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How to be an adult: 6 major markers of adulthood

If you stop doing just these 6 things, you’ll be an adult by default. Learn which things to not do if you want to be taken seriously as a grown-up.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Modern society has no defining ritual for transitioning into adulthood. In fact, it encourages a state of prolonged adolescence where no one really grows up. Millennials have been the biggest victims of this.

Modern society has no defining ritual for transitioning into adulthood.

I don’t like the idea that you can be 27 years old, living at home, making terrible decisions, and being considered an adult because you can drink and vote. Being an adult is more than just your age.

I worked backward, thinking of the childish traits and habits I saw displayed by people who are legal adults. I also thought about the things that held me back from feeling like a full-grown, competent adult.

The following are the 6 biggest markers of adulthood.

1. You don’t rely on your parents for anything

You’re not an adult until you don’t rely on your parents–in any way–for any of your daily expenses.

Don’t gimme that nonsense about it being cheaper to be on a family phone plan when you’re 30 years old. By definition, a major part of adult life is autonomy from your parents. If you can’t—or won’t—survive without their financial assistance, you are not an adult.

[I’ve met kids so serious about becoming an adult that they stayed in a homeless shelter until they got a job good enough to pay the bills. I write about them here.]

This point is usually the one that receives the most blowback. People are very quick to point out that forcing young adults to take on financial responsibilities too early keeps them from succeeding, and they’re right.

If you are not ready to stand on your own, there’s no reason to try and do so if you have the support of your parents. However, you’re not an adult if you do this. You’re still their responsibility, which–by definition–excludes you from adulthood.

Even cultures that have many generations stay at home have a clear point where the child moves out. This is usually marriage. Now, at this point, the parents may move in but now the parents are the responsibility of the child. Not vice-versa.

The money in your bank account is your livelihood.

If you rely on your parents for any part of your livelihood, then they still have responsibility for you. This means that, like a child, your livelihood is their burden to bear until you grow up.

2. You don’t blame your childhood for your adulthood

You’re not an adult until you stop blaming your childhood for your current deficiencies, weaknesses, and problems.

Yes, shit happened to you. And yes, some of it set you back. But adults don’t use that as an excuse. They work through it without hurting other people who did nothing to them.

No one minds if you have a problem.

No one minds if you need help.

No one is perfect and we all have a journey.

The problem is when you neglect your issues and constantly use them as justification for fucking up. Your friends and family will only be patient for so long.

Swallow your pride, let go of your ego, and see a psychotherapist and work on your mental health before it causes irreparable damage to other parts of your life.

This is a sign of general maturity. (Read the other signs of maturity I write about here)

No one’s childhood was perfect. We all sustain a little damage and trauma, some of us more than others. Part of what makes you an adult is your ability to mitigate, navigate, and work on the parts of you that were not fully formed or sustained damage as you grew up.

This is the most basic responsibility of a grown-up. The goal is not to be perfect. It’s merely to repair deficiencies and fill in gaps that keep you from living a productive, autonomous life as an adult.

I think about all of the bad habits I entered adulthood with. I had

All of these were the result of experiences (or lack thereof)  in my childhood.

Instead of using these issues as an excuse for how my life was going (and it wasn’t going great), I took control and began to work on them so I could relieve the pain they caused in my life and in the lives of those who crossed my path.

Everyone goes through shit as a child that sets them back. The difference is that responsible adults deal with their childhood trauma so that it doesn’t deal with them.

3. You take responsibility for everything in your life

You’re not an adult until you take responsibility for all parts of your life, for better or worse.

Children get to believe that Santa Claus delivers gifts. Adults know that it’s their own fault if they don’t have anything under the tree.

If you blame bad luck for any chronic misfortune in your life, you’re operating from the mindset of someone who is incapable of taking responsibility.

Yes, shit happens.

Yes, some of it’s not going to be in your favor.

Your job is to look at all the ways you could have prevented the tragic outcome, learn from it, and don’t let it happen again.

A while back, I wrote that three traits keep a person from ever making progress in their life:

  1. They think they know everything
  2. They lack humility
  3. They never take responsibility for anything

If you don’t take responsibility, you’ll never take the time to understand how you contributed, which makes it impossible for you to correct yourself and improve your position.

The other two traits prevent you from listening to people’s advice and warnings, but the final trait–the inability to take responsibility–prevents you from seeing your role in your problems. When you can’t see how your decisions lead to a certain outcome, then you’re like a child who doesn’t yet understand that there are consequences to their actions.

The difference is that the child is young and still has time to learn. In fact, it is expected that they don’t know and you have to teach them. An adult in this same situation not only doesn’t have time on their side, but they’re dealing with the compound effects of all their bad decisions.

Decisions that were almost certainly made because they would not (or could not) realize that they’re responsible for how their lives turn out.

4. You know how to delay gratification

You’re not an adult if you can’t delay gratification in the pursuit of something greater.

Kids throw tantrums when they don’t immediately get what they want. Furthermore, children can quit and rely on their parents when life is hard.

While this is not a good habit for children to develop, they still have the option because part of being a child is learning what behaviors to develop and what behaviors to avoid.

As an adult, you don’t get the luxury of being able to quit whenever you want to. You don’t get to avoid challenges because they’re uncomfortable. A big part of adulthood is sticking with something that hurts now so you can benefit in the long run.

Adults who are unable to delay gratification will always be at the mercy of their bad habits. Many of these bad habits will prevent them from ever becoming mature and fully capable of providing for themselves.

If there’s one thing I find that holds people in a state of perpetual adolescence, it’s that they can’t suffer through temporary discomfort in pursuit of a better life.

The benefits of fitness come from the pain of working out.

The benefits of a high income arise from putting in time on something challenging.

Every good thing in life is the result of sacrificing immediate gratification for something bigger and better down the line.

If you feel like your growth has stunted and you aren’t making progress in life, it’s probably because you won’t suffer a little, delay gratification, and work to get on something more than a quick distraction from the unpleasantness of hard work.

5. You have emotional discipline

You aren’t an adult if you can’t control your emotions.

This is not the same as being emotionless. This is not the same as not expressing your emotions. This is simply not letting your emotions degrade your quality of life.

Sad things happen and you will cry. That is natural and good for you. Injustices will happen and they will make you angry. This is natural and sensible. What is not sensible is for you to harm yourself or others in response to these emotions.

This is both immediate and long-term. A destructive short-term response to loneliness is to pick someone up for a good time. Over the long term, you lose the ability to form meaningful relationships.

Drinking to relax or fit in is a short-term solution to emotional distress that can lead to the long-term (and more severe) problem of alcoholism.

You’ll have to learn to regulate and express your emotions in a healthy manner at some point. Prisons are full of people who got angry and couldn’t direct or deal with it in a non-destructive manner.

No one wants to be the person who breaks their hand punching a hole in the wall because something didn’t go as planned.

6. You plan for the future

You aren’t an adult if you can’t or won’t make plans for the future.

The future is coming, whether you’re ready for it or not. Part of being an adult is not being “surprised” by something that is HIGHLY predictable.

If your bills are late but you always call off work, you are not preparing for the future.

If you spend without planning for the other things that might come out of your account, this is not planning for the future–and I was one of those guys who always dealt with bank overdraft fees.

But I learned, and it was DEFINITELY the hard way. I don’t want you to do that.

This is both a concrete AND abstract skill. The former is what most people think of, but the latter is arguably more important.

Are you looking to improve yourself so that you’ll be worth a damn in the future? When I went back to school at 27, I said to myself “I’m going to turn 33 regardless. At that time, will I have more options or less?”

I approach my physical fitness and emotional well-being the same way. Eating right now prevents health problems in the future. Building relationships now prevent loneliness and despair in the future.

You don’t know what the future will bring, but it’s always better to face it with resources, health, and a network behind you.

Summary of how to be an adult

Adulthood is, above all things, about responsibility. This responsibility extends over both space and time.

If you are legally an adult but still have any of the above problems, it’s time to work on your personal growth. The perk of adulthood is freedom and autonomy, but you don’t get it unless you earn it.

Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

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