A Grown Up Question
Shortly before I graduated from college, I sat in a friend’s apartment listening to the song “I’m an Adult Now” by the Pursuit of Happiness and thinking it would soon be included on the soundtrack of my life. (Back in those days, life soundtracks were limited to 60 or 90 minute cassette tapes.)
I was 22 years old, and I had absolutely no idea what being a grown up really meant. But I was convinced that once I had my college diploma in hand, I would quickly learn.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, I’m still trying on various hats in hopes of discovering the one that will officially make me feel like a grown up. So far, none have worked.
Yes, I lived on my own and paid my own bills. Yes, I dealt with mortgages and debt and the IRS. Yes, I got married. Yes, I gave birth and became a parent. And yes, I even discovered that I can sound more like my mother than I ever imagined.
But despite all of that, I’ve never felt like an authentic adult. Instead, I feel as though I’m pretending to be an adult when I’m actually more like that 22 year-old still trying to decide which songs should be on my life’s soundtrack.
Maybe that’s because I’ve never been able to answer that one question that so many adults think is incredibly important. It’s a question that was asked of me hundreds of times from the time I was a toddler all the way through high school.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Ironically, the younger I was, the more easily I could answer the question.
When I was five, I wanted to be a trapeze artist. That dream was short-lived when my dad hung a wooden trapeze from a tree in a backyard and I made him lower it because its height five feet off the ground scared me. By the time I was ten, I had my heart set on being a best-selling author which, by the time I was 15, and evolved into a desire to be a journalist. And, at what I considered to be the mature age of 20, I truly believed I was destined to produce documentaries that would change the world.
With the exception of a few months I spent as a radio news reporter, I never achieved any of those goals. I could consider myself a failure, but that would discount all my accomplishments never on my “I want to” list. Nor would it take into account how the experience of living life to its fullest sometimes gets in the way of the expectations we think we are supposed to meet.
I don’t think I could have known, at the age of 22, how life’s river of circumstances has a generally steady and sometimes ferociously rapid current that can easily sweep us away from where we thought we belonged to the places we are needed most.
I was thinking about that river this week when my son celebrated his eighteenth birthday. In only a few months, he’ll be starting college, so he’s regularly being asked what he’ll be studying. To me, that’s the more mature equivalent of the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
And, even though I understand why everyone feels compelled to ask, I think the more meaningful question is “are you keeping your heart and your mind open to making adjustments to your plan with each new opportunity and complication?”
If my son does that, he faces the danger of ending up like his mother – nearly 50 years old and not entirely sure what he wants to be when he grows up. At the same time, he might also learn that being an adult isn’t about reaching a certain age or about achieving a certain status. And he might figure out that making mature decisions doesn’t mean letting go of the child within.
Instead, getting older should be about learning to adjust to the currents of life even when you aren’t confident you are headed in the direction you had originally planned.