“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.
Very nice, good advice, + well written,
Oscar R. Rocha
Thank you for this lovely written script, you have made me realise the benefits of life and what i should achieve rather then playing games and following the crowd.
Thank you very much
GKam , HK
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Your words are most welcome and much appreciated..
Thank you for your wonderful article, it was such a nice read and it made me think i should probably keep reading it once in a while to realise where I am on my journey. Thanks again, it is the best article I have read , especially at this stage of my life it makes so much sense
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I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for your comment.
this really helped after ending a relationship with an older man on account of age and maturity.
You are welcome. Best wishes in getting over the relationship.
Hi, im a 21 year old man. Currently working. I am really thankful to have seen your article. I am having troubles in life right now, and i know sadness comes to me because i cannot handle well these trials. That is why i am grateful for this article. It is very helpful.
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I’m very glad to hear that it was helpful. Thank you for your kind words.
Hey! I’m in this weighty stage and lots of questions about what is happening to me right now, is pulling me down and back. So this article is like a fresh breath of air to me… Really good.
Thank you. Best of luck!
my love is constantly calling me a child but reading this I see how he, too, can use some “growing up”
however, in this article I disagree with “To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.” because to live as if one has never been heart broken is to lie to one’s self if one has in fact experience a broken heart
to be truly in love means to give your heart to that person – if the relationship fails & you aren’t heart broken then you were never truly in love to begin with
in stead of living as if it never happened & can never happen again, one needs to embrace the pain & get through it, grow stronger from it so that they become wiser & able to help others who have been heartbroken
Thanks for your comment. I don’t disagree. One must continue to take risks “as if” one has not been wounded by life; not by lying to oneself, but knowing that whatever richness and fulfillment can come in life will only come if one can, as you say, “embrace the pain” and grow.
wow. this is such a great article. you have no idea how much this helped me with ideas of what it mean to grow up. xD thank you. 😀
Delighted to hear this. You are welcome.
having read this, i know how frustrating it can be to my loved ones, but it also helped me realize that i’m not alone in this journey!
thank you for this post, it has given me food for thought!
We are all on this list, Lee. I could have added other things we do, I’m sure, as could others. You are welcome.
Thank you for such an inspiring article.
You are very welcome. I hope you will read a few more of my essays. All the best!
I laugh at how ironic this, i fall in every part of being mature here, while i have i have idiot parents who are the exact opposite of maturity here. this really is ironic and pathetic. Great article though, we share very similar thoughts, i sincerely mean this
Many thanks for your comment. I hope that you will keep reading my essays and continue to share your perspective. All the best.
Thank you so much for this well written essay. At the age of 20, it does answer a lot of questions that I have in my mind now. A very useful and insightful article. Loved it.
You are welcome, Adeline. I hope you keep reading my essays! Best wishes.
Thank you for these words on “Growing Up”. I’m recently divorced but hoping for reconciliation and in speaking with my ex-husband, he has made reference to growing up and compared our roles in our marriages as being children, emotionally and relationally. I have agreed to some extent, however felt he was confused in some points. I have forwarded this link to him in the hope that it will act as a springboard for more meaningful discussion. Thanks again!
You are welcome. I’m delighted to hear that what I wrote was useful (or that it may be). All the best, Heidi.
This is such a profound essay Doc…you’ve really enlightened me on a topic that’s not addressed enough. I came across your blog a week ago, and have been exploring the various issues you discuss since. This is one of my favourite articles, but having gone to a counsellor for the last year, I’ve also got a lot out of your writing about psychotherapy, seeing the perspective from the other side.
I actually came across your blog doing research for my own blog, Social Pirate (linked on my name), which I’m planning on launching at the beginning of December. It’s all about relationships, and how to improve your social life. A problem I’ve been finding is that most existing resources on the topic are to do with climbing the social ladder and/or business social skills, rather than how to truly connect with a fellow human being. It’s a shame, because I think the latter is far more important, but that’s why I’ve decided to start Social Pirate.
On top of this, a lot of advice I see is self-helpy hype, designed to make the reader think they’ve changed, when they haven’t really at all. You probably know what I’m talking about. I’ve had trouble finding much actionable advice that will really help people, but reading what you have to say about human relationships, I realised that a psychotherapist is an excellent person to listen to on the subject, especially one with as much experience as you (I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me earlier really…).
So I was wondering if I could interview you on the broad topic of forming friendships for a post on Social Pirate once it’s been launched. I would really appreciate it, as I think you would really help my readers, but I understand if you decline. I couldn’t pay you, but I would link back to your work here on this blog. I was going to email you rather than make this so public, but couldn’t find an address.
Thanks for reading this, and I hope to hear from you soon!
All the best, Benedict
Thank you for interest and your thoughtful comment, Benedict. Once your blog is up and running, please do contact me (I’ll email you separately). Then we can talk more about an interview. Take care.
I am wanting to know how you know the maturity level of a 17 1/2 year old young lady to know if she is mature enough for marriage.
A tough question, Laura. I’d say that most 17.5 year olds of either sex haven’t yet had enough life experience to know who they will be in a few more years time. That is not to say that they can’t be unusually mature for their age. Of course, they can. Still, they are certainly not done growing and usually haven’t faced many of the challenges that life presents. Those hurdles will (and should) change them and what they think about life. At that point, in a few years time, they have should have a better sense of who they are and who will make a good companion. I hope this helps.
Well written piece, very happy i came across it
At 45-years old, I realize that I am at an important intersection in my life. I have done a lot of things that have caused me pain and hardship, and avoided other things due to fear of success. All the while I have bent the ears of anyone who would listen to my saga and confirm that, yes, I am indeed a mess. But of late, I have lost (or am losing) a very dear friend, who has grown weary of my foibles and self-sabotage, and this has caused me to look at myself and what I have become–cynical and jaded. I do not wish to go on this way, so I am grateful that you have succinctly verbalized that which has eluded my understanding all of these years: what it means to be mature.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and thought it worthy enough to take copious notes for continued reflection.
Thank you very much for sharing your insight!
Montgomery, AL, USA
You are welcome, JoElle. It takes great courage to look at yourself frankly and begin the process of change. It sounds as though you’ve taken an important step already.
Helpful info. Fortunate me I discovered your site
by accident, and I’m surprised why this twist of fate did not took place earlier! I bookmarked it.
Reblogged this on THE BLOG RESTAURANT and commented:
Excellent blog on being ‘grown-up’.
[…] That you are wiser than you used to be, in some small ways and maybe even a big way or two. Perhaps this is part of what is called Maturity. […]
On the other hand, several of hher Montreal Concordia University peers loved to wait to the
last minute and loved the challenge. It is also known for preventing anxiety and panic attacks.
In case adequate hydration is not maintained the body may
also respond in a different manner.
I’m not sure exactly what portion of the essay this responds to, but I’d be happy to be enlighted.
Insipiring article. Thank you.
You are welcome. Thanks for reading.
Reblogged this on Hey, Sunshine.
Thank you for reblogging my essay.
[…] Stein, G. (2009, September 3). Author’s biography signs of maturity: What does it mean to “grow up?” [Web log message]. Retrieved from https://drgeraldstein.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/signs-of-maturity-what-does-it-mean-to-grow-up/ […]
Thanking you for citing my post in your essay. I’m glad you found it helpful
[…] Source: Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to “Grow Up?” […]
This is a really thoughtful piece of writing with so much to be found, like a gift, inside of it. I’m finding that the older I get the more life calls upon me in so many more ways to go inside and continue to ask questions and reflect more deeply in ways I just didn’t have to think about in the past. It becomes much more complex and simpler at the same time, if that makes any sense. Thanks for this. Like someone else said above, this truly is the rare kind of post to re-read at least once or twice a year.
Yes, Gayle, it makes sense to me. Unless there is such a thing as reincarnation, we have this one chance to figure out this thing called life and live the best we can. Of course, we can’t figure it out, so the best we can do is keep learning and do right be ourselves and our fellow creatures. Thanks for your encouragement.
I do not want to grow up, I am a Toys R Us kid… Hee hee. Seriously though, I am not mature yet, but I was too mature as a child who lost her childhood. I suppose I am trying to make up for that by purposely being immature at times, or by being naive and immature at others. I am mature when I need to be, sometimes, but other times I am just not having a good day. I wish I were a kid and could start life all over again.
This was the post that I came across through google search back in 2012 when I tried to understand what it means to be a mature individual. This was so well written and I followed your blog since then. It was nice to read this today with some updates through your latest blogpost, and in fact I must admire consistency eith which you share your experiences every weekend. Thank you.
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Thank you, sir, for your loyalty and dedication. I’m delighted to hear that you still find my posts worthwhile. Best wishes.
Dr. Stein, thanks for your updated re-post. It’s informative and inspirational. As I glean from your article, maturity is an ongoing process since we and the world we live in are in constant change. Humility, balance, honesty, and gratitude are qualities I value and work continually to achieve. It took me years to accept and like myself. I’m still working at accepting what is outside my control. There’s so much of that these days, both at the personal and societal levels.
Indeed, Rosaliene. Quite a test, especially for children, and those whose survival is at risk. Be well.
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A wonderful read. This is one I’m bookmarking for sure.
Thank you, Rayne.
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