We are accustomed to repeating the cliché, and tobelieving, that “our most precious resource is ourchildren.” But we have plenty of children to go around,God knows, and as with Doritos, we can always makemore. The true scarcity we face is practicing adults.
—Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs
Let Parents Be Parents
Our first strategy is simplicity itself: just keep your mouth shut and don’tchange anything. Maybe no one will notice that the odometer has clicked over and, chronologically at least, you have become an adult. There are tremendous advantages to prolonging childhood for as long as possible. It is, for most people, a safe harbor.
And think of the bonuses: Your childhood home is probably bigger and better equipped than the dingy basement apartments most people get when they first move out. Rent, heat, light, water, and garbage removal are extremely well priced at zero dollars. Most meals are provided. It’s like a college dorm room plan, but with fewer annoying roommates.
Chauffeur and maid services are often tacked on at no additional charge. How can you beat that? The demands are few and the benefits are too many to count. Why wouldn’t you want that deal to continue? The main problem with this gambit is that it depends on your parent(s)neglecting to realize that they no longer have a child on their hands. In some families, this is not so great a challenge as it might seem.
- Parents’ sense of their offspring’s age usually lags, as you may have noticed. It’s as though their image of you is the moving average of all the pages you’ve been since birth, so at fourteen they treat you like you were seven, and at twenty-four like you’re twelve.
- Clean the pubic hairs off the toilet seat and they might never twig that you are post-adolescent.People are busy with their own lives. They barely see themselves ina mirror, so if you keep your head down they’ll surely never notice you. Or your tats.It’s great to feel needed. One of life’s nagging questions is “What is my purpose?” If you have a child who can’t pour cereal without supervision, you don’t have to face this quandary.
- Your purpose is to buy their underwear, change the light bulbs, and prevent vacuuminginjuries. Most parents are ambivalent about releasing their children into the wide, dangerous world, so they have a motive for believing you are nowhere near ready. Some of this comes from insecurity. They didn’t really know what they were doing when they raised you, so there’s always some late catching up to do before they can declare you “finished.”
But, but, but: how is this a path to misery?
In Richard Adams’s novel Watership Down, a group of rabbits escaping the imminent destruction of their hilltop home encounters a new warren where all seems well. The tunnels are wide, plentiful food is mysteriously delivered, and all basic needs are covered. The cost, they soon discover, is that the farmer supplying the food harvests the rabbits for meat.
There’s sometimes a high price to pay for security. It’s unlikely that your family is going to turn out to be cannibalsfattening you up for stew. Nevertheless, the downsides are real.
Keep Your Parents in the Pantheon
Why does virtually every culture invent religion? Maybe one or another of the gods is real and their worshippers seethings accurately. Even if that were true, though, it doesn’t explain the other ten thousand divinities that we’ve dreamt up—all of those warring, diverse, and mutually inconsistent Asgards and Olympic.
Surely the answer is that we believe in gods because we have lived among them. We are born into a world surrounded by comparative giants who can perform miracles. Our parents and other elders stand upright, communicate using sound, control our comfort, feed us (sometimes from their own bodies!), drive huge machines, and reveal the names and functions of all the things around us. It is from them that we receive the first Word, and everyWord after that. They are masters of fire, of light, of bathwater, of life itself.
They provide, and they take away. We are held in the lap of Parvati; we ride on the shoulders of Apollo. This is a pretty great life. Don’t give it up without a fight. It gets more difficult with time, though. We long to believe that our gods are benevolent, just, and all-powerful. It is inconceivable that theylack control over their own behavior, and too frightening to imagine that they are unjust or malicious.
If they seem inconsistent, or rude, or harsh, it must be that we somehow provoked them and deserve our pain. Dad yelled, so you must have done something wrong. Mom became ill, so it must be your fault. Their failings and weaknesses become your own. They leave, they hit, they cry, they die: you can use all of it as evidence of your own worthlessness.
We try to block it out, but as we get older we realize that our gods are unreliable. They make mistakes. They disclose stunning limits to their powers.
“I don’t know how to drive a standard, honey.”We can’t afford to get you that bike this year.”I can’t get home in time for your soccer game.”
They can produce money, but not limitless amounts of it. They can be present, but not always. They can bandage wounds, but not prevent them. They are not as great as you thought. You have been duped. Swindled.
Maybe it’s no surprise that out of sheer nostalgia we invent gods more powerful than the weaklings we had been worshipping—nor that we call them Heavenly Parent. Like cathedrals constructed atop Roman ruins, we create deities from the rubble of our illusions. In the movie On Golden Pond, elderly Katharine Hepburn and HenryFonda are facing their mortality and failing health. Their daughter Chelsea, played by Jane Fonda, is filled with resentment for her parents’ faults.
She is particularly critical of her father, whose early signs of dementia she has failed to notice. Her mother clearly has waited many years for her to realize that her parents are only human, and could never have been the perfect beings she always wanted. Eventually, the mother is pushed to her limit and angrily snaps at her daughter, “Life marches on, Chels. I suggest you get on with it.”It sounds warmly reassuring to live in a world with living, walking gods in the next room.
They provide a useful target for our rage: that they were not quite good enough, that they failed us the night of the prom, that they yelled when we torched the garage (it was an accident), that they forbade us from going on the school camping trip, that they once struck using anger, that they missed the recital, that they let us waste our childhood in front of the television, that they went on vacation without us, that they denied us the clothes we truly wanted, that they were never financially stable, that they moved us to another city just when we were finally fitting. That they drank. That they divorced. We can lick our wounds of self-righteousness forever, the injured party in a lawsuit that can never be resolved.
Refuse The Burdens Of Adulthood
What if keeping your head low and your mouth shut doesn’t work? What if people around you start making demands anyway? Simple. Just turn them down. Adulthood is overwhelming. You need to eat several times a day.
You need a place to live. You need sheets, blankets, comforters. You need clothes to keep you warm. You need transportation, amusement, a way to communicate over long distances. Most of all, you need the medium of exchange that gets you all the rest: money. Try a thought experiment. Snap your fingers and create a brand-new human before your eyes. Hand them a list of everything they need to do in order to survive.
Eat, poop, pee, brush teeth, sleep on a regular schedule, clean up, do laundry, hunt and gather, and sell most of their waking hours in exchange for the sacred paper with the dollar signs on it. Watch their reaction.“You’re kidding. This stuff’ll take me all day, and a lot of it will take years! Listen, sweetheart: You made me. Your mess, your job.
I’ll just wait over here with the cat. I didn’t ask to be born, you know. When’s lunch?”Follow their lead. It’s just as true for you as for your imaginary friend. You didn’t sign up for this gig. No one asked if you wanted a ticket to planet Earth. Your existence is the product of your parents’ lust.
They decided to mess around that night and conceive you, or paid thousands to be inseminated, or failed to take precautions to ensure that you didn’t exist, or opted not to terminate the pregnancy, or picked you out of the adoptionlineup. Surely this makes your life, your needs, and your care of their problem.
Adopt this stance and you can offload all responsibility for your own life. To make this gambit fly, you have to skip past a few inconvenient truths. Like what? Well, it’s always hard to forget ideas once you’ve read them in black and white, so I’ll be brief. Skim these quickly, then tear this page out of the book and flush it.
- No one else signed the waiver either. Not your parents, not yoursiblings, not Beyoncé. No one in all of history requested to be born,at least as far as we can tell. If you have to sign the contract to getthe responsibility, then there isn’t a person on Earth who’s in chargeof their own welfare.
- It ain’t just you. Likewise, no one asked to be born into a particular body or life circumstances. We didn’t ask to be male, or female, or trans, or straight, or gay, or white, or brown, or black, or rich, or impoverished, or Serbian, or deaf, or blond. We didn’t ask to be born into an intact or divorced family, to religious or atheist parents, to a life of privilege or a life of struggle, to an upbringing and community of peace or one of the daily bombings.
- Your family didn’t sign up for you either, unless you were adopted. Even then, they didn’t know who you would be, or how you might turn out. At best, they chose to have a child, or not to get in the way of one already impending, and they understood they were getting the luck of the draw.No one signed up to be caregivers forever.
- Your folks likely anticipated that they’d be on the hook for maybe three years of diapers and twenty years of parenting, and then you would be successfully launched out into the world. They can choose to extend the offer, but that’s up to them. You don’t get to forge their signatureto make it a life sentence.
You see the problem. The whole “not my job” thing only hangstogether if you don’t think about it too hard—and if the people you’reselling it to don’t look very closely either.
This refusal to take the wheel of your own car provides two roads tomisery, not just one.First, parents may simply decline the job. They can refuse to provideassistance and support in the way you would like. This will feed your rage,disappointment, and frustration that they are not doing more.
Be a Rebel and Party On
Okay, so maybe childhood isn’t worth keeping on life support. Done that,got the bib. What’s next?
When you’re a kid the mission is easy: you learn to follow instructions. The task of adolescence is to morph from an obedient child into your own person—and how do you do that? The most logical answer is to reverse the directive. If formerly the thing to do was obey, then now the answer is to disobey. Identify what people in your life want, and do theopposite.
There are three ways that this leads to misery.
- First, it plunks you back into childhood. During the teen years, parents often want us to grow up and become responsible. Doing the opposite means rebelling against those pressures—by retaining precisely the personal qualities that we need to jettison.
- Second, it’s hard to be sensibly selective about the rebellion. Some of the boundaries they advocate are actually good ideas. Heroin makes for a bad experiment, unsafe sex can have lasting consequences (both venereal and conceptual), impulsive driving skills off more of the young adult gene pool than anything else, and unbridled hostility makes other people as miserable as it does you.
- Third, it keeps us under their control, rather than freeing us. Far from asserting our independence, our behavior during a rebellion remains determined by the dictates of others. What governs whether we head out on a Tuesday-night binge with our latent-addict friends? Whether someone else disapproves, not whether we actually think it’s a fun idea.
Whether our actions are chosen to conform to or contrast with others wishes, the ultimate determinant is the outside force from which we are attempting to distinguish ourselves. Maybe we’d just as soon sit home and study, or try out a chicken poblano recipe, or go out job-hunting—but that would only hand an apparent victory to the people trying to push us in those directions.
I was always confused by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Romeo starts the play besotted by Rosaline, then forgets all about her the moment he sees Juliet. What was the point of that? It took a Shakespeare scholar to get me to understand the obvious message: Romeo is an idiot. The first half of the play is a comedy about hapless morons caught up in transitory puppy love. The second half is a tragedy brought about by the disapproval of the parents.
Their opposition to the relationship is what makes the young rebels more disastrously determined. The beauty of Shakespeare is in the universality of his stories. This sixteenth-century plot seems remote when first encountered. It explains an enormous number of short-lived first marriages, however, from which mutual poisoning would be a happy relief. What do you call a young man you forbid your daughter to see? A son-in-law.
Stay on the Breast
A client of mine was mourning the departure of her son to university. Shewas simultaneously proud of the job she had done raising him and worriedabout how he would cope without her.“When I was a child I had nothing. I swore if I had children theywouldn’t suffer the way I did. He had new clothes. He was never hungry.
I took the best care of him.” She knew he’d have to do his own laundry. This was a concern. “He’s never touched a washing machine. He won’t knowhow.”Too late now, I thought. I elected not to challenge her on her child-raising. Her son would have a lot of catching up to do in the next few years.
Like many parents, she had kept the little darling safe, fed, clothed, wiped, and burped. But she hadn’t spent much time preparing him to live independently. She had indeed raised a child—but his life was increasingly demanding that he be an adult instead. By keeping him happy she had started him down a reliable road to misery.
Parenting has two central and opposing missions, balanced on a fulcrum like a teeter-totter. One task is to keep your offspring safe and protected; the other is to prepare them for your own death. Nurturance and independence. Keep the kids from the tiger, while simultaneously giving them the skills to survive if it gets you instead.
Many of us got a stronger dose of one or the other. Often we get the care, without the skills. When we’re born, we’re dependent on the bottle or the breast. But the breast doesn’t just supply milk.
It washes clothes, vacuums, makes beds, dispenses money, makes decisions for us, takes us to the pediatrician, houses us, and checks our geography homework. It’s male and female. Parental and fraternal. Familial and governmental.
From the first snip of the umbilical cord, the world tries to wean us away. First, they take the milk dispenser, then the diaper service, the maid service, the chef service, the chauffeur service, and, if we’re not careful, even the Bank of Mom and Dad. The nurturance end of the seesaw is whittled away until we come crashing to the ground. The breast vanishes, turns the corner, goes off on ski holidays, takes night-school courses, and asks when we’re going to help cook dinner. This you should resist. Life is tough enough. Imagine independence as a path from an obstetric ward to a condo.
You may have no choice about some of it, or you might only wake up to the problem when you’ve already been pushed halfway. Wherever you are, apply the brakes. Dig in your heels. Gono further. To some extent, of course, all of us are dependent throughout our lives: on electricity, on supermarkets, on a fire department to step in if the cooking goes badly. Maximize this. Avoid learning to boil water, removed wine stains, change a tire, or hang pictures.
If the original nipple has been withdrawn, replace it with one from Ronald McDonald, Martha Stewart, or Chef Boyardee. Don’t look for romantic partners; what you need are new parents.To be truly miserable, remain helpless and dependent on others for all of your needs. There will always be an element of uncertainty in their care. Maybe no one will know how to turn on the dorm washing machines. They may not tell you to change the oil in your car.
They may neglect to wake you up in the morning, or make you write thank you emails, or iron your dress shirt for the job interview. The only way out of the trap is to knowhow to take care of yourself. If you don’t, you’re stuck there for life. Relying on others doesn’t work for everyone. Some people in their twenties have no one to pick up the slack. The family is gone, or unsupportive—or prioritizes building capacity over fostering dependence.
These individuals have no choice but to make their own way. If they want to be miserable, they’ll have to find another route. Many, however, are provided with more nurturance than they need. Some parents enmesh love and caregiving so thoroughly that they can’t seethe difference. Cleaning up after their children, making their food, and buying their clothes are acts of love. Not to do these things would be neglect, or an affirmation that they don’t really care all that much.
So they keep on cooking. Some families claim to support their offspring’s independence, but harbor a contrary motive hidden even from them. They secretly fear being abandoned by a young person who does not need them anymore. So they never pull back, weighting down the nurturance end of the seesaw and stranding their young adult in midair. Think of the supports that you might be getting from family—the various breasts pointed your way.
One path is to continue accepting these for as long as they are offered, and to avoid learning how to cope without them until absolutely necessary. At that point, you will be in a panic to learn. You’ll be unequipped for the road ahead. Also, you will always be irritated by their help, even though you’re the one seeking it out. Every favor they grant, every need they fulfill, will be a frustrating reminder of your own incapacity, and their infuriating superiority. The alternative would be to begin giving up benefits voluntarily, without waiting for them to be withdrawn.
Take transit rather than waiting for the ride. Do your own laundry rather than tossing it in the communalhamper. Make your own meals, or join in the rotation of people making food for the household. Budget, so that you can make do without the strings-attached loans. Look long and hard at that tempting breast. And turn away. At some point in your life, it will be time for solid food.
Wait for Permission
Maybe you feel the urge to build your life, but no one is prodding you into it. No familial pirate is jabbing you out along the gangplank. It’s still hard to decide when to take the leap. When are you ready to travel on your own, stay overnight with a romantic interest, move away, opt out of the family religion, choose your own career, or decide whom to marry? One option: when your parents say so.
This has been true all your life.They have established themselves as the ultimate authority—the arbiter ofall decisions about your appropriate level of independence.
So why doubt them now? To be miserable, just keep them in the role they already occupy. A young woman attending a local university came to see me, dissatisfied with her life. She’d lost all enthusiasm and interest for her courses. Everything just seemed blah.
When I asked what she did all day, I could see why. Although she said she had friends, she seldom saw them, or did much of anything outside of school. She talked about the strained relationship she had with her mother, and that it was especially aggravating the car when she was being driven to university.
Maybe you feel the urge to build your life, but no one is prodding you into it. No familial pirate is jabbing you out along the gangplank. It’s still hard to decide when to take the leap. When are you ready to travel on your own, stay overnight with a romantic interest, move away, opt-out of the family religion, choose your own career, or decide whom to marry? One option: when your parents say so.
This has been true all your life. They have established themselves as the ultimate authority—the arbiter of all decisions about your appropriate level of independence. So why doubt them now? To be miserable, just keep them in the role they already occupy. A young woman attending a local university came to see me, dissatisfied with her life. She’d lost all enthusiasm and interest for her courses. Everything just seemed blah. When I asked what she did all day, I could see why.
Although she said she had friends, she seldom saw them, or did much of anything outside of school. She talked about the strained relationship she had with her mother, and that it was especially aggravating the car when she was being driven to university.
Hold up, I thought. Being driven to school?
At twenty-three? I asked her why she didn’t see her friends more often. Most of them would only have been a short transit ride away. Her answer: “I’m not allowed to take the bus.” Her parents had forbidden public transit. If she wanted to go somewhere, Mom or Dad had to drive her.
She’d signed up for driving lessons a year or two earlier, but somehow it never proved quite the right time to get started, or for her parents to help her learn. Startled, I let slip the first thing that came into my head. “You’ reallowed to vote. You’re allowed to drink. You’re allowed to fight in the armed Forces.”
Change Your Family, Not Yourself
So there you are: parachute on, standing in the windy doorway of theairplane, ready to jump. Or, no. Not quite ready. You’d like just a littlemore time to think about it. How can we slow all this down?Easy. Impose a prerequisite. Demand that other people change beforeyou take over the controls of your life. This gives you the perfectjustification to sit back and wait, possibly forever.
In early adulthood, almost everyone uses this strategy to some extent. Our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our bosses—someone else needs to change, and then things will go great. So dig in. Make it your life’s missionto have them show some consideration, change their religion, lose weight,leave each other, get back together, see your value, exercise, vote your way,lower the toilet seat, raise the toilet seat, move to a better part of town, getto work, retire, apologize for the way they treated you when you were nine,or agree that the path you have chosen is the right one and cheer from thesidelines.
Years ago I wrote a guide to effective communication (TheAssertiveness Workbook). Ever since, time-pressured interviewers have asked me to state the single-core concept of assertiveness. For the longest time, this question would stump me. The book is essentially two hundred pages of tips.
I had no clue which one was the Jenga block without which the whole thing would fall apart. With time, though, I came to see one idea as more important than all the others: assertiveness is about giving up on trying to control other people, and controlling ourselves instead. This reflects a harsh reality. The only person we really have control over is us. The feeling of helplessness that overtakes us when we try to control others is valid. We are helpless.
They may change because of something that we do, but it will be because we changed ourselves, not them. One way to avoid moving forward in life is to concentrate your efforts on the doors that are firmly locked against you. This way you can feel like you are doing something while accomplishing nothing useful. One of the best projects for this is reforming the behavior of the people around you. You’ll have more success if you push for changes that meet two criteria:
1. They are at least theoretically possible (there’s nothing stoppingMom from taking a defensive driving course).
2. The benefits, if the change were to come about, would genuinely be significant (your sister really would be better off without thatloser husband).
Your parents (and the rest of your family) are perhaps the people you know best in all the world. You see them up close for extended periods, and you know the challenges and barriers in their lives. From the vantage point of an intimate observer, you can see how things could change for the better with only a few simple shifts.
If Dad would just quit drinking, if your stepsister would just take her meds, if your brother would handle his finances just a little more responsibly. The tweak seems so small, the needs obvious. Often the change involves how they interact with you. If Mom were only a tad more generous, you could afford a better school. If Dad would only acknowledge your true value, you could relax and begin to feel yourself.
If your brother would just apologize for how he treated you last summer, you could put it behind you. And it’s not as though such wishes are unrealistic or unjust. The imperfections are real. Feelings were hurt. Mistakes were made. Focusing on the reform of others is a road to misery precisely because that door is latched from the inside.
You will keep banging fruitlessly on the knocker forever. The futility of this strategy is easy to miss partly because it cunningly hides the reality. Standing up for yourself and demanding change can feel like an act of individuality and self-direction. It shows how you, the newly minted adult, have developed your own perspective and plan to put it into action.
Shorten the Decade
On my twentieth birthday, the decade ahead looked endless. One hundredand twenty months. A month can fly by, but a decade? Impossible.Maybe you too have seen an eternity stretch before you.
You can makeit shorter.Chances are, you spend about eight hours a day asleep or in bed.That’s forty months gone already; eighty months remaining. Can we shortenit more?According to the American Time Use Survey,-1 US citizens average:
1.2 hours per day eating and drinking, or just over six months perdecade40 minutes a day for personal grooming, or about 3.5 monthsabout a month each on laundry and grocery shopping
Now we’re down to 68.5 months. Add a few more items. Commuting.Vacuuming. Cleaning the toilet. Looking for your keys. You’ve cut thedecade in half without even trying.But you know where I’m heading with this, right?In the movie Men in Black, Agents K and J wipe the recent memoriesof people who have seen the aliens inhabiting Earth.
They use what J,played by Will Smith, refers to as “the flashy thing.” For my How to BeMiserable talks I stole this idea for a demonstration with a penlight.“Imagine that I could erase some of your memories, but that you couldidentify a few that you wanted to keep.
Think of one memory you’d want on that list, and nod when you have it.”Try it yourself, then read on when you have your memory in mind.I would wait for people to give me the signal, then ask, “During that memory, raise your hand if you’re looking at a computer, phone, or television.” This little gambit is virtually foolproof. Two, or one, or zero people in a room of hundreds raise their hands.
To be sure, all of us have a few favorite memories from looking atscreens: learning that your brother is out of the hospital, receiving aninvitation to an event, seeing a wonderful movie. But the exercisedemonstrates that the density of memorable experiences is considerablylower for most of us when we are gazing at screens than when we are not.
The vast majority of our cherished memories occur when we are lookingelsewhere.One path to misery is to reduce the number of positive, memorable, oruplifting experiences in our lives. Shrinking the time we spend in the realworld is an effective way of accomplishing this.A recent Nielsen Company survey-1 found that the average Americanspends ten hours and twenty-four minutes each day looking at screens ofone sort or another (computer, tablet, phone, or television).
(Oh, you’re not in America? Other nationalities won’t be too far from this figure.) That’sfifty-four months per decade. If this is added to sleep time and the other activities listed above, that shortens the non-screen decade of the twenties to 14.5 months. A little over one year.
String eight one-year decades together and your life is just about over. Let’s look at it another way. In an average 79.3-year American lifespan, screen time alone takes up 51.5 years of waking life, shortening the real-world waking life span to 27.8 years in which to experience everything else that life has to offer.
Love, adventure, beauty, nature, child-raising,travel—everything. Add sleep back into the equation and we have a total life span of 44.9 years spent in the analog, non-screen world—just a bit longer than the American life expectancy of 42.5 years in 1890, a span that seems shockingly brief to many of us today. Yet that’s close to what we now have. By comparison, smoking only reduces the life span by about ten years-1—and obesity by considerably less.
I know—some of that screen time is at work. Most jobs involve toilingover hot computers. Sure, but much of our screen time is outside workhours.
It’s sometimes hard to predict whether a certain course of action will make you feel better or worse, because often it will do both. Drinking eight beers may make you feel upbeat for a while, but tomorrow you’ll have a hangover. Replacing the brake pads on the car will be boring, but may result in a happier road trip. Using a condom may be a bit of a buzzkill, but not as much as next week’s genital rash. The same decision can lead to short-term cheerfulness and long-term regret, or to short-term aversion and long-term satisfaction. Pick your poison.
Heedless hedonism is one of the best ways of achieving misery. Try it and see. And why not? By twenty, you’ve spent well over a decade in school. You’ve been bullied, bossed around, unfairly accused, ridiculed, humiliated,and probably dumped. During puberty, your body spent five years rebelling and your mind rode the roller coaster from hell.Why not sit back, take a breather, and just live your life for a while? Chill out. You’re in your twenties.
There’s plenty of time to do all that you want. There’ll be time later on for school, a career, personal development, family, a purpose. You can afford to declare an intermission, relax, and enjoy the decade. You can worry about your future in the future. Sounds good, right? But how does enjoying life lead to misery? It doesn’t have to. Depends on how you do it. Except—well, life isn’treally so long. At twenty you’re halfway to forty. Wait a decade to get your act together and you may experience a rising tide of panic for most of the trip there. It’s like hosting a cocktail party on a gently tilting Titanic.
If eventual partnership is on the agenda, you may want to keep aneye out for candidates and hold a few auditions. Waiting a decade tothink about finding a mate, getting a place to live, and then possiblyreproducing (if that’s on the agenda) may make the timeline a bittight.
By the mid-thirties, fertility is already fading, and the seemingly limitless energy needed to parent may be approaching its best-by date. Most people achieving great things in their thirties do so because they laid the foundations earlier.
Getting started on postsecondary education or a career at thirty can feel like running to the pool, hopping awkwardly to get a leg into your swimsuit, when everyone else is on their third lap. Even the short-term enjoyment may not be so great.
Most people who chill through their twenties aren’t any happier than those who are more productively engaged. Often the time is spent on videogames (imaginary skills in an imaginary world), television(watching other people pretend to have lives), or altered states (skill-free existence that you can’t remember well later). Great temptations, but not much payoff in terms of satisfaction.
Months can pass without notice, but years won’t. Eventually you maywonder why you treated your youth as a form of early retirement.I know I risk sounding like your grandfather here.
“You need to settle down, young lady/man, and get over the idea that life is supposed to be fun.” You should knuckle down, decline all invitations, never touch a drop, study, work long into the night, and be a model of responsibility and respectability for all to admire. Maybe. That’s another path to misery.
You could take it instead. The choice between complete hedonism and utter responsibility may seem like a pretty wide fork in the road, but both arrive at the same unhappy destination. Adulthood, as described by elders, career counselors, and books on the subject, can feel like a waterslide into drudgery—one that’s hard to escape once the current has grabbed you.
They often imply that life has a script, all of us are the actors, and it’s up to us to play the role our culture has assigned us until the curtain comes down.
Here’s how the story is supposed to go after high school:
- You achieve some form of postsecondary education targeted to aspecific field.
- You catch the rung of a career ladder and start climbing.You buy real estate and try not to feel the mortgage as a twenty-five-year leash around your neck.
- You form romantic attachments until you find one person you canimagine spending the rest of the play with, and you marry them.
- You have children and spend the next twenty years or more raisingthem.You tough out a midlife crisis without buying a sports car or having an affair with a twenty-two-year-old, and you get used to the ideathat time is passing.
- You retire, with your children off climbing their own ladders, yourmortgage paid, and your prostate prodded or your pap smeared.
- Curtain! After which everyone sits for forty-five minutes at yourfuneral and marvels at how well you played your role and howlifelike you look.
Never Give an Inch
On my consulting room bookshelf, I have a pegboard puzzle called Banditsof the Natchez Trace. Three bandits and three sheriffs have to cross a river using a two-person boat. At no time can the sheriffs be outnumbered by the bandits, and the boat can’t row itself across or back.
Ferrying the six across two at a time and having one row the boat back looks like the best option—but soon runs into the outnumbering problem.
The surprisingly simple solution is at one point to take both a sheriff and bandit back in the wrong direction. It’s hard to notice because the goal of getting everyone across blinds us to it. It feels like we are losing ground.Resist this move and you’re stuck in miserable stasis with a bandit’s gun in your back.
Building an adult life is a relentless series of bandit problems, during which we are forced to abandon a goal in order to achieve it
On my consulting room bookshelf I have a pegboard puzzle called Banditsof the Natchez Trace. Three bandits and three sheriffs have to cross a riverusing a two-person boat.
At no time can the sheriffs be outnumbered by the bandits, and the boat can’t row itself across or back. Ferrying the six across two at a time and having one row the boat back looks like the best option—but soon runs into the outnumbering problem. The surprisingly simple solution is at one point to take both a sheriff and bandit back in the wrong direction.
It’s hard to notice because the goal of getting everyone across blinds us to it. It feels like we are losing ground. Resist this move and you’re stuck in miserable stasis with a bandit’s gun in your back. Building an adult life is a relentless series of bandit problems, during which we are forced to abandon a goal in order to achieve it.
- We want more money and more freedom, so we remain penniless inschool so that we can graduate.
- We want to party for a week over spring break, so we stay home andstudy diligently for the month beforehand.
- We want to buy a car for the joy of mobility, so we forego that joyand save our money until we have enough.
For misery, resist the setback. Refuse to make any move that leadsbackward, that sacrifices something you want. Insist that every step youtake must improve your circumstances. Because most significant goalsinvolve giving ground in order to take ground, you’ll soon find yourselfstuck.
Nowhere is this problem more extreme or vexing than whencontemplating a move out of the family home.You want comfort. You want to eat. You want to have enough moneyto go out with friends.
You want to feel like a success, like you can stand on your own two feet. You want, most of all, your own apartment. But to get it,you have to sacrifice what little wealth you’ve been able to accrue on rent; to give up whatever level of support you get from family; and to make do with less space, less comfort, lesser furnishings, and likely a lousierneighborhood than you’ve lived in your whole life.
Nowhere is this problem more extreme or vexing than whencontemplating a move out of the family home.You want comfort. You want to eat. You want to have enough moneyto go out with friends. You want to feel like a success, like you can stand onyour own two feet. You want, most of all, your own apartment.
But to get it,you have to sacrifice what little wealth you’ve been able to accrue on rent;to give up whatever level of support you get from family; and to make dowith less space, less comfort, lesser furnishings, and likely a lousierneighborhood than you’ve lived in your whole life.
Some factors can make it even harder:
- Living in a city with extremely high rents and property values
- Starting out in a wealthy family, where the home you’ll be leaving isparticularly well-appointed
- Having a family that actually gets along, and that you’ll miss when you go (in this way, a supportive family can be both curse and blessing)
- A situation in which the logical leap is a long one—from farm to city, from lifelong hometown to school on the other side of the country, from a small pond to the big ocean
This is no pegboard game. It’s not just crossing back over animaginary river. It’s dropping about eighty points on the quality-of-lifescale. You’ll live in somebody’s basement, or in a 300-square-foot concretebox, or in a five-story walk-up with cockroaches. Chances are, it’s thebiggest social-class high-dive you’ll make in your entire life.
Plus, factoringin wage stagnation, there’s no real guarantee that you will ever again reachthe level of housing and support that once was free and that you voluntarilygave up.So be careful which doors you exit. Having it hit your butt on the wayout is the least of your worries.
The door may lock behind you, and you may discover that you’ve just said sayonara to a life on which you have become extremely dependent, and to which you can never return. Better to just sit back. Stay home. Refuse to give ground. Becalm your life. Let those hoping to scale loftier peaks of satisfaction venture out into the wider world. For you, the molehill of the home is surely high enough.