Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Functional Adult

Tomorrow, I turn eighteen. Legally, I will be an adult.

It doesn't feel that way. I'll still have over a month to go before starting college, I'll still be on my parents' taxes as a dependent, and I'll still do stupid and childish things. The third of these statements is the one that concerns me.

My brain won't stop developing for another few years, and I still am a teenager, but I want to start the process of becoming a functional adult sooner rather than later. I look at myself and I see someone who could do a lot better. If I look successful, that's only within the context of childhood. A high school student thinks her utility function is to get into a good college--but life doesn't stop there, and so I must fall back upon my unofficial motto: fear complacency.

Really, though, I'm a spoiled and whiny brat and I'd like to fix that.


A paraphrased conversation with my mother which led to the writing of this post:

Situation: we are having guests for dinner.

EAL: How long do I have to stay after I finish eating?

Mom: You should stay until they leave.

EAL: (whining) Really?

Mom: Yes. You're almost an adult now, so you have to help entertain the guests. When you were a child it was okay to run off as soon as you were done, but you can't do that anymore.

EAL: (sighing) Okay.


Last month I shared the article Ceremonies as Traffic Lights, which says that rituals and rites of passage--e.g. bar/bat mitzvahs--help adolescents negotiate their identities, marking the transition between childhood and adulthood so that their newfound status becomes common knowledge and there needs be no ambiguity in how people relate to them.

We're not big on rituals in my family, so I think the best course of action for me is to assume that my parents expect me to act like an adult and adjust accordingly. I should note that I'm not doing this for them, though--I'm doing it for me, because it gets old looking at yourself with contempt.


I recently read the Less Wrong article Tsuyoku Naritai: I Want to Become Stronger, which reminded me of an article I read a while back about Learned Helplessness, and I realized that I've let myself stagnate. Here are the most important quotes.

Tsuyoku Naritai:
"Take no pride in your confession that you too are biased; do not glory in your self-awareness of your flaws. This is akin to the principle of not taking pride in confessing your ignorance; for if your ignorance is a source of pride to you, you may become loathe to relinquish your ignorance when evidence comes knocking. Likewise with our flaws—we should not gloat over how self-aware we are for confessing them; the occasion for rejoicing is when we have a little less to confess."
(emphasis mine)

Learned Helplessness (I shared this last month, so it may be familiar):
"Every day – your job, the government, your addiction, your depression, your money – you feel like you can’t control the forces affecting your fate. So, you stage microrevolts. You customize your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.

Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back your behavior and learn to fail with pride. Failing often is the only way to ever get the things you want out of life. Besides death, your destiny is not inescapable.

You are not so smart, but you are smarter than dogs and rats. Don’t give in yet."
(emphasis mine)

What does this have to do with me trying to become a functional adult? The state of being a child is a state of dependency. You need your parents to sign off on everything you do. You need supervision. The first eighteen years of life are devoted to telling you that you are needy and dependent and cannot stand on your own two feet.

You learn helplessness quite easily, then. You're never given the opportunity to put yourself to the test (Italian version: mettersi alla prova, which I like better), to see what you can really do. You may learn to take comfort in your neediness, to integrate your flaws into your identity.

Paul Graham on What You'll Wish You'd Known:
"If you'd asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I'd have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It's that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself."
(emphasis mine)

Dr. Robert W. Firestone on Six Aspects of Being an Adult:

  1. Rationality--deciding based on principles rather than feelings.
  2. Formulating and Implementing Goals--establishing priorities in life and matching words to actions.
  3. Equality in Relationships--balanced give and take instead of placing themselves above/below their loved ones. Relating to others as autonomous individuals.
  4. Active versus Passive--this is an important one so I'll quote the whole paragraph: "Adults are proactive and self-assertive, rather than passive and dependent. They don’t feel victimized by life or complain or dump their problems onto other people; instead, they face their problems or challenges directly and work out solutions rather than depending on others for direction. They seek help only in relation to what they actually need, as in areas where they lack expertise, not in relation to unresolved emotional needs from the past."
  5. Non-defensiveness and Openness--seek self-knowledge and constructive criticism, hold a realistic image of themselves. Cue me sheepishly looking at all of my super-powerful Doppelgangers.
  6. Personal Power--change what you don't like about yourself.

It is always safe to assume that I want to do better, that I am not satisfied with how I'm doing, that I want to improve. But wanting to change and not doing anything about it is still childish. Thus, I will outline the steps I want to take, the actions I want to make, in order to become more of a functional adult.


Goal: Learn practical knowledge such as how to use household appliances and tools.
Action: Oppose laziness in myself and help my parents do more chores around the house.

Goal: Learn how to manage one's personal finances.
Action: Ask my dad to explain it all to me, keep on top of my finances (including paying for college tuition) instead of just delegating to my parents.

Goal: Get a damn job.
Action: This is one area that kinda stings for me since the last two summers I tried and didn't get a job, and so I interpreted that as there being something fundamentally wrong with me. I still am struck by fear sometimes, thinking that I'll never be able to get a job no matter how good I look on paper. So I need to work on some people skills (see below) and I'll do my darnedest to get into a research lab, since that's kind of like a job but also relates to academics, which is a more familiar place for me than professional work.

Goal: Learn people skills.
Action: I've thoroughly integrated being an introvert into my identity, so a part of me says, but I don't like people so why should I have to learn how to deal with them? This is stupid. Of course being an introvert has a lot of advantages, but it also has disadvantages and what is disadvantageous must be fixed. "You can't pick and choose." Is that a challenge? More concretely, I space out when someone is saying something that doesn't interest me, and that's rude (even if I think it's justified if my own thoughts are more interesting). The action, then, is to pay attention to conversations and engage in them, trying to find something interesting about what other people think and feel.

Goal: Learn how to relate to superiors.
Action: I am bad enough at this that I have to pull it out of "people skills" in general. I'm good at relating to people below me, good at telling people what to do and giving advice, but as a child you approach superiors as a supplicant and I need to learn how to ask for help/defer to people without sacrificing my self-respect and my sense of autonomy. Because you know me, the need to protect my own dignity might make me seem insubordinate. (I've a horror of the opposite, of falling back into the child mentality and sacrificing dignity, so I don't think that one will happen.) I think this one might be a matter of practice, though. An appropriate action may be: make yourself go to office hours and talk to professors and grad students a lot until you learn through experience how to approach superiors. As a practice run, visit old high school teachers and hold real actual conversations with them.

Goal: Learn how to talk to people.
Action: Another one that requires practice. I think--since, remember, these are steps I have to be able to take as I am, for now--that I can start by asking questions.

Goal: Manage emotions better.
Action: Even justified criticism makes me defensive, so I need to work on that. Someday I'll find a better version but for now I'm going to try staying calm no matter what and force myself to think through any criticism to see if there's something useful there, instead of just rejecting it because my feelings are hurt. This path might also be childish, too, since it's essentially flowing out of a simplistic "I don't like feelings" mindset. But I don't want to be the person who loses her cool over nothing.

Goal: Identify weaknesses.
Action: This will require objective self-observation, and as I am neither objective nor observant it might take a while. I wonder which of my friends I trust enough to ask of them to criticize me or point out when I'm doing something annoying, and have it be a legitimate flaw of mine instead of an opportunity for them to have a power trip.

Let's make a start right now, though:

INTJ Weaknesses:

  • Arrogant. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Some less mature INTJs may overestimate the importance of their knowledge or analytical skills, seeing most other people as irrational or intellectually inferior, often making their opinion known.

I'm about to start going to Stanford; I think I'll get the arrogance beaten out of me rather quickly. But I have to remind myself constantly that I can do better and that other people have strengths of which I cannot dream.

  • Perfectionists. INTJ personalities loathe inefficiency and imperfection, trying very hard to iron out all the flaws and analyze all possibilities. If left unchecked, this trait can easily become a weakness, slowing down their work quite significantly and frustrating people around the INTJ.

My mom is always good (sometimes too good) at calling out my flaws, and she pointed this one out when I was nine. "Sometimes good enough really is good enough." I didn't learn how to bs my work in high school. I hope the work I do in the future is important enough that it would be bad if I bsed it. (Have I said this before?)

  • Likely to over-analyze everything. INTJs tend to believe that everything can be analyzed, even things that are not necessarily rational, e.g., human relationships. They may seek logical explanations and solutions in every situation, refusing to rely on improvisation or their own emotions.

Analysis is usually a strength! That was my first thought. See the defensiveness? I will admit that I'm often too concerned with projecting an image of maturity (this post is about how I want to go about achieving the reality thereof) and usually try to tamp down spontaneity. It might be nice to try going with my gut. Maybe. Only around people who already know me? Or should I be more open at college? (See the over-analysis kicking in?)

  • Judgmental. INTJs reach their conclusions very quickly and stick to them. Even though people with this personality type tend to be open-minded, they have little patience for things they consider illogical, e.g., decisions based on feelings, irrational stubbornness, emotional outbursts, etc. An INTJ is likely to believe that someone who behaves in this way is either very immature or irrational; consequently, they will have little respect for them.

Ouch. Way to tell me exactly what I'm doing wrong. I have this awful habit of imagining that everyone starts out with my approval and if they do enough things that displease me then they "forfeit" that approval. Once someone has forfeited my approval then the weight I attach to their opinion goes down to infinitesimally small. Thus, I overlook opinions from people who in the past annoyed me. This makes sense in moderation but I have to admit that I take it too far. So reserve judgment.

  • May be insensitive. INTJ personalities often pride themselves on being brutally honest and logical. However, while their statements may be rational and completely correct, they may not take into account another person’s emotional state, background, individual circumstances, etc. Consequently, the INTJ’s directness and honesty may easily hurt other people, thus becoming a major weakness in social situations.

I offended a friend about a month ago because I expressed an opinion of mine as if it were an accusation. In case that friend is reading this (there's a chance, however small): Sorry, man. I messed up that one. I still stand behind *what* I said but *how* I said it was wrong.

  • Loathe highly structured environments. INTJ personalities do not respect rules or regulations just because they are there; they need to be confident that those restrictions make sense. Consequently, INTJs strongly dislike environments that are built on blind obedience, traditions, or respect for authority. They are likely to challenge the status quo and clash with people who prefer stability and safety.

Is this really a weakness? Questioning whether or not things make sense, whether or not there are better ways to do things--is this a weakness? I suppose it is a weakness in the sense that too much time spent fighting the establishment means less time to work on getting things done. Learn to compromise: that's something else I'll have to learn if I am to function as an adult.

The fundamental point this investigation has uncovered to me is this: You have the power to solve your own problems. Skip the asking for permission. Ask for advice only if you need it. See a problem, fix it.

I'm not planning to kill the child in me. As Nietzsche said, "you must have chaos within you." In his cycle of transformations, the highest form was the child because the child creates her own values. There is a power to self-centered innocence.

But I think that ultimately I'll get more done if I work on fixing my problems, taking responsibility for myself, and gaining enough competence that I can navigate the world on its own terms before changing it on mine. I need to start thinking of myself as an adult. As a child, there's a brittleness to your core, one that can tip from selfish entitlement to victimization in a moment. Why would I want to stay that way?

I am an adult. I can make my own decisions and stand by them and deal with their consequences. I don't need to run crying to mom and dad whenever I come across something unfamiliar. I'm young and I'll make mistakes but I can deal with them.

I have the power to solve my own problems.


  1. Ditto!

    I feel like i'm reading my own blog...is that weird?
    I actually started growing up for real right around your age, so you're right on track girl! (not that i'm all grown up now, but you know, i'm on the way)

    I think your list of goals is quite admirable and you should really come back and re-read this a month from now and then 3 months from now and so on. I found it helps reading back the promises i made to myself, because somewhere along the way you just forget and go back to what feels comfortable.

    I think that earning my own money and managing a small portion of my finances really did play a big part in my growing up process. i mean it was not much, just for clothes and books and stuff, and then i bought my own car, but the parents still paid for bills and university fees..still not having to ask for the unnecessary stuff, and not having to ask when in the end you need to buy a car..i think that learning how to save money that is not just given to you but money that you've earned is a big step. And it is also a responsibility, because you have to learn how to spend your money in a sensible way. anyhoo, if you have a chance i really am glad you're choosing to start earning your own money. I don't know what the job situation is over there, but if you don't find anything like a lab right away is tutoring an option? Like maths tutoring? Because i think that teaching someone, aside from being a sort of job to reach that goal, really could help with your other goals, like interacting with people.granted they would not be your superiors so it doesn’t help in that department, but it still human interaction that, in my experience, helps you grow up too.

    I’m totally with you on the being introverted and preferring my on company to other people’s. I’m exactly like that, in fact I basically have no social life to speak of (will try to change that, promise). Still I find that having some people skills really does help a great deal, and you are perfectly on time to acquire some of those. I whole-heartedly encourage you to do so:)

    OMG this comment is becoming a post on its own, so I’ll stop here. I’m just really happy you wrote this, it is ane of my favourite posts of yours, so thanks. Also for reminding me that I should do those things too. xx

    1. "I feel like i'm reading my own blog..." It's funny that you should say that, because sometimes I'll read *your* blog and think, wow, that's what I'm going to be like in the future.

      Thanks for the tip about rereading this--sometimes I make all these grand plans and then just forget about them, so I'll have to remember to keep myself on my toes about these ones.

      I'm hoping to find a job on campus, whether in a lab or in one of the libraries or something. Some job where I'll be forced to interact with people to get over my nervousness--because I'm perfectly happy being an introvert, but being afraid of people isn't going to help me in the future and I can't keep coddling myself. (she said bravely, while quaking on the inside at the thought of talking to strangers)

      It was really helpful writing this! I didn't predict half of it, haha. Best of luck to us all!

  2. a fellow INTJ :). I turn 20 next week and I feel like I was on the cusp where you are like it was yesterday. You will figure it out soon enough. Knowing what you want if the first step, the hard part is being thrown into the world and putting it into practice.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement! I guess there's no substitute to being tested in the field.