Ten years ago, when I was 26, I was focused on “establishing myself” as a “high-powered professional,” and acquiring the relationships and possessions that fit with that “role.” I lived as if it was urgent for me to achieve these goals, because, my thinking went, I “wasn’t getting any younger.”
Today, none of those things is important to me. What’s important today is getting my creative work into the world. The only reason I ever do anything else for money is to support my artistic habit. The only thing I have in common with my old mentality is somewhat of a sense of urgency.
Rule #1: Try “Flaky” Stuff for Its Own Sake
How did I manage to get less stodgy over time? I think it’s because, at around the age of 29, I started slowly letting myself experiment and try new things that I would have scoffed at as “flaky” or “irresponsible” three years before.
One of these was buying a keyboard (a piano one, not a computer one). The fact that this seemed adventurous to me probably gives you an idea of my mindset at the time. More radically, I explored what now seems to me like a dizzying array of personal growth practices, including yoga, meditation, holotropic breathwork, men’s groups, ecstatic dance, etc., etc.
The more I let myself explore, the more I realized how much choice I had around the way I could live my life, and the more I understood that I could handle taking risks. Once I had a lot of “trying stuff for the sake of trying stuff” under my belt, my priorities started to shift.
Doing Whatever I Want Is Hard Work
At this point, the best description of my goal in life would be something like this: “do what I want, as much of the time as possible.” It looks like a simple plan on the surface, but sometimes it’s actually a lot harder to pursue this mission than it is to fall into familiar patterns of trying to look “respectable” and “upstanding.”
Occasionally, when I’m talking to someone, I find the urge coming up to drop a casual reference to the achievements I racked up back when I was intent on becoming a “superlawyer.” But usually, these days, I’m able to smile at the impulse and move on.
One thing I’m sure of is: I’m looking forward to getting younger, and less “settled down,” with age.
Some say we have an “inner child” — a part of ourselves that’s “emotional,” vulnerable, and open about its wants and needs. Lots of personal growth work is about accessing and nurturing this “inner child” part.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the term “inner child.” In our culture, it’s usually seen as a criticism to label someone or something a child. If I call you “childish” or “childlike,” I’m basically saying you’re weak, spoiled, selfish, irrational, and so on.
I think I’ve got a better name for this vulnerable, emotionally open part. I want to call it the “inner adult.” After all, doesn’t it take maturity and courage to step up and say what we’re feeling, and what we need and want?
I don’t know about you, but expressing desires and emotions can be scary for me. It can feel risky to tell someone that I want to spend time with them, that I’m angry with them, that I love them, or something along those lines. It took a lot of growth for me to get comfortable being that open.
Our Culture Has Adulthood Backwards
Of course, the conventional wisdom says the opposite. It seems the ideal adult, in our culture’s eyes, is emotionally closed, and never asks for anything. We’re supposed to be tough and self-sufficient, and “never let ‘em see us sweat.”
Self-development, from this point of view, isn’t about learning to express what we feel and want — it’s about acquiring money, credentials, and other stuff, so that we’ll become “important” and others will start giving us what we want even though we don’t ask for it.
Ironically, though, this “superman” or “superwoman” image is often just a manipulative strategy, developed in childhood, for getting our needs met. The idea is that, if we look invincible and “unemotional,” we’ll please our caregivers, and they’ll give us the love and attention we crave.
That invulnerable façade is really a ploy by a scared kid who fears that his parents will criticize him for expressing his needs, and thinks they’ll only care for him if he impresses them with his need-lessness.
It Takes Maturity To Be Vulnerable
What usually passes for “adulthood” today, I think, is really a deep-seated insecurity and immaturity. It’s the qualities we tend to see as “childlike” — openness, vulnerability and curiosity — that take real wisdom and maturity to develop.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say that, in order to grow, we should imitate children. We don’t need to throw tantrums or grab stuff we want from other people. One important distinction I think we come to see with age is the difference between telling someone what we want, and using force or acting out to get it. Children aren’t always aware of that distinction (though, of course, adults aren’t always either).
My point is that self-development, in many ways, is about unearthing the parts of ourselves we buried because we learned, as children, that they weren’t acceptable. A big part of “growing up,” I think, is rediscovering who we’ve always been.