourself struggling with some skill deficits and challenges, regardless of your age.
What I didn’t talk about in that 2016 post are the concepts of immediate gratification and delayed gratification. These are both in play when talking about what is often needed to help people learn to “adult”, aka learn a skill that requires patience, dedication, commitment, and willingness to engage tasks that are routine, mundane, or sometimes emotionally painful enough that you avoid it.
We have studies such as the 1960’s and 1970’s Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which gave children the option to receive a small food reward immediately, which was on a plate in front of them, or to wait in that empty room approximately 15 minutes without taking the food reward, and receive two treats (both the item on the plate, plus another treat, such as an Oreo cookie or a pretzel). The follow up study correlated a child’s ability to delay gratification to outcomes such as better SAT scores and BMI scores (Body Mass Indicator).
Not quite a balm for his soul – more like rubbing alcohol in a wound. It stings, but you know that means it’s working.
Jenny Jurek, North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail
Since then, we have more evidence beyond Dr. Walter Michel’s experiment that experiencing delayed gratification — that is, waiting for a pleasurable reward after time, hard work, and effort — can have positive effects in later life outcomes.
But what makes adulting so hard that we resist its tasks as well as its benefits? Mel Robbins, author of, “The 5-Second Rule,” suggests that our brains are wired to protect ourselves from painful experiences, emotional or physical. It is painful to get out of bed before the sun comes up in order to fit in some time to exercise and take care of our bodies. It is painful to say no to a sugary treat offered for free at work, even if that treat will cause a rise in blood sugar followed by a crash in energy afterwards, or a tummy ache. It is painful to watch your child throw a tantrum when you limit screen time so he can finish his homework, and then pitches a fit when bedtime arrives and he wants to stay up and play video games with you. The urge to defend against that pain has us renegotiating boundaries, breaking promises, and making exceptions instead of revisiting our pain.
One of the challenges with Adulting is that delayed gratification and “Just do it” mentality about engaging those mundane adult tasks, like saving for retirement, cleaning your home, cooking and preparing healthy meals, and developing skills to develop a meaningful and caring relationship with another human being, have no guarantees attached. Just because you do the actions does not automatically mean you collect the anticipated reward.
You could save money every year, and still be behind what is recommended for retirement. You could save money every month, and then an unexpected expense, such as a doctor’s visit, or a car maintenance that required more than you budgeted, or an increase in your apartment’s rent, could make saving money more difficult.
You can spend hours cleaning your home, and never feel completely caught up, since dust and dishes and pet fur and muddy shoes happen.
You can buy the food to cook all the meals, and your kids can refuse to eat it. Food can get wasted. You might not eat enough variety, and eventually need supplementation. You can eat out at a reputable place and get a case of food poisoning.
You can invest years of emotional, mental, spiritual, and financial energy into a relationship, and it can sputter out, become tangled with conflict, heavy with grief, or end.
There are no guarantees for all your adulting efforts.
There is one guarantee, however, if you don’t learn how to delay gratification and you don’t learn skills of adulting. You’ll likely fail at adult life, and you’ll likely find it difficult to sustain friendships or partnerships. When no one expected you to act grown up, it was just fine not to. Over time, friends take on the tasks of adulting and launch off on their own.
We tend to gravitate towards those most like us, so you can imagine what happens when an adult operating from a child mind finds him or herself spending time with the same kinds of people who are avoidant of dealing with their deficits. There is a lot of failing going on. And so, there is good reason why learning the skills of adulting is practical and relevant. I’m not making fun of these deficits. Just the opposite. I find them entirely relevant to address them in order to successfully navigate adult life, whether you live in a remote area of the country, or you are in the center of a bustling city.
Everyone starts out life with a child’s mind. Open, creative, positive and trusting, present-moment focused (unless early childhood is oppressive, negative, and full of unpredictable adults), the child mind wants what it wants, when it wants it, which is usually Now, not Later. It takes experience, delayed gratification versus immediate gratification, and a history of enjoying rewards and benefits following a period of commitment and dedication to lay down a pattern of behavior and attitude that turns the child mind towards adult decision making and willingness to engage in hard work and waiting.
For example, if your doctor told you that you needed to change your diet and lifestyle because you had high blood pressure, and you realized every time it came to decision time about what to eat you chose to indulge in high fat, sugar, and salted foods, you would need to take a look at what happens in the moments leading up to those food choices. Did you organize yourself so you had time to grocery shop? Did you plan a menu? If eating out, did select a restaurant that had healthy options with macronutrients listed? Did you take a moment to look at portion size? When it came time to exercise, did you make sure you had clean workout clothes ready the night before? Did you have a plan for your workout? Did you consult a trainer, read about exercises, or attend a group exercise class if the exercise requires some safety skills? Did you schedule your workouts in your calendar like you schedule other important appointments? Did you plan enough sleep in your schedule to help you feel refreshed and ready to exercise?
I think you see the challenge. The child mind will get to the moment that it’s time to take an adult action or just do what it wants — roll over and go back to sleep instead of take a brisk walk or go to the gym. Eat the piece of pizza for breakfast, or leftover pie. The child mind will watch TV when it’s time to clean house, pay bills, or study for a certification program to advance one’s job prospects. “I don’t want to put off for later what I can have now!” whines the child mind. The task that would help is put off another day, another week, month, or year. Sometimes, it is completely forgotten, until a painful consequence puts it top-of-mind again.
Adulting behaviors ask us to engage the part of the mind that can delay immediate gratification in order to take another action that completes a required task or set of tasks in order to continue functioning. An example might be choosing to work extra hours or picking up a second gig to save up enough money beyond covering expenses so that there is more money than month. I
I knew of a woman who had come into a large amount of money at once, and her child mind allowed her to spend all of it in a relatively short time rather than saving a portion of it. She wanted to live like the rich people she saw on TV, if but for a short time. The money was blown on lavish parties, travel, food, and drugs, until the money ran out.
Contrast that story with the young woman who worked extra hours and set aside money over many years. She also attended evening college courses in order to get a degree that would help her attain better paying jobs. She spent her personal time between keeping fit, sleeping, and visiting her family. Eventually, she was recommended to the position to which she hoped to apply with her college degree. Talk about delaying gratification!
Is this just another story that sounds like Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, who did not prepare for winter? Perhaps. Part of growing up is the ability to march out on one’s own, aware of the changing seasons, and prepare for lean or more difficult times. The child mind believes someone will always be there to help them through that difficult time; growing up allows us to see that we do our best to learn to care for ourselves, and when we have done what we can, our family, neighbors, and community members may also step in and help us.
Finally, we have to talk about burnout if you want to understand the full picture of what inhibits or discourages people from engaging their adulting abilities. However, I think I’ll hold off on that topic for a Part 3 post in the near future.
Have you identified any areas of your life that need Adulting? One subject that gets little discussion is preparing for death. If you are thinking about the same topic, please join me in reading Michael Hebb’s book, “Talking about Death Over Dinner.” It is available for eBook checkout through your public library, as well as online retailers wherever books are sold.