Adulthood and Being in the Driver’s Seat of Your Life

Adulthood is Confusing and Doesn’t Meet Expectations

For the majority of a young person’s life, “adulthood” is a distant finish line, a stage of life where one “has it all figured out”. However as they approach this stage as a teenager, they may find that in fact, they’re nowhere near to “figuring it out”. This was certainly true for me, and it was hard to reconcile my expectations about adulthood with my lived experience. Sure, upon turning 18 I was a “legal” adult, but I still knew so little about myself and what I wanted. What did being an adult feel like, and when would I feel that way? Would I feel it at 21, when I could legally drink? Would I feel it at 25, the age when the brain is fully developed? That seemed like a long time to wait. What is becoming an adult actually like?

For certain life paths, the transition into adulthood appears simpler to define. Someone who works to support themself right out of high school, to pay rent and put food on the table (or to pay their way through college), has a huge amount of responsibility on their shoulders. I don’t know what that experience feels like, but on paper it seems to me that being directly responsible for your own basic needs would accelerate the mental shift into adulthood.

Many people, myself included, followed a different life path after high school: attending college while financially supported (partially or fully) by their parents. For brevity, I’ll be calling this the “Parent Assisted College Track” or PACT. It must be noted that there’s a lot of privilege to this pathway, especially given how expensive college is. While I worked during many summers and semesters and paid for a significant chunk of my schooling, the college fund my parents saved up for me paid for the majority of my expenses. Still, the PACT is very common, and is presented by society and media as a “normal” life path. It brings some unique complications to the transition into adulthood that are worth exploring.

Adulthood and the Parent Assisted College Track

The PACT makes the transition to adulthood confusing for two reasons. First, although you gradually gain freedom and power through high school and college, the maturity goalposts keep moving ahead. You get your driver’s license, but you’re still legally a child. You turn 18, but you’re still a teenager. You enter college, but are still under 21. Even at 21, when you can legally do anything but rent a car and run for higher office, you probably have over a year of college left and may be no closer to feeling like you’ve “figured it out”. None of these milestones bring the sense of “adulthood” that we expect from them.

Second, throughout the PACT so much of your life is out of your hands that it’s hard to feel in control at any point. At 18 you’re a legal adult, but you’re likely still finishing high school and living under your parents’ roof. Starting college brings a huge increase in freedom and power over your environment, but you’re still bound within the structure of school. You may be in control of your day-to-day life, but you also have an endless flood of deadlines and tests and projects to find time for. Finally, because your parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars toward your college expenses, you’re dependent on them and may even have to abide by further parental restrictions.

Midway through college is also a time when you may become disillusioned about your choice of major. Unless you’re lucky enough to maintain confidence in your degree (or make an early decision to change majors), you may find yourself in the unpleasant position of having sunk years and thousands of dollars (of your parents’ money) into a major you’re no longer interested in or motivated by. From personal experience, the choice between enduring it for the remaining years (depressing) or changing your major (scary) and starting from square one (depressing) doesn’t feel good. It’s hard to feel control over your life when you’re grinding away on a hamster wheel that a younger, naiver version of yourself signed you up for years ago. When will you stop feeling like this? Will graduating and supporting yourself make you feel like an adult? Will you ever feel in control of your life?

I found myself in this position as a college sophomore and junior. Despite the freedom and autonomy I had in my day-to-day existence, I didn’t have a strong sense of identity or feel power over my life. School took up so much time and energy that in my free time all I wanted was to claw back a semblance of control by distracting myself: consuming media, killing time, going out, staying up late, anything to escape from all of the Big Questions I didn’t know how to answer. Who was I? What did I want to do with my life? I accepted that I didn’t care about my major, did that mean that the last few years were an expensive waste? Where did I go from here?

Adulthood is Being in the Driver’s Seat of Your Life

Let's get back to broad strokes for a minute. What is adulthood, and how do you become an adult? I think adulthood is being in the driver’s seat of your life. You become an adult by taking primary responsibility for your life and its course. Although many aspects of your circumstances may be out of your control, many more of them are under your influence. Most importantly, your relationship to your own life—the story you tell yourself—is ultimately up to you. Getting in the driver’s seat of your life is an attitude and identity shift. It’s a mental framing that directly connects your future to your present and recognizes your role as the primary driving force in your life.

Easier said than done. How do you get to this mindset? Through a single, climactic moment in which you finally “figure it out”? Unfortunately not, at least in my experience. This is the kind of gradual shift that you won’t realize you’ve made until you look back at the last six or twelve months and realize that something is different. This shift comes from a change in your values, from the realignment of your priorities that time and experience brings. This change comes when you start to notice that who you are today isn’t who you’d like to be in the future. It comes when you get tired of looking in other directions, of coasting and running away. It comes when you’re ready to take a good look at yourself, and be honest about what you see.

At 19, 20, I was not in the driver’s seat of my life. I did the things I liked, I paid attention to what was in front of me, but in spirit I lived from weekend to weekend, spring break to summer vacation to winter break. I was content not to think too hard about who I was or who I wanted to be, because not having any answers made me uncomfortable. Eventually though, I started to become dissatisfied with aspects of myself: excessive procrastination, laziness, apathy. A break filled solely with video games and sleep started to feel like less of a success. I began to want more from myself. I wanted to work harder, to grow. I started to think more actively about my life and my future.

As it turns out, this thinking is key. Remember all of those Big Questions? Getting in the driver’s seat of your life means accepting that they exist and that you’re the only one who can answer them. Although these Big Questions can be scary—hence why we run away from them for so long—they can only be answered by chipping away at them with thought. The idea that Big Questions are answered in resounding moments of truth is fantasy. They have to be wondered at and mused on and crunched away at by your subconscious. You can’t run away from them forever if you want to grow.

What happens next?

This reframing leads to some really helpful developments and positive feedback loops. First, you start to feel power over your own life! Once you place yourself in the driver’s seat of your life mentally, you start to internalize that you, through every choice you make, affect the course of your future. Moreover, you understand that the only person who can get you anywhere is you. This idea might seem scary or isolating, but framed another way it’s liberating in its simplicity: you do what you need to do to get you where you want to go. You reap this benefit most when looking back on a decision you made with a time horizon of months or longer. Placing where you are today in context with the time and energy your past selves put in to get there brings a rewarding sense of progress that drives home the power you have to influence your life and your future. This acts as a feedback loop, making it easier to make bigger decisions and leaps which in turn bring more confidence and motivation.

Another consequence of this mental shift is the feeling that your life has a trajectory. You feel like you’re going somewhere. You may not know exactly where you’re going, or how fast, or what turns to take, but you feel a sense of momentum. When your relationship to your life is passive, it’s hard to feel like you’re making any headway. Getting in the driver’s seat of your life—seizing your place as your own driving force—couples your future to your present. It connects where you’ll be in a year to what you do tomorrow, and the next day, and all the days in between. And when you can feel this sense of trajectory, you know intuitively that you have the power to alter it. Whether by taking sharp left turns or by making little tweaks that nudge your trajectory more in line with your values and desires, you know that you can affect where you’re going.

Finally, this framing makes it easier to make choices intentionally. You may not like the options available—you may be bound by your degree program, your parents, your financial situation, your location. But you do have choices, and the ability to evaluate what each of them may mean to you. You can think about where and who you could be in the future, and what you can do to get yourself there. It’s not about making the RIGHT choice, it’s about intentionally making choices. Should you go to the party to let loose after a rough week, see friends, and enjoy yourself? Should you stay in and endure the fomo so that you actually get everything you wanted done this weekend? There’s no right answer, it’s all in the choosing. What do you need? What do you want? What is most important to you right now? It’s in these choices, in weighing the needs of the body and the mind and the spirit, that we figure out what matters to us, and what we want. And suddenly, we have a little bit of purchase. A little toehold to push off into the next day with.

Adulthood isn’t having it figured out, or being perfect. It isn’t eliminating procrastination or laziness (I certainly haven’t). It’s knowing, and believing, that you’re the person in charge of you. You have the power to figure out what you want, who you want to be, and where you want to go. You have the power to work toward the best future you can give to yourself. Because you’re the only one who can.