5 rules for being a grown-up

The real requirements of life (like learning basic math) don't require genius -- just lots of practice

Topics: math, rules, Adulthood, grownup,

5 rules for being a grown-up (Credit: deimagine via iStock)

Of the many things I don’t excel at – dancing, parallel parking, acting happily surprised when I really don’t like a Christmas present – my worst is math. I am hopeless at math. But we’re not supposed to say such things anymore, right? Not since last month, when, in a widely disseminated Atlantic piece, Miles Kimball and Noah Smith attempted to bust the notion that aptitude is a native ability and prove that “inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.”

The story was a compelling and very specific challenge — as well as an offer of reassurance — to the many of us who suffer from straight-up math terror. Kimball and Smith insist, reasonably enough, that “Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America” and “Too many Americans go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols.” Believing you’re just dumb at some things isn’t accurate, the authors say, and worse, that belief holds us back in our education, careers and lives in general. What we assume is the condition of not being “a math person” can be overcome the same way ordinary students across the world do it – by just putting in the time and trying harder to get better at it. And while I don’t entirely agree with everything the authors say – for real, even basic math concepts flummox me – their message of just putting a little more backbone into it, whatever it is, is one that needs to be stated again and again.

From the time we’re kids, we define ourselves not just by who we are but who we are not. Not a jock. Not a band geek. Not a science nerd. We define ourselves by what we don’t like and what we’re not good at, slipping into comfort zones that can become both our easy excuses and our virtual prisons. And we embrace the stereotypical helplessness of our respective gender roles, as dudes who explain they just don’t know to do laundry and ladies who insist they’re simply not good at negotiating.

So let’s take the affirmation that we can master things we weren’t born prodigies at (P.S. nobody is a born housework-doing champion) as an incentive to apply ourselves a little harder to the things that grown-ass people of both sexes should just plain know how to do. We need to let go of our “bad at math” mind-sets, wherever they apply, and cultivate our own competence. This is what is known as being a well-rounded person who can function in the world.



We have to move. I am weak and slow and uncoordinated. The way things are going, looks like that’s not going to ever change much. But I still do some form of physical activity every day, because human beings were designed not to sit in front of glowing screens all day but to move around. Want to be healthy? You don’t have to be an Olympics contender. You don’t have to run if you don’t like to run and you don’t have to spend a lot of money if you hate the gym. You do, however, have to exercise, consistently. Your low blood pressure and not-overtaxed heart will thank you.

We have to feed ourselves. I am a natural cook. (I’m not bragging; my roast chicken will do that for me.) I am not, however, some foodie whose kitchen looks like a Williams-Sonoma. Few of us are. Let go of the idea that you’re too busy, or unskilled, or what the hell, you’ll just have a Luna Bar. You need to feed yourself so you’re not eating crap out of boxes you know isn’t good for you, and so that you can feed others, like your family. Put down the damn Luna Bar and make yourself an omelet or some spaghetti. It’s not hard. And it gets easier, quickly.

We have to be able to write a coherent sentence. Know this: There are many, many occasions in this world in which auto-correct will not save your butt. Stop hiding behind the excuse that you’re the data person or you’re better face-to-face or whatever. This thing you’re composing is not a searing opus for the New Yorker; it’s what? An email to a co-worker? A friggin’ text? I know, yeah, you’re in a hurry because you have a thousand other tasks to do, but the written word deserves a little respect. Clear communication needs to be a priority. Write your message. Now take a minute to read it back and ask yourself, does this make a lick of sense? If the answer is yes, then and only then hit “send.”

We have to think about other people. Technically, you could, if you chose, swan through life never giving a subway seat to a tired-looking pregnant lady or opening a door for a person with a walker. You could forever fall back on the “I don’t ‘do’ birthdays” excuse for not sending your mom a card. But just understand that would make you a selfish brat. Adults move through the world with the knowledge that they share it with others and then they show up on time for your social engagements. So grow the hell up and shut off your phone during the movie.

We have to do the math. As I believe I have mentioned, I am bad at math. When splitting a check in half — half! — I reliably figure it out wrong. (How is this possible? I don’t know either.) I do a lot of crying while balancing my checkbook, and not just for the usual reasons. I chose my college in part because there was no math requirement. I now muddle by with the help of calculators and software, though if I’m doing basic figuring – money, distances – I usually try to do it manually first, to stay in the habit of doing the actual work of math. Why? Because a grown-up needs to be able to maintain a budget and not run away when her kid asks her to check her homework. That’s just how it is.

We can’t be instinctively adept at everything. But this is life. The really talented people practice their skills to get great at them. And the mediocre among us have to put in more work to be simply passable, because that’s what being a responsible person looks like. It isn’t flashes of genius. It’s humble accounting and soup making and business correspondence and making your bed. It isn’t being brilliant. It’s just being an adult.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...