Admit It: You’re Just Making This Up As You Go

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It's one of those secrets no one told us.
It’s one of those secrets no one told us.

I was just a young hormonal Catholic school boy sitting in church on Sundays begging God to forgive me every time I thought about having sex with one of the girls I saw.

Why am I thinking about sex in church!?!?

I used to think I was so bad.

I used to feel so guilty.

I used to look around at the backs of all the grownups and think to myself: It must be great being an adult! You can control all these thoughts and FINALLY be a good, disciplined person!

I was just a young, helpless virgin with no one to talk to about it. I wonder what THAT feels like!

I’d watch my mom and stepdad living their lives. They NEVER sinned!

I’d sit at the dinner table at my friends’ houses, quietly studying other families. They’ve got it all figured out!

When I was a kid, I didn’t know the secret.

I didn’t know everyone else was wearing a mask, too.

When I was a kid, I thought everyone’s lives were amazing and had every reason to look forward to adulthood when I wouldn’t make mistakes and feel guilt anymore.

I didn’t know everyone was having marital problems, having sex with other people or wishing they were.

I didn’t know the secret until I was well into my thirties: We’re all just making this up as we go.

You Are Not Alone

At least one of you (and probably many more) can relate in some way to all that young, hormonal, confused kid stuff. At least one of you thought you were going to reach adulthood and have the great “Ah-ha!” moment we’re all waiting for, and at some point it finally dawned on you that it never actually comes.

You don’t just wake up feeling like an adult one day.

You always just feel like a scared, confused kid, and realize with horror—maybe after having children of your own—that you ARE an adult, even though you don’t always feel or act like one.

And I just want you to know that you’re not weird.

I just want you to know that you’re not the only person who doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing.

I want you to know that it’s okay to be scared. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

That it’s okay to be confused. Because things didn’t turn out the way you thought they would. Because not even you are who you thought you would be.

And that it’s okay to be sad. Because you wasted all those childhood years looking forward to these shittier, adult years, never once stopping to think: “Holy shit! I’m a kid! No one needs me for anything! All I have to do in the entire world is hang out with friends all the time and learn stuff! I better enjoy this while it lasts!”

We were all in such a hurry to grow up.

So we could have FUN!

Because we thought drinking beer and having sex and getting into bars and trips to Vegas and having a job with a paycheck would be better than playing playground kickball and freeze tag and passing notes in class and sneaking kisses behind the school.

Because we thought having our own money would be better than our parents just giving us some.

God, we were stupid. And by stupid, I really just mean ignorant. It wasn’t our fault.

It’s natural to want to drive a car. And stay up as late as we want. And go to whatever party we want. And wear whatever clothes we want. To be cool.

It’s natural to be curious. To want to try new things. And to do things we’re not supposed to.

The forbidden fruit, and all that.

It’s natural to want what we can’t have.

I’m not into Buddhism. But Buddhists wisely recognize that we DO gain value in our lives from our pursuit of things we want, even though acquiring or achieving those things didn’t bring us any palpable happiness or perceived value.

That experience brings us value. The garnering of wisdom from chasing and getting, followed by the lack of long-term fulfillment afterward.

That knowledge is valuable. Because it gives us wisdom.

We didn’t fail because our lives aren’t like we thought they would be.

This, in a lot of ways, was inevitable.

Behaving like human beings and suffering the consequences was inevitable.

That’s what’s real.

I think that’s part of really being an adult. Really being human.

I think it’s one of the many fragments of that “Ah-ha!” moment we’re all waiting to experience, but end up collecting one little realization at a time.

When the light bulb clicks.

When it dawns on us that we’re not the only one.

When we see a quote from Socrates and realize: Hell. I already figured that one out for myself.

“The only true wisdom is to know that you know nothing.”

It feels good to admit it.

It feels good to grow up.

It feels good to realize all those other boys in church were thinking the same things.

43 thoughts on “Admit It: You’re Just Making This Up As You Go”

  1. Matt, I don’t feel like an adult now. Yeah, I’m older but my head is still at 35 or so. I don’t know much; I’m learning on the journey just like even else with LOTS of mistakes.
    And lots of deep breathing.

  2. It does feel good to admit it. It felt even better for me, because the moment the light bulb went on prompted me to leave a horrible job that I just KNEW for years was an important step in my career. Then I realized that not only did I not know what I was doing, but neither did my boss.

    1. It’s a very liberating thing.

      Some of us know what we’re doing in certain niche applications.

      But, big picture? No one knows. No one.

      That realization has a beautiful way of leveling the playing field for all of us, psychologically.

  3. I’m glad you wrote this post 🙂 Just wrote one similar in nature the other day. Everyone in my twenties something circle is getting married or having babies and I’m sitting over here like “Uh, shouldn’t we learn how to function first?” Not going to lie, it totally terrifies me that I am at the age where that stuff is becoming the norm and I haven’t gotten my shit together yet. Then I realized no one really does, we all just make it up. Its nice to read that I’m not just a late bloomer in realizing life’s secrets and, indeed, my hunch was correct: no one really knows.

    1. Well.

      Let’s not let my silly opinions serve as any sort of confirmation.

      But yeah. At least you realize someone else feels like that too.

      If everyone stood up and raised their hands who felt as we did, there’d be billions.

      And all the people not raising their hands would be people we’d know not to pursue friendships with. 🙂

      Oh. And please share your post here if you’d like! Drop a link. Please never hesitate to do that.

  4. Having a kid in high school this year has forced me to come to grips with my adulthood even though I don’t really want to(especially since I’m only 33 & feeling soooo not ready to deal with this yet).
    I still don’t feel like I should be an adult yet but I think you’re right….no one does. And no one knows what they’re doing.
    I think the day we have it all figured out is the day we die because as long as you’re a living human being there is always more to learn.

    1. I’ve been reading that the elderly have the easiest time finding happiness and contentment in the little things. In the simple things. In the “mundane” or “ordinary.”

      Like a little family gathering on a Sunday afternoon.


      I crave it.

  5. I loved this post. Can totally relate to growing up catholic and thinking my parents had it all figured out! They. Do. Not. At. All.

    1. 🙂

      No. No, they didn’t.

      It’s a little depressing they’re not the superheroes we thought.

      And now, we have a chance to maybe do things differently with our children. Or just feel better because we’re not the only ones.

      I’m so glad you liked it. Thank you.

  6. I hate to tell you, but I’m in my early 50s and I still feel this way. And a lot of my friends (also in their 50s – and older) also feel this way. We’re all trying to figure out what we want to do when we grow up! When I was young, I thought the adults had it all figured out – the Great Answer – but there is no manual to this thing called LIfe and we just learn as we go…..

  7. Pingback: The Dead Birds | Must Be This Tall To Ride

  8. I am always telling my son to stop and enjoy his childhood, stop and enjoy being a teenager. Don’t get in such a rush for it to go away (we’ve worked hard so he can graduate early, on top of starting early, so he’d be 16 when he finished HS… ack! Fortunately, a great opportunity came up at school and he’s decided to go all four years and graduate at 17, but that’s only kinda the point). I tell him that I want him to be a teenager, and I’ll even give him extra rules just so he can break them! 🙂

    On the flip side, I’m so not an adult! 🙂 I may be older, but I’m sure not grown up!

    1. There is a LOT of awesome in that comment, Kate.

      Sounds like you have a pretty cool kid, and a parenting style that I very much admire.

      Appreciate you sharing that.

  9. Probably one of my favorite posts, well written.

    (look I’m not a writer per se or critic, just some random dude apparently with ADHD, but I liked the post and its message).

    I whole heartily agree and wish I’d known then what I know now – mainly that being a kid is more awesome than it sounds at the time. Luckily I can guide my kids a little bit and give them experiences that hopefully they will look fondly back upon. And help shape them to be balanced resilient adults.

    As for me (I have no qualms with talking about myself obviously), I also have been thinking lately that ~40 is a perfect age too…so there are peaks: one around 13, then at least another at 40, and probably a couple other in between depending on your life experience. Any way I think ~40 is a good chance to reinvent yourself while you can. Still time to pull levers and enact change before you seriously have to consider that you’ll drop dead at any point during the next 30 years.

    As someone who has been laid off, trying to run three less than stellar start-ups, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and sleeps alone with a cat, I can also say that adult hood in fact isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either – or at least not the rainbows and parades you think it will be when you’re a kid.

    I’ve written too much. Point is, your post is spot on. Thanks for writing it. Now where’s my cat…

  10. Thank you for that post. It is good to know that the changes I’m going through right now aren’t really changes but acceptance of exactly what you said today. Accept that I am not who I thought I would be and I am not where I thought I would be growing up. I am only 20 and I have some accepting to do! 😀

    1. Life throws you curveballs. And you’re NOT who you thought you’d be. Impossible to imagine yourself (the inside stuff) 10-15 years from now.

      But you get to choose who you strive to be.

      And that’s not such a bad thing.

      Appreciate your time and this note. Thank you for writing.

  11. Great post, I never thought I’d still feel like a child wearing an adult suit so much of the time when I thought how things would be when I ‘grew up’. Sometimes I surprise myself that I am an adult. I’ll be driving my car and think, “hang on I bought this myself from working at a job” . Sometimes at work I feel like I’m pretending, I’m a nurse and I’ll say something like, “I need you to review patient x his blood pressure is dropping” and a part of me still feels like a kid playing hospitals, like I can’t really be a grown woman with a responsible job, how did this happen?

  12. Matt as a 7th grade teacher I am always telling my students to slow down – they don’t listen, just like me and you. The older I get the less I know – but what I do, I know well. I wish I could go back to 7th grade, but once the genie is out of the bottle, it won’t nor can it go back in… So we have to do the best we can and continue to move forward – step by step

  13. Life is fucked up. It is confusing, awkward, difficult. It throws asinine curve-balls at the most inappropriate times. Life is brutal. Crushing. Overwhelming. It leaves you feeling worn. Beat up. Worked over. Lied to. But. Life is endlessly giving (even if it’s giving you lemons or a giant turd!). It is abundant with experience. Life can show you the wonders of nature and science. The beauty. Life can be awesome. Life is fucked up. And it will never change.
    “Ah ha” moment or not. We all want to master the illusion of being a grown up. What we often fail to realize is that we achieve a different kind of mastery – one over our lives, we gain the elusive control – as soon as we realize that life is what it is.

  14. It seems to come in stages. As a kid wondering what life will be like when I grow up. As a young adult enjoying some adult things but wondering what life will be like when I am an older “really grown up” adult. Then as that really grown up adult who has experienced things in life that only time can bring.

    If I could go back in time I would tell the young Vince to just enjoy life and don’t look ahead so far. Right here right now is where it’s at.

    I’ve experienced things I wish I hadn’t but I realize that right here right now really is where it’s at.

    1. Because you’re a person.

      And, even in my post cynical moments, I must admit: I love people.

      The beauty’s in the trying.

  15. Hi Matt. Excellent post! My father used to tell me “Don’t wish your life away.” And now I find myself telling my kids the same thing. Kind of reminds me of the movie, “Click.” Life is short and precious, and it goes by way too fast.

    I saw a birthday card that said “Most people grow older and wiser with age, but in your case… (turn the page) you are just growing older!” Confidentially, that kind of explains how I feel most of the time. 😉

    1. I love thinking about how similar we all are.

      There’s so much comfort in that on so many levels.

      Thanks for saying hi, Ron!

          1. Likely in the wrong decade as well. We were burning our bras, smoking things other than cigars, marching for the right to wear jeans to school instead of skirts (really, my first sit in 7th grade).

            We still got ‘real’ sex ed in the class room with pictures and everything.

          2. Now, you’re excellent taste and lifestyle choices (pool shark #misspentyouth) make even more sense.

            You’re just organically wise.

  16. This is a brilliant piece Matt. I am only 32 already divorced with a 4 year old princess. I used to daydream about a perfect happy family, a good job, nice house and 5 series(BMW)… Ah the perfect life!
    Reality check, wife left, job is a joke, rent is a killer and got 4 year ban from driving! Nothing is for sure, nothing is for certain except the rise and fall of the sun… And with that comes the knowledge… Hell! It’s another day get up get out and live!
    You don’t only live once but rather live everyday and die once!

    1. Thank you so much for the thoughtful, personal comment.

      Reality check, indeed.

      Embrace now. Make it the best we possibly can. And maybe tomorrow will be even better.

      I think that’s the game.

      None of my five-year plans have EVER worked out.

  17. I turned 59 just a couple of weeks back. And, you know, I’m still just making it up as I go along. If I live to be as old as my Dad was when he died (he nearly made it to 88) I reckon I might still be figuring it out then. I wonder if we ever do have it all figured out this side of Paradise. Or if, just maybe, even Methuselah still had a thing or three to learn when he finally passed on.

    1. Solid Methuselah reference, sir. That made me smile.

      What was his reported age? 900 and change, right? And thousands of years before erectile dysfunction pills! Brutal.

      In all seriousness. Thank you. It’s comforting to read that (as I’ve grown to suspect) this is just how it always is. That we never feel like we’ve arrived.

      Appreciate you taking the time to read and write these comments. Thank you very much.

  18. Nice post Matt. I’m glad you seem to have got the blockage out of your system… I think you might have been overthinking things for a while back there. The figuring out that you’ll never figure it out is indeed a great lightbulb moment. It’s great to see so many of us feel the same way.

    And as for the feeling weird bit.. I hope you don’t mind me doing this but I have a drawing specially for those moments…

    1. You sharing your work? Me mind?

      Please. I’m so glad you did. I like it very much.

      I always want you, and everyone else, to share their work here if you want, especially if it’s relevant to the conversation.

      Thank you so much for checking in and doing so. 🙂

      1. Matt, I have you to thank for the ‘sharing your work’ thing.. I devoured the Austin Kleon book and started sharing. The upshot was my own little ‘freshly pressed’ moment yesterday., the makers of the app that I use for sketching out ideas and illustrations, tweeted me and asked to feature my work in their app… if you have a look here at my last two posts you pretty much get the picture.. I was beyond thrilled.

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