When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to grow up and be an adult. Other than the standard reasons—setting your bedtime, being able to eat cereal for every meal—there were two features of “grownup land” which appealed to me.
The first was the freedom from social pettiness. Kids are mean: they form cliques with lower admission rates than Harvard, tease with brilliant cruelty, and start lengthy over the tiniest things. And even if they’re not mean, they don’t act fairly. Take afterschool pick-up football, for example: if you’re the worst player there but best friends with a captain, you won’t be picked last. There is no schoolyard meritocracy. I thought this would change as I got older—when you’re young, adults look so…dignified. They don’t call each other names, they don’t get into shoving matches on the basketball court, and they smile at each other in their coats and ties at dinner parties.
But as I reach the outskirts of grownup land, I’ve realized that this isn’t the case. Pay attention at any dinner party, and you’ll see the fellow who’s snubbed by all for whatever reason. He says something, only to be dismissed with an “anyway” by someone cooler. The awkward kid who only talks about himself, the bully who cracks jokes at others’ expense, the it-girl who thinks every man is in love with her: they’re all there, just with a few more wrinkles and Dockers instead of Abercrombie.
The other myth I bought into was the idea that adults were done with work after leaving their desk. As a college freshman, I envied all the recent college grads I spoke to. Their lives seemed so easy. All they had to do was show up to work, and they got to take a little vacation every night: they had time to cook, get dinner with friends, and watch TV. In college, though, you’re never off the clock: there’s always a tough reading to go over again, an exam to study for, a cover letter to write, a club event to plan. At some level, there is always more work to do.
It turns out that it’s like that too, post-college: most “good” jobs expect you to stay longer than 9-to-5, and you’re responsible for producing quality output, not just showing up for 40 hours a week. Whether you’re an investment banker or a teacher, you can always go the extra mile…and then an extra mile after that…and another one…
And even if you’re not part of the school newspaper or glee club anymore, there are still things you “should” be doing: exercising and cooking healthy meals, for example. That takes time. You also “should” do some sort of community service—such as volunteering in a soup kitchen or coaching Little League. What about calling Mom and Dad, and being a good family member? And maintaining old friendships while striking up new ones? You can always do more of any of these things. And I haven’t even gotten to keeping your mind sharp by reading books, following the news and just taking time to think deeply about your beliefs.
Once you have a family, it’s even tougher. There are endless things you should be doing for your spouse/partner: cooking them nice dinners, helping them with their chores, and taking time to “work” on your marriage with or without a marriage counselor. And your kids! So much homework to help them with, activities to drive them to, books to read to them, hours to spend planning their future. Even if you don’t plan on spoiling or smothering your child, there is plenty of behind the scenes work to do.
We obviously can’t excel in everything. So, life becomes a game of compromises, where we must let some of our dreams die. We’re never really “done”; we just choose to quit. We can’t be CEO and go to all of our kids’ soccer games and run marathons. (And if you are doing all of this, you are probably caffeinating your poor nervous system to death and haven’t had time to floss in years.) We can’t excel in everything: a tough piece of reality for a generation raised to believe otherwise.