Last Step to Adulthood

I’ve never really understood the fascination with a formal age of maturity. It seems to me that regardless of the age we set many individuals will fail to fit that standard. I’ve know wise and thoughtful teenagers and reckless and imprudent people of middle age. No matter what rights of passage we create to try to prove we’ve reached adulthood, each is a poor attempt to codify something that can’t be easily defined.

Consider me for example.

According to any objective standard I reached adulthood long ago. Take your pick from:

  • When I celebrated my 18th birthday.
  • When I celebrated my 21st birthday.
  • When I got married and started my first full-time job at 22.
  • When I started my “real” career at 26.
  • When I bought my first home and had my first child at 27.

No matter how you look at it, I’ve been a certified adult for +/- 20 years. And yet I will tell you that I had a stark realization last weekend that I had finally taken the final step into adulthood.

This crazy idea of midlife adulthood came courtesy of my 25th high school reunion. Most people carry some baggage from their time in high school and as I was approaching reunion I decided that I wasn’t going to let my 18-year old self go. I was adamant that if I was going to go at all, it was going as the me of today, the person who can walk into any room and engage with anyone about something. I was going to hang out with a group of adults and try to forget that I had spent my most awkward years in their company.

My husband wasn’t sure I could pull it off. He reminded me about how unhappy I had been after my 10th reunion as he looked me in the eye and said, “Are you sure this is a good idea? You don’t have to go.” In a heartbeat I knew that I could spend a night surrounded by my family, safe and loved and comfortable. I had a hundred excuses I could use to make a graceful exit and I knew there would be no judgement or worry. But I also knew something else. Every single time my husband has given me permission to give up it’s been a signal that I’m doing something hard and important. And so I looked at him and said, “Nope, I’m going to go. I think I need to go.”

I got in the car and I drove, by myself with no back-up plan and no safety net. I walked in and found the first person I recognized. I got a drink, had some dinner and then circled the room. I knew in minutes that I shouldn’t have worried — my classmates are fabulous people who have unique and inspiring stories.

I talked with a woman about adopting a puppy that her aunt had found in the middle of the road, a puppy who by alerting a passing car had saved her litter and mother who were off the road in a ditch. I talked with a man who told me about his journey to find a true home in the mountains of Tennessee and I saw his pride as he shared the apirations of his daughter who would someday be a pediatric surgeon. I talked to many mothers, including women who had children soon after graduation, women navigating the challenging waters of being a stepmother, and even a woman with toddlers she considered an unexpected gift. I talked with people about working too hard, medical challenges, websites, dissertations, and hobbies. I was never bored.

Over the course of four hours I felt the last vestiges of my 18-year old self drift away. She had no place in that bar, moving among the tables of interesting and engaging people. When I left that night, after a prolonged good-bye with a woman who I hadn’t known in high school and but who now made me promise to visit her home, I felt truly comfortable. I stepped out the door and into the night with one idea in head.

“This,” I thought, “is what it feels like to know you’re an adult.”

Alone

I don’t have much practice being alone.

When I was eighteen I left my parents’ house to go to college. Over the next four years I lived with three roommates on as many campuses. Even after I had a single room midway through my junior year I rarely spent time there, gravitating more to the common spaces where the people were. And then, barely a month after graduation, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment with my newlywed husband.

Last weekend I was traveling by myself and I considered all the times when I was on my own. I recalled two times, both during job transitions, totaling five months. That’s five months out of lifetime-to-date of 520 months. Less than 1% of my life has been lived alone — and that’s crazy.

I’m not sure what got me thinking about the idea of being alone. Maybe it’s the blog posts from 20-somethings about the pressure they feel to find a life partner. Maybe it’s the news of middle-aged people heading into divorce. Maybe it’s older friends and family learning to live alone after an unexpected death. Maybe it’s just the fact that, as a woman married to a man four years my senior, I’m statistically likely to be alone someday.

And I have no idea how I’ll pull that off.

In the rare moments when I find myself alone in a temporary apartment, a hotel room or my own home I go through a strange cycle. It starts with a feeling of euphoria, the freedom of choosing from an infinite set of options. I binge eat foods that should be eaten in small quantities. I walk from room to room leaving lights on and blaring the radio.  I leave dirty dishes in the sink and empty wrappers on any flat surface. Basically, I act like a teenager.

But, after an hour the oppressive weight of the quiet becomes unbearable. No matter how many tv shows I turn on or how loud I turn up the radio nothing can cover the fact that no one is asking for anything. No one is there to share an important part of their day or a problem that needs to be solved. Faced with an empty home and no one who needs me, it doesn’t take long before I crawl into bed.

And that’s what I’m worried about.

I know a lot of people who are absolutely amazing at living alone. Somehow, they seem to strike a perfect balance between solitary activities and engaging with others. I’m jealous, really. I want to believe that I have the potential to be amazing at living alone — but of course I’m in no hurry to find out. I have a sneaking suspicion that even though I could do an adequate job living alone, I’m only at my best when I’m with people.

And that means someone is stuck with me.

I’m Biased & That’s Ok

Soon after I started my first professional job the team that had recruited me asked for help. They thought I would be a good ‘recent hire’ and they brought me into the recruiting effort. At the time it felt like a nice compliment; many years later I realized it was one of those crucial moments that helped develop me into the person and leader I am now.

Let me explain.

In order to to recruit, I was required to take mandatory interviewer training. At the time I remember thinking the day or two that I was away from my desk was a very long time, a serious interruption from the “real work” they were paying me to do. I embraced it, but I thought of it as more perfunctory than profound.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The training was broken into two parts, theory and skills. The skills section focused on how to take effective notes, how to solicit responses, and things that could and couldn’t be said. It was all very good, I learned fundamentals that have served me well for many years. But the bigger piece of it for me (as it always is!) was around the theory of talent acquisition. How can organizations find the best talent for any given role? What stops talent from coming to the top?

I’m sure there were many elements in that section, but the one that was the most impactful to me was the idea of managing bias. The trainer explained that everyone has a series of experiences that frame their view of the world. Those frames are your personal bias — all of the things you know to be true just because you’ve been alive and breathing. You can’t avoid having biases, she said, so you need to work hard to be aware of them and build systems and processes that are designed to counter them. Without that, you won’t be open to all talent, you’ll just build organizations that look a lot like you.

It made immediate sense to me. I stopped thinking about a world where I either was or wasn’t biased and started thinking about a world where I would always be biased and I needed to own my assumptions constantly. It shifted me from a closed circle where I was everything I would ever be to an open sunburst, where all I needed to check and challenge my biases was a willingness to have new experiences and ask new questions.

Recently, I have been thinking back to that learning. I feel like I’m exposed to more and more in the digital world as my physical world is becoming increasingly homogenous and isolated. I look around and see a tendency to generalize based on anecdotes and experiences. I see unquestioned bias popping up left and right, and I see the tendency to self-reinforce those biases by clicking links and reading articles that support it.

And in case it sounds like preaching, I do it, too. It’s hard not to these days.

When I feel myself falling into that pattern I try to remember is that it isn’t possible to live without bias — bias is just as much a part of life as breathing. Instead, I try to be honest about my biases and how they lead me to act. Personally, I am biased toward strong, intelligent women. I tend to view a generalist leader as stronger than a specialist leader. I lean toward extroverts who like to brainstorm, who are comfortable with the rapid fire back and forth that gets my intellect going. In short, I like people like me and left to my own devices I would hire me, over and over again.

But because I know that, I haven’t. I have hired many talented men and worked for many more. I seek out individuals with deep linear technical career paths because they provided the expertise that every good team needs. My favorite project co-lead was an introvert who let me have the first word in conversations yet added the kind of thoughtful insight that took our conversation forward. Sure, I work with and mentor some Mels, but not just Mels.

I want to believe that if my life had taken a different path and I hadn’t been in that training in my mid-20’s I would still have gotten the point. It’s simple and obvious, and I hope I would have understood it intuitively. Unfortunately I have plenty of examples in my life where despite my focus I have completely missed my own bias. There are so many failure points: gender, race, accent, clothing, religion, occupation, education. Whether someone likes sports or the symphony. Whether they have kids or cats, or live in a city or suburb.

Admit it, you could profile any of those categories. Anyone could and we’d all be wrong.

So, I’m thankful that I had that experience. I’m thankful that when I was young, eager and ignorant about what it meant to lead people my company invested in me. They believed I was capable of rising above my bias to find talent and bring them into our organization. I hope I’ve proved them right.

Enough Is Enough

Today is a perfect summer day, not too hot with a pleasant breeze. Underneath the gazebo I can peek out and see a bright blue sky bordered by a lush canopy of green and a few fluffy clouds. Cicadas and birds are the only living things I can hear, except for my own breathing and tapping on the iPad screen. In my head, I am going through the list of projects that need to be done: the trim that needs to be painted, the siding that has seen better days, and the gazebo that is starting to rust. My brain moves inside and starts to go through outdated cabinets, ratty furniture and walls that we never painted after moving in. The list gets longer and longer.

And then in my head I sell it all and move us into a three-bedroom bungalow.

Lately, I’ve noticed that my thoughts are swinging erratically between two extremes. On one hand, I look at my home or my wardrobe or my possessions and I think, “You should have more / nicer things. You work hard, you deserve it.” And on the other hand, I look around and think, “You have more than any reasonable person should expect or can use. You don’t need anymore.”

I find it exhausting and maybe a little healthy.

Our society is flooded with consumerism. Everywhere you look are examples of beautiful things that promise a beautiful life. It feels like more and more we are tying the value of our lives to the value of our things. Maybe it has always been this way, but I am feeling it acutely now in my middle years. I have example after example coming to mind.  The friend who is building a new home and sharing her journey on Facebook, with every gleaming picture a comparison to my dated 1990’s medium oak. The cottages lined up along the lakefront, their boats on lifts or at docks as we go through the process of trailering our speedboat in and out each time. The new gazebo our neighbors built with custom screening, a ceiling fan and twinkly lights, when our deck has a hodgepodge of furniture including plastic tables with peeling spray-paint.

And each time my inner toddler pops out, “I want. I want. I want!”

And each time my middle-aged self reminds my inner toddler that we don’t always get what we want. That I should feel joy for the friend who is finally putting down roots in a home that is all her own. That I should feel appreciation for having a boat at all, and that we could hardly find the time or energy to keep up a second home. That we don’t spend enough time on our deck to invest in something better. That sometimes, enough is enough.

I think one of the reasons I am struggling is that it is hard to acknowledge that life is finite. There are only so many experiences you can pack into any hour, day, week, month or year. There are choices we make about how we spend our time and how we spend our money. A moment spent here, on my deck typing this reflection, is a moment I’m not spending driving my convertible or boating with my husband. Sleeping an extra hour this morning meant I didn’t get up and take a ride on my bike, one of my favorite purchases two years ago.

That’s why when I’m overwhelmed I make the mental leap into letting it all go. Living in a tiny house or studio apartment would mean I wouldn’t have to choose. I wouldn’t be able to add more and more, there would be less to keep up. It would mean that I wouldn’t feel conflicted, the space would prevent that from happening. Someday I hope to let go of these trappings and live a big part of my life on a sailboat. It’s the ‘tiny house’ that fits me best, where I can stow everything critical in cabinets that lock, shelves with rails and hanging nets. I can take pride in finding a way to pack everything we could possibly need for our adventures into a ridiculously compact space.

And, thankfully, iPads are really small.