There are several birthdays in life that are supposed to signify adulthood in various ways, milestones we pass and then view from the other side, not feeling all that much different. I thought something big would happen at 18, or 21, or 25, and they didn’t, of course. Maturity doesn’t happen when you blow out a certain number of candles; it strikes you at various moments when you are suddenly faced with the freedom to make certain choices, or the responsibility to take on others. It’s a subtle shift in your perception of things, or a feeing of calm confidence that used to escape you when you were younger, and distinctly spazzier. I’m 26 now, which is by all reasonable measures still very young, but only a year before my parents had me, and two years after they got married. I could very well be dealing with much more adult things than I am now, and perhaps I would feel even more mature and capable if I were. But I’m not, and I feel pretty good where I am.
Part of this is doing work I enjoy, which I recognize as a luxury and privilege that many people don’t have. Sure, I don’t have total autonomy in the projects I take on — I still have rent to pay, after all — but I can make my own schedule, and work on things I love and care about most of the time, and make my whole living writing. It’s certainly a huge boost in confidence, and in making me feel like I have achieved some nebulous level of adulthood.
But more than that, I feel secure in where I am in life — and propelled forward towards the dreams I still have — by the tribe I have chosen to surround myself with. I have talked before about the important shift in my life when I moved to a new country and started from zero in terms of friends, but it’s not just something that takes place when you begin freshly in a totally new geographic space. It’s also something that happens mentally, when you escape, if not your hometown itself, the hometown mindset that keeps you locked into the same routines, the same obligations, and the same horizons. (For what it’s worth, I know many people who still live in my hometown because they love it — and Annapolis is easy to love — but who are not at all bound to this mentality and have forged exciting new lives and tribes within it.)
Social media tends to burden us with this idea that we are closer to people than we actually are, that because we have seen the lives of acquaintances unfold before us we owe them some kind of weight in our lives, or that their opinions should be meaningful to us. We become caught in the web of obligation to withering social groups, or norms that we feel we must follow because of the hypothetical judgment of others. And while some friends will follow us naturally from grammar school to adulthood because we love them and are truly well-matched, there are many others who tend to linger on the periphery of our social group because it would feel wrong to cut them, and even subconsciously, their existence fills our own sense of horizon and purpose.
I recently went back to my hometown for a weekend, and was struck by how nice it was to see the town on my own terms, to see the people I wanted to see, to run into happy old acquaintances, to stay with friends who have grown into thoughtful and kind adults. It was wonderful being able to see the place I grew up without the baggage of necessity, of feeling that I had to say hello to this person, or to invite that person. And this can only come from creating a new tribe, in much the same way: by choosing who makes you grow and who you aspire to be more like, and remembering that you do not owe your time or your emotional energy to anyone.
Your tribe should be a mix of people from all elements of your self — your hobbies, your job, your old friends and new — all of whom bring something essential to your social life, and bring out the best elements of your personality. One might be the person with whom you work hard and strive for more in the professional world; one might be the person with whom you can have emotionally restorative and thoughtful talks. One person might remind you to be fun and enjoy your youth, while the other might remind you that you have so much you can still achieve if you make mature decisions. In my personal tribe, I would say I have about 10 close people, nearly all women, with whom I can talk freely about everything from my relationship to my bank account. This summer, Marc and I are engaging in one of those scary-but-rewarding friendship milestones and taking a very diverse group of friends away to a beach house for a week or so. It’s one of those things that feels adult not because you can afford it (which is its own milestone), but because you know that everyone you are bringing is open-minded, mature, and the kind of person you would feel comfortable dropping in a house with strangers for a vacation. And to be fair, we’ve done the vacation thing twice before, and the groups did not gel as well because we simply weren’t yet that good at choosing the right combination. You live and you learn.
In the end, I have a long way to grow, and much more to learn about becoming an adult — particularly in the financial sense. But shedding the notion that I have to hold onto every social contact and remain in the same space mentally has done wonders for making me grow as it stands. I have learned to be smarter with money, more confident at work, and more demanding of emotional maturity and mutual respect. I no longer have friends that treat me like shit, as many young adults tend to keep around, because I have no need for them. And neither do you. We can select each person we want to surround ourselves with intentionally, and create a tight-knit second family of people who make us better people. We may have been raised with some great friends, but that doesn’t have to be the extent of who we love. We can be so much bigger, and so much better, than where we started.