Feeling Grown Up – a Hypothesis


“Great Great Granddad never shot a Frenchman”

There’s this idea that few of us feel truly grown up, that inside the typical 60 year old is a 16 year old going, “What the hell is happening to me?

Charlie wrote a wise article about this (comments are also worth reading). In a nutshell:

We can never measure up to the apparently godlike adults we observed when we were kids because: (1) they only looked godlike to a child, and (2) each generation is different. It follows we all finds ourselves wanting compared to the our elders! You don’t wear a suit and act serious. Dad didn’t work down the mines. Granddad wasn’t a farmer. Great Granddad never wore a redcoat in India. Great Great Granddad never shot a Frenchman. (And of course, the older generation can derive status by reminding us of this.)


That has to be true. However, I think the corollary is also important:

The previous generations are really no longer a valid source of validation because our lives are so different from theirs.

Once upon a time, your granddad could say, “I see your potato field is doing well,” and that meant something because he was a farmer or agricultural worker before you.

Now the best he can manage probably translates as, “I can see you’re teching the tech in some remunerative way because you don’t appear to be broke. What was your job title again?”

Once he could say, “I see your daughter is doing well in the [quaint rural pastime here] competition.” Now it’s, “So explain to me again what a Goth is?”

That would be fine if we could get meaningful validation from other hierarchies.

However, even at work, as soon as you occupy any sort of professional role, you probably know your particular job better than your boss does. They may compliment you on delivering on time and under budget, but they’ve got neither the time nor, probably, the knowledge to understand your elegant code well enough to praise it. (And you couldn’t do their job either, much as you might bitch about non-technical managers.)

So, one curse of modernity is that, outside a small number of professions — e.g. military and medical — and a handful of pastimes — e.g. martial arts  –, we don’t tend to have anybody older and wiser to look up to who is also informed enough about what we do to truly validate our efforts and make us feel like a grown up.

It follows that we must either be self validating, or go looking for it in the right places… but where?


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Posted in Modern Culture
2 comments on “Feeling Grown Up – a Hypothesis
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    Most of us need both internal and external validation to assess our grown-up status.

    Internal validation, the so-called self-esteem or amour propre, requires an effort to achieve an objective view of the world of consensus reality and the ability to hold ourselves to some standard based on that world. The problem, of course, is that sometimes our internal reality is at odds with the consensus reality, and it’s fiendishly difficult to determine whether we’re the ones with the clear view or whether consensus reality has the right story and we’re delusional. (Philip K. Dick made a living in this niche.)

    External validation comes from others whose opinions and judgment we trust and respect. Finding those individuals can be tough, and once we’ve found them, it’s fiendishly difficult to determine whether we’re being realistic or just choosing people who support our cherished delusions. The friends we choose and the communities we build around ourselves are the usual touchstones, with the caveat that we can’t always choose our communities.

    Balancing the two forms of validation is tricky, and I think the true sign of being grown-up is having confidence we’re on the right track, but not so much confidence we entirely lose that little voice that calls upon us to question, question, question.

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