Around the time I was about to graduate college — back when I thought “adulthood” was this awesome, mysterious future in which I wouldn’t hoard food from the dining hall and/or wake up with a BLT in my bed — someone made me read the Glamour article “30 Things Every Woman Should Have and Should Know by the Time She’s 30.” Originally written in 1997, it’s been passed along in the years since as pop-wisdom gospel of what adult womanhood should look like. According to Glamour, the advice is so sage and so true, it’s been mistakenly attributed to both Maya Angelou and Hillary Clinton — because yes, the former secretary of state really feels strongly about owning “a purse, a suitcase, and an umbrella that you’re not ashamed to carry” (thing you should have #4).
To be an adult by the time you’re 30, Glamour recommends having both “a youth you’re content to move beyond” (#5) and “a set of screwdrivers, a cordless drill, and a black lace bra” (#11). You also need to “know how you feel about having kids” (#17) and “how to kiss in a way that communicates perfectly what you would and wouldn’t like to happen next” (#20). All of these are clear, actionable steps to becoming a self-sustaining adult, and I am not sure if I’ve achieved any of them. (Though I guess I have screwdrivers?) Still, plenty of other publications have followed Glamour’s lead. Cosmo recommends visiting at least five beaches in the Philippines and learning how to “ditch your insecurities and embrace your curves!” BuzzFeed’s video compilation (set to an appropriately soaring rock ballad) recommends that you “let go of your expectations,” “pee in every ocean,” and “say hi to a large tortoise.”
My problem with these convoluted, inspirational lists is that they offer no real value. Adulthood becomes a deadline, a specific abstraction, involving lofty goals like spiritual growth, crazy life experiences, and the kind of emotional intelligence that takes most people a lot of therapy and just livin’ to achieve. The flowery phrasing makes for a fun Facebook post, but for a generation of adults who often still rely on their parents for money to pay bills, where is the utility? Will you understand how to “fall in love without losing yourself” (#1) if you don’t know how to balance a checkbook?
Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams offers up a few rules for being a grown-up that are much more pragmatic and attainable. Her advice boils down to taking care of yourself and not being a douchebag. Adulthood is not about grandiose emotional goals and to-do lists; it’s about “humble accounting and soup making and business correspondence and making your bed,” Williams writes. “It isn’t being brilliant. It’s just being an adult.” Some of her rules for adulthood:
We have to move: “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.”
We have to feed ourselves: “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: “This thing you’re composing is not a searing opus for The New Yorker; it’s what? An e-mail to a co-worker? A friggin’ text?”
We have to think about other people: “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: “A grown-up needs to be able to maintain a budget and not run away when her kid asks her to check her homework.”
Is that a travel-filled life where I always know which outfit to wear to land a man or a job? No, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What I like about this list is the reminder of an oft-neglected understanding of what it means to be a grounded adult with a mastery of basic, core values. The kind of mastery that allows you to go on and tackle the other stuff — like “hooking up with your childhood crush before settling down,” as Cosmo recommends.