The Big Challenge of Being an Adult

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When we’re young, life is easy.

Our families and societies hand us clear maps on how to live:

Study hard, stay out of trouble, excel at sports or music, go to a good university, and so on.

These maps guide and ground us through our turbulent and learning-packed first twenty years of life. They are indispensable to the process of growing up.

But as we finish our schooling and enter adulthood, we need to adjust to a new reality. This new reality is uncertain and scary. It has infinite potential paths, more responsibility, and less help.

And sadly, most of what we learn in school does not help us navigate this reality. Turns out that knowing obscure details about the War of 1812 and how to write formal, jargon-filled essays does not help us find a job that we like, build strong relationships, or create financial abundance.

Without practical skills and a clear map to thrive as an adult, many of us struggle. We become overwhelmed by the burdens of life and paralyzed by the fear of choosing the “wrong” path.

And instead of learning how to draw a new map that enables us to create a balanced and fulfilling life, we attach ourselves to a narrow set of pre-packaged maps created by our societies, parents, and peers.

These maps lay out a seductive narrative that promises success and happiness:

Work hard, make money, take a vacation, buy a house, get married, have kids, and retire.

Relieved to have a map again, we readily pursue these paths. They’re rational, time-tested, and accepted by the people around us. They’re our golden ticket to a “good life.”

While this approach to solving the big challenge of adulthood is not wrong, it’s dangerous. Without knowing it, we’re playing Russian Roulette with our fulfillment. Because while these narratives are compelling, they have a few underlying problems:

They blind us: The narratives encourage us to chase the future, making us less able to assess and challenge our present path. If we’re focused on the future, we’re more likely to ignore and rationalize away the signals telling us that we might be steering our ship into an iceberg:

I know I’m working a lot and stressed out, but a few more years of this and I’ll have more free time. Plus, I have that great vacation to Lisbon coming up.

Once I get into a top business school, I’ll be able to build a network, get a high paying job, and then be well-positioned to start my own business five to ten years from now.

After the kids get through school and we pay off the house, my wife and I will be able to rekindle the flame that used to burn so bright.

They lack specificity. We all have different needs, values, and philosophies of life, but the narratives we pursue don’t account for these individual differences. And if we aren’t paying attention, we end up living a generic path without answering the important questions that should inform our path if we want to live a balanced and fulfilling life:

What do I want out of life? What is my responsibility to others? How much money is enough? Do I really want kids? Is my career or family more important?

They celebrate external achievements: Money, a house, and vacations may bring you short-term happiness, but for most of us, they do not provide the lasting fulfillment that comes through developing a deep understanding of yourself, living by your values, and pursuing something bigger than yourself.

If we blindly follow the narrative, most of us won’t wake up until one of two things happens.

We achieve everything we set out to do, but still feel deeply unfulfilled.

The Harvard degree, big house, and prestigious job don’t feel as good as we thought they would.

Or we are brought face to face with the fragility and shortness of life.

Being hospitalized from stress, getting seriously injured, or having a friend or parent pass away often provide remarkable clarity about what’s really important.

If we wait until this happens, we’re screwed.

We’re eyeballs deep in quicksand. We’re having a “midlife crisis,” losing our wife, and realizing that we spent 10 years doing something that made us miserable. We end up regretting how we spent our time.

And that just sucks.

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