We talk a lot in the Adulthood Project about two sets of patterns that I think are ultimately related. The first is that when we interview people – or even just talk to people about the project socially – we hear people repeat this theme: “I thought I was an adult at point X, but then this happened and I realized I wasn’t an adult yet.” There are variants on this, like, “If you’d have asked me two years ago, I would’ve said I was an adult. Now I’m not so sure.” Or, “Oh, I thought I was all grown at 18. Looking back, I don’t know how I believed that.”
The second pattern we often see is that the feeling of being “adult” is contextual. Interviewees will describe occasions when they feel like an adult (while at work, or while parenting) and other occasions when they don’t (out with friends, or the current lab favorite, “running.” We spent a good amount of time on why someone would say that they felt like they were not an adult while they were running, an answer that made more sense to me than to some of my research assistants.). I relate this to something I occasionally feel: the sense of having to “be the grown up” in a situation. I hear this in popular culture in phrases like “it’s time to put on your big girl pants” or even “man up.”
Working on the Adulthood Project for me has involved a learning curve; my own training and previous research was all solo work. I developed systems for my notes and analysis that could afford to be idiosyncratic, as long as they were consistent. It was easy for me to construct and follow a file naming protocol, for example. When I hit a task that required I learn new software or new forms of data analysis, I could plug away at it, creating mnemonics and mental short cuts for myself as I developed proficiency. I was not, when I was doing this, thinking about how I could teach someone else to do the same thing.
When I’m thinking about my courses, I engage a process that looks like this: “How do I translate what I know? What knowledge must a person have to get this thing I want to teach? What are the odds my students will have it?” But I’ve realized that with my research lab, it is far more likely that I’m not far enough along in my own learning to completely engage those teaching questions.
This realization hit me as I thought about my inability to hide my impatience as my researchers were working on testing reliability, a process I had not previously put into student hands. The problem was very simple; my assistants are largely self-taught via seat-of-the-pants experience in Excel, and what I thought were very clear instructions actually assumed some knowledge of the internal and visual vocabulary of Excel that they did not have. A secondary problem is that they were not privy to what I already knew about Excel’s limits. Even in the moment, as I had them backtrack and heard the frustration in my own voice, my mind was chiding me for “not being the grown up.” Despite intellectually understanding a problem that in a classroom I could have addressed with absolute calm and good humor, in the lab, I lost sight of the teaching part of the process.
I’ve been chewing on this for the better part of a day, and the more I think about it, this idea of “being the grown up” (at least as it appears in many U.S. contexts) is about feeling like you’ve learned something well enough to reflect on it and gather lessons from it. When we find ourselves as the person with the most experience in the room, or the person most people have seen as the leader in the past, maybe many of us feel like we’re only one step ahead of everyone and being unreasonably put “in charge.” Or that we aren’t ahead at all. Or that we’re faking it until we make it. Maybe we have stretches of our lives where we have fewer of those uncomfortable moments when we feel we’ve got a responsibility we cannot handle with grace, and during those periods we feel like we’re adults. Then we have a kid. Or get a new job. Or our parents get ill.
I see the internal sense of adulthood that we’ve been examining in our project as a balance between how much of the time we feel like we’ve got a routine that we’ve mastered and can handle any curve ball, and how much of the time we just want to go running, because at least then all we have to worry about is putting one foot in front of the other.