Should I “Grow Up”?

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Growing up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. To adapt to the current situation usually means ignoring that this situation is changing. And ‘growing up’ usually means giving up some of our preferences and inclinations. So maybe we shouldn’t just “grow up”.

In the last couple of years (roughly since being 50) I’ve realised that I’m never going to grow up. You see, my parents were convinced that once I got out of high school I would ‘grow up’. When I got out of university they were sure I would discover what the ‘real world’ was like. Then they were keen for me to get a ‘real job’ so that I would ‘settle down’.

I have actually had a couple of ‘real jobs’ — for a little while, enough to know that I have been there and done it as much as I want to (actually quite a bit more than I wanted to) — but mostly I have lived on the margins of the usual job market. At the moment I’m experimenting with seeing if I can become wealthy doing what I love (which is also regarded as a marginal lifestyle).

What Does “Growing Up” Mean?

We can take ‘growing up’ in an entirely positive sense. Something along the lines of knowing our strengths, weaknesses, and preferences; seeing our situation clearly; and modifying and matching these things.

This wasn’t what my parents meant. They meant something like following a conventional and common path through life.

But I was, and am, a pretty resolute individualist. (For those who know the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I am an INTJ. In the original book on the Indicator, Gifts Differing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], the first line of the description of the INTJ is ‘the ultimate individualists’. They certainly got that right!) From my point of view I felt I was already accommodating the usual way of doing things too much, rather than not enough.


Growing up, in my parents’ sense, is the cutting down of our expectations to suit the current situation. There are many common old saws along this line, such as ‘cut your cloth to fit your yarn’ — which seems unarguable, so I’ll argue with it in a minute.

The other side of the story is that it is the strange people who create new ways of doing things. My favourite quote along this line is from George Bernard Shaw (Man and Superman, 1903):

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

I think George was rather overstating the case. Sometimes unreasonable people are so unreasonable in their demands that they alienate people and have no success in adapting the world to themselves. And it doesn’t mention the problem of unreasonable people being unreasonable to other unreasonable people — and so cancelling out each other’s unreasonableness.

But I do think this idea has an important kernel of truth. Our world is modifiable to some extent — and we don’t know the extent in advance. We will only find out by making the attempt. GBS invites us to a life of experimentation, with which I am wholly in sympathy.

And this is my argument with those old saws about cutting cloth. What is possible isn’t quite as obvious as the size of a piece of material. Innovation is rare, but its results are unpredictable. The consequences of the personal computer are still being played out, and the major implications of the internet I suspect are still to come. And these innovations are decades old now.

When we look back at predictions of the future, most turn out to be wrong. It is likely that our predictions will be the same. It seems unlikely that all the changes in our future will be progress, and it also seems unlikely that they will all be due to the actions of the unreasonable (those who refused to “grow up”).

The advice to ‘grow up’, to adapt to the prevailing situation, ignores that the current arrangement of things is usually in flux to some extent. (Some things more and some things less — the dominance of economists and the appalling inequity in the international balance of trade doesn’t seem to be about to change, for instance.)

Not Growing Up

I don’t see myself growing up. This is, and has been, a challenge to creativity — divergent lifestyles receive less support. For me, this hasn’t been hard to do: the current way of doing things doesn’t attract me. And I haven’t any children — which brings with it an extraordinary number of pressures — which also makes it far easier.

I’d like to hear from you. What does ‘growing up’ mean for you? Do you see it as a positive, a negative, or maybe a bit of both? Do you feel that you have made compromises to fit in? If so, do you think this has improved or diminished your life? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

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