“Oh, grow up!” Is there anyone who didn’t hear this humiliating admonition as a kid? Often voiced by another kid, or some chronologically mature person who probably needed to “grow up” himself.
Still, it raises an important question: what does it mean to grow up? What qualities are present in those people we respect for their maturity?
Although it may not be very humble, let’s start with the quality of humility. And it’s important to remember that humility is not identical to a lack of confidence. Rather, it involves this recognition: in the big picture of the universe, you are a very, small part. Unless your name ranks with Einstein or Beethoven, virtually no one will know your name in a hundred years.
As Goethe put it, “Names are like sound and smoke.” They disappear that easily. Humbling indeed. You probably aren’t as important as you think you are.
Which means, of course, your problems, at least most of them, aren’t that important either. The ability to recognize most problems as transitory and temporary is another sign of maturity. Now, I’m not talking about brain cancer here, but the more garden-variety ups and downs of life. It sometimes helps weather them to realize you will care little if anything about those difficulties in five years or even five months.
No, as the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” At least most of it.
Another important quality of being a grown-up, I think, is to have a balance between your head and your heart. We all know people who are way out of balance — those who claim to be imperturbably logical like the Mr. Spock-type Vulcans from Star Trek, and others who come apart at the smallest disappointment or frustration, letting their emotions whip them around like a passenger on a “tilt-a-whirl” amusement park ride.
Emotions are available for a reason; the pain of them needs to be attended to, lest you leave your hand on the stove’s burner. Equally, your head is required for good judgment and to learn from experience, be cool under fire, and forge ahead despite fear.
In other words, balance is a sign of maturity. Balance of work and play, action and contemplation, passion and repose. Socrates said one should be grateful to old-age because the passions then rule us less. But do not live a life without passion, especially when you are young enough to enjoy it! He also said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And so maturity requires some thought about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, why you have done what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and what lies ahead. It requires an unflinching look in the mirror and the intention to improve.
This means being a “grown-up” demands one has learned something from experience and continues to learn more as events transpire. My friend Henry Fogel has said, “I like to make new mistakes!” There is no point in repeating the old ones.
Another friend, Rich Adelstein, once told me he believed if he were able to figure out the solutions to his then-current problems (he was 50 at the time), he imagined he could simply keep living in the same fashion, using the same solutions to confront whatever was ahead. But, he realized, there would be new problems requiring new solutions, and the version of himself who faced those new problems would be older and different, and therefore might view matters differently than the 50-year-old version.
This is an example of maturity, along with a signpost to some of its characteristics, including the need to change, the ability and willingness to be flexible, and awareness that learning along the way is required. Rich was able to change and to change his mind about the need to change.
What other qualities might be present in the “grown-up?” Confidence and the capacity for self-assertion, certainly; the ability to laugh, and to laugh at yourself, not at the expense of others; to take risks and do things hard or embarrassing or scary or frustrating until you master them; to be independent in thought and deed, not to follow the crowd or require a caretaker to make decisions for you; and of course, the capacity for intimacy and love, knowing all the while that embracing others makes you vulnerable to loss.
An additional aspect of wisdom is having a sense of what is worth fighting for and what is not. There are more than enough battles worth joining in this imperfect world, but one cannot take on all of them without battling without rest, an exhausting and impossible prospect. And so, maturity requires sufficient knowledge of oneself and the world to make decisions about standing fast or standing aside, holding to principle or compromising. And accepting a sizable portion of defeat as inevitable.*
So, yes, being a grown-up means accepting the world on its terms: that loss and disappointment, in causes and in people, are inescapable, and too strong a defense against them deprives you of the most important and precious things life has to offer: the thrill and camaraderie of fighting the good fight; and at a more personal level, love, closeness, tenderness, acceptance, and affection. These require unguardedness. To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.
Responsibility-taking is another part of being mature, admitting that “yes, it was I who made the mistake.” We all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree a long time ago, an example of responsibility-taking and honesty. As the reference might suggest, honesty is no small part of the “grown-up” life.
The sages say honesty simplifies life. Too many people justify their dishonesty by claiming they are trying to spare someone else’s feelings. Don’t be deceived. Usually, it is much more self-serving than that.
Back to humility, where we started. Part of being mature is having the humility to realize you too might, “but for the grace of God,” be in someone else’s awful spot, and therefore should be judged less harshly for whatever they have done or whatever has happened to them. Perhaps they should not be judged at all.
Maturity means cherishing the quiet moments as much as the thrills. And, most definitely, it means living in the moment, mindful of everything, trying not to get caught up in hoping it were different (even though you might well be justified in doing so); allowing yourself to stay centered where you are in time, rather than looking back or forward while the irreplaceable, unrepeatable instant of your life passes by.
Look back too much, and you will be caught in the sadness of time-past and unfulfilled longing and regret while missing what is possible in the present. Similarly, living in the future tends to generate anxiety in anticipation of what may come. It deprives you of the same present moment passing by those who are looking back at yesterday.
Accepting and liking oneself is part of being a grown-up. Not that you don’t need change, but to appreciate what is good about yourself and to accept some of the inevitable limitations to which all of us are prone. Not to avoid self-improvement, but to avoid self-denigration.
To be a grown-up means living a principled life, one with a commitment to certain values and putting those values to work in more than words. As the AA crowd likes to say, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” And those principles, those values, must be informed by the fact we are all mortal, all in-transit, but the planet and the human race are here (we hope) for the long haul. We are “just visiting,” as the Monopoly board reminds us when we land on a certain space. The game will outlast us, as will Earth if we don’t mess it up.
In demonstrating our commitments we must do work. Freud was right when he said love and work are the essential organizing forces in any life. If you are mature, unless you are aged or infirm, there is work to be done. Life is made more interesting and engaging by doing it, too. The mature person is not simply a spectator to the game playing out before him.
One other quality I should mention in this pantheon of talents is gratitude. Appreciation of what you have, especially simple things: a beautiful day, the affection of your children or grandchildren, the ability to do things, a touching song or story, and good friends — all the stuff of life too easily dismissed.
Increasingly I believe we must spend time looking in the mirror before pointing fingers and attacking. We are not so different from those we vilify. Make friends as you mature and on into your senior years. You’ll be happier.*
With aging into old age we are well-advised to let go of attachments to things. If, like me, you’ve lost your hair and some pace in your once swift steps, you recognize a body in the process of transformation. You can rage against such changes, or you can hold to all the “things” you “have” with lightness, not gripping them in desperation. Mother nature will win this one. Such alteration — previously unthinkable — isn’t personal. The defacing hand of the universe gets to everyone in time.*
Accept, accept what is outside of your control.*
Letting go (not giving up) offers less suffering. Detach gradually with a spirit of equanimity. Every well-used car wears out the tire tread in time.*
Since this essay is being revised in a pandemic, I’d like to believe we’ve learned from this turn of events. Among the lessons would be that no life is without suffering, as the Buddhists would remind us even in peaceful, “normal” moments in the world. We all share the press of change and strain not present before disease flooded the globe.*
A mature individual places significance on finding connection with those who, like us, are treading the water in the sea of woe we now live in. Those lacking physical touch and managing economic distress silently beg for helping hands in those of us not in dread of the lack of food or the inability to pay the rent. An enlightened person recognizes and responds to the shared dignity and need of others now more than ever.*
John Donne reminded us 400 years ago, “No man is an island.” His poem ended:
any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.*
We are, as the cliche goes, more alike than we are different. Maturity sets aside selfishness and class or racial distinction. Those in the military swear not to leave a fallen comrade behind. The planet’s widespread distress has enlisted us all in the army needed to raise up each other.*
Let the last words on the subject of being a grown-up go to Adlai Stevenson II in his 1954 speech at the senior class dinner of his Alma Mater, Princeton University. These 65-year-old words spoken by the 54-year-old Stevenson are as appropriate now as then:
…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well-known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.
What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see…
To my way of thinking it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count in the long run. You’ll have more fun, you’ll do more and you’ll get more, you’ll give more satisfaction the more you know, the more you have worked, and the more you have lived. For yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.
Please note: The presence of an asterisk in red/orange * indicates the preceding paragraph has been modified or created since the original post was published in 2009.
On the subject of maturity, you may find this of interest: Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?
You may be interested in this topic, as well: Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There.
The top image is Mevlevi Dervishes Perform, created by K?vanc and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. According to the Wikimedia site, the Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded in 1273 in Konya, Turkey. “They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah).”
“Dervish is a term for an initiate of the Sufi Path… The Dervishes perform their dhikr in the form of a dance and music ceremony called the sema. The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to ‘Perfect(ion).’ Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the ‘Perfect.’ He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity (hence my use of the picture for this essay) and a greater perfection, so as to love and be of service to the whole of creation.”
The third picture is inside-outside Innovation, taken from Innovation Management.
Next comes Letting It Go, the work of incidencematrix. A fritillary butterfly is about to leave an open palm.
Finally, the Whirling Dervishes photo is by Vladimer Shioshvili. Like the previous image, it and also comes from Wikimedia Commons.