Bullish Life: What Does It Mean To Be An Adult In The Modern Age?

Adults are able to make complicated moral judgments.

Einstein immeasurably moved science forward when he helped create the atomic bomb. He also, well … helped create the atomic bomb. Einstein considered himself a pacifist, and yet wrote a letter to Roosevelt recommending that the bomb be created. Even months before his death, he was ambivalent: “I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.”

That’s an adult fucking decision.

I’m not saying it was the correct decision. I’m saying it’s childish to refuse to do the math. Adults engage with difficult decisions and recognize that, in a world filled with evildoers, you sometimes have to use evil means towards good ends, to make allies with terrible people against more terrible people, and to get a little dirty, and develop a lingering sense of doubt and guilt that you carry with you always, because that’s what hard decisions are like.

I don’t respect people who refuse to acknowledge this. For instance:

Person I Don’t Respect: All war is wrong!

Me: What about saving entire populations from being raped and killed by
genocidal warlords? What if the Nazis are going to completely take over
Europe and kill basically everybody? Shouldn’t we go to war to stop them?

Person I Don’t Respect: Well, the Nazis shouldn’t do that. That’s also wrong.

Me: Yes. That’s what Nazis do: WRONG THINGS. You sound like a three year
old. The only interesting moral questions to discuss are the ones where
someone else has already broken the rules. THEN WHAT?!

I certainly think it’s possible that someone – not my straw man above – could seriously grapple with these questions and still end up a pacifist. I respect some pacifists. But not ones who refuse to even engage in decision making in a world in which there is no pure and perfect option. Sometimes pacifism means letting people die at the hands of tyrants. I only respect pacifists who will soberly discuss that and defend their beliefs in the face of that reality.

Adults are willing to make dirty, difficult decisions and carry ambivalence with them to the grave. This is also why many adults need to drink.

Adults accept the indifference of the universe to their small existence

I have written here — and in various articles about planning your career – about the universe’s indifference to us. “The universe doesn’t have a grand plan for you. Men in general certainly do not have a grand plan for you. Your company doesn’t have a grand plan for your career. No one is watching your back. Your parents probably love you very much, but they’re just watching from the sidelines at this point, and possibly offering up your childhood room rent-free in case you fail. There’s no master plan, no deus ex machina to tie up the loose ends, no poetic justice to make your pain meaningful.”

Let me return to Christopher Hitchens, who commented of his cancer diagnosis:

“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

So, that’s my working definition of adulthood. Thoughts?

In closing…

When I heard that TheGloss was adopting an “adulthood” theme, I thought hard about what I could write. I’ve been trying to get the jump on adulthood for a really long time, starting companies and investing and writing articles about how you can, too. What adult thing have I not yet done? It was kind of short notice to schedule a colonoscopy.

I can’t parallel park, but most New Yorkers don’t even drive. I’m hardly going to say that most New Yorkers aren’t adults.

I thought about, “I hate phones and will do almost anything to avoid phone calls.” (See Bullish: Pre-Internet Productivity Tips for the Young and Sprightly.) I figured if I picked up a phone and made a bunch of calls and then amazing things happened, that could make for a good article. Instead I called Ann Taylor when the discount code I was trying to enter didn’t work. I got the discount, and heard some horrendous seventies makeout music while waiting on hold. Phones still suck.

It’s noon and time for coffee, then scotch, then coffee again.

Send in your questions to bullish@thegloss.com. See a Bullish archive here.

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    • Rabia

      When I was a teenager, a series of things happened that made me think long and hard about what it means to be an adult. One thing I remember very clearly as a turning point (in my life as well as during that time) is being on the phone to a friend, and saying: “I’m beginning to realise that ‘growing up’ means understanding how much the world sucks and that we have to deal with it the best that we can”.

      I think you put it much more eloquently above.

      Also, I’m saving the quote: “A life that causes people to thank you after you’re dead is probably a good indication that you lived in an adult manner.” I think that’s a pretty damn good life philosophy.

    • JessieAnne

      I’ve been thinking about the definition of adulthood all year. I turned 25 this year and went ‘Cripes, I better get my shit together!’ Stopped wandering around with a backpack, signed up for Open Universities and got somewhere between 1 and 3 jobs at any given time. I have savings now! Whilst I feel I’ve taken the slow boat to adulthood, 25 is confusing- just how adult should a 25 year old be?
      Sometimes I subsist on toast and brandy and other weeks I eat …well, perfectly. Does it matter? I don’t think so.
      The most telling thing I’ve experienced is a series of conflicts with my (now ex) partner and one friend of mine. Whilst I think we all behaved in a flawed manner, I know that initially I abdicated personal responsibility, and it really worsened things.
      Take home lesson? Adulthood is about how you handle your responsibilities, including acknowledging your impact on other people. It’s taken 9 months but that’s all I’ve come up with so far. :)
      Thanks for the post!

    • http://twitter.com/arletterocks Arlette

      The links. They are busted. Like, all of them. What gives?