As I’ve mentioned many times before on this site, I don’t have a degree. And while receiving your diploma and walking across a stage is not a perfect segue into adulthood, nor does it mean you suddenly occupy a space labeled “adult” instead of “child,” it certainly helps provide a marker along the way. I’ve never had much in the way of road signs on my way to where I am now, a 26-year-old owner of two businesses (TFD and a personal LLC, which I’ll do a breakdown of soon), which means that I often find myself with a healthy dose of impostor syndrome and inability to trust my own decisions. While I by no means wish I had a degree because I don’t think it would help me in what I do today, I do sometimes imagine that having had a clear moment where I went from “learner” to “doer” might be helpful. As it happens, I dropped out of school to start writing professionally, and everything has just kind of happened along the way after that.
Which means that, at no point was I given a clear and direct reason to feel empowered to “finally think like an adult.” Yes, I technically held a Director title at the end of my last job, but all that taught me — in terms of empowerment — is that titles, no matter how nice they are, don’t imbue you with a magical ability to trust yourself and make clear decisions. They simply add pressure and responsibility, and maybe you will rise to the challenge, but maybe you won’t. In my case, I didn’t feel more like a Director just because I now had it on my business cards. And ultimately, having my own thing was more what I wanted to do anyway. It all worked out, but I still didn’t enter into entrepreneurship with a magical certainty that I was a Boss capable of making Boss Decisions.
The same goes for finances. I’m totally open about my shitty history with personal finance (hence the blog, heh), and though I am much better about things now — I pay my cards religiously, I have a bit of savings, I have control over my spending and have increased my earnings — I still don’t feel like an adult in that regard, either. Sure, I shouldn’t feel like I know everything about money, but when I look at my boyfriend, who is excellent with money, I know that I have a long way to go in terms of confidence. I go to him with a lot of financial and professional questions, and trust his answers implicitly, in part because he does, as well. Maybe a little of this is that good ol’ ~male privilege~, but I think that he genuinely trusts himself because he has proved to himself that his decisions are worth trusting, and knows that he must advocate for himself, because no one else will.
Not trusting oneself, of course, can have dire consequences. I’ve worked for much less than I was worth, even when I doubted the situation initially, because I assumed I must be wrong. I agreed to a predatory credit card with poor terms because the charming banker, in my mind, must have known better than I. I’ve gone against my gut a million times, not spoken up about things at work that I felt should have been addressed, not advocating for myself properly in negotiations, and missing out on, almost certainly, a lot of money along the way. My feeling like a child — without a degree, without what I perceived to be any real claim to adulthood — has kept me in a defensive and even dangerous position when it comes to my career and finances. And I imagine it might have for you, as well.
But having my own business(es) now, I no longer have the ability to not act and treat myself like an adult. I’ve gone into many meetings and negotiations in the past six months alone that required of me a certain amount of confidence and certainty about worth. I’ve had to walk away from things because they were either not financially smart, or too taxing on my resources (time or otherwise). I’ve had to engage with professionals and experts, both ones I pay and ones who are paying me. I’ve had to decide how to allocate a lump sum of money in the form of a grant. I’ve been in uncomfortable positions where I’ve had to, professionally speaking, fight back. None of these things are something I felt prepared to do, but they were simply things I had to do because my future depended on them. I had help, and trusted advisers, and my partner, Lauren. But ultimately, we all must speak for ourselves and trust our ability to make these decisions, or we will miss out on the huge rewards they can bring.
The truth is, I don’t believe that anyone truly feels like an adult. But you must behave like one, at least outwardly. You must speak calmly, clearly, and professionally — but never aggressively or emotionally — and advocate for your own interests. You must ask questions. You must remain thoughtful and calm in the face of aggression or resistance. You must treat people, and demand to be treated, with a level of respect and understanding. Otherwise, if you demonstrate the frail, apologetic nature of a child, you will be treated as one. While not everyone you will encounter in your professional and financial lives are out to get you, nearly everyone is protecting their own interest above everyone else’s, and that is something that we must always be prepared for. Because being afraid to speak up and initiate action means that someone else will do it, and you will be on the receiving end of whatever they choose.
Fake it til you make it is a real thing, never more so than in the transition to adulthood and all the responsibilities it comes with. Suddenly everyone is faced with everything from finding a place to live to negotiating a good salary to paying off debt, and no one was ever properly taught how to do it. But many of us sell ourselves incredibly short because we’re afraid to ask even basic questions, or raise an issue that could make all the difference for our work lives. Even when I held a Director title, I felt like the kid-trapped-in-a-grown-up body. It’s natural to be that way at 25, and it’s possible to never grow out of it. But having been thrown into the deep end of the professional world, and having to make calls on things I could have never anticipated even a year ago, I’ll never again make the mistake of underestimating myself. Because if we don’t know exactly what we are worth, and are not willing to fight to get it, no one will ever give it to us.