Four Principles for Becoming an Adult

Here are a few ideas to consider if you are tired of the foolishness and frustrations of childhood and ready to begin a happier, healthier grown-up life.

1. The world is complex. Your thinking should be too.

Children oversimplify the world into black and white categories: “This is the best thing ever! That is the worst thing of all time!” or “You’re my best friend forever! Now I hate you!” Adults appreciate that the world is full of subtle degrees, containing few genuinely polar opposites. The world is irreducibly complex; to oversimplify is to misrepresent, and to act upon misrepresentations is to make mistakes. We cannot settle for cartoon versions of the world simply because they are easier to handle in our heads. As the philosopher Alain de Botton once quipped: “Maturity is the confidence to have no opinions on many things.” Be slow to reach any conclusion once and for all.

2. You are not alone in the world. Include other people in your thinking.

Children are completely self-centered. This is not a surprise: since little humans are relatively helpless, a “me first” attitude is crucial for survival. Grown-ups, however, work hard to remind themselves that the world is full of other people (and non-human living creatures) with their own needs and desires. Unless a person lives alone on a desert island, his or her actions are bound to affect other people. Each of us succeeds most when we all get along best.

3. Your intentions mean little. Consider the potential consequences before you act.  

As part of their self-centeredness, children evaluate their actions mostly in terms of their intentions: “I didn’t mean to hurt you; it was just an accident, so I’m not to blame, and I am still a good person.” This stance is not good enough for adults. Your intentions happen inside you; they are trapped within your head, and others have limited access to them. Adults evaluate their actions based upon their consequences, and they do their best to imagine those consequences, even unintended ones, before they act at all. Where we ask children simply to recognize their mistakes and apologize for them after the fact, we expect adults to make a concerted effort to prevent as many errors as possible.

4. Evidence, not emotional investment, makes your opinions worthy of respect.

Another aspect of childhood self-centeredness is the insistence that “This opinion is mine, therefore it is correct.” We rightfully encourage kids to speak their minds and to listen to their peers. This is the elementary school notion of “tolerance”: everyone has the right to express him- or herself. Adults understand, though, that this does not make every opinion equally valid. Some opinions are stronger than others. What differentiates a strong opinion from a weak one is not the strength of the emotions that a person attaches it: “I sincerely believe…” Those feelings, again, are private, interior phenomena. Publicly verifiable evidence, the observations and reasoning that we can all share, distinguishes a strong idea from a weak one. Every one of us is obligated to present the evidence for our case and to question the evidence of differing points of view. “Tolerance” among adults means daring to question other people and being able bear their questions ourselves. Coming to proper conclusions is necessarily a group effort. We cannot tolerate poor thinking within the community because acting upon it leads to mistakes and suffering.

About Tait Colberg

Tait Colberg teaches language, history, and art at a small, progressive middle and high school in Washington, DC. He's been drawing pictures and riding a skateboard forever, giving rise to his book The Skateboarding Art. He is regularly appalled at the state of the American male, himself most of all.

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