When I Grow Up

I mean, the other Great Revelation of Adulthood is that you are more or less not going to get it right.

You are going to fuck it up. You are not going to get to do half of the things you wanted to do. You are going to find yourself barreling down a completely unexpected path, and it is not going to look like anything you imagined, and it is going to be your job to figure out how to love it anyway.

Which isn’t to say that there is no way to, you know, control your life. You have responsibility. You make the decisions. If you screw it up, you’re the one who screwed it up; if you make yourself happy, you’re the one who brought that happiness in. You’re the captain of this ship, and you point it whichever way you want it to turn.


I recently saw a really wonderful Broadway show, If/Then; it stars Idina Menzel, and it tells the story of her character, Elizabeth, and the two separate paths her life can take. In one of them, Elizabeth has a fantastic career as a city planner; in another, a loving marriage and family. And the two paths, the show tells us, diverge for the simplest reason: in one timeline Elizabeth goes with her friend Kate to listen to a guitarist in the park and ignores a phone call—and in the other timeline, she picks up the phone.

If/Then takes the role of chance in your life to the extreme; there’s no way Elizabeth could have known that the phone call would mean an exciting job opportunity, or that waiting in the park would give her the chance to see her future husband.

But at the same time—life is so much more dependent on chance, and so much more dependent on the small decisions, than any of us can really comprehend.

You draw up a picture for how your life is going to work; you say, “When I grow up I’m going to be this-or-that”, and you determine that it’s going to happen. You organize your life around a few simple goals—live in New York, become a writer, do well enough to live in a small apartment with, like, a cat—and make that the end point, and everything else a stop on the road. You see the big picture.

Turns out, all that gets you is a lot of worrying about whether you’re heading in the right direction. Whether you’re making the right decision. Whether you’re doing it right.

So: you are more or less not going to get it right.

You’re going to fuck it up. You’re not going to achieve half of your Goals, or you’re not going to do them on the timeline you wanted to. You thought it was going to be like driving down a long highway, and instead it’s like pushing your way through a forest, blindly, in the dark.

You’re not going to get it right.

But even if you could start from point A and reach point B, even if you could see the Big Picture: you wouldn’t want to.

The Big Picture is awful. The Big Picture is tiring. The Big Picture makes you worry, all the time, about whether or not you’re still on the right path. The Big Picture makes you believe that there is such a thing as the right decision. And there’s not, there’s not, there’s only a hundred right-ish decisions, and every one of them will make you happy, and every one of them will make you sad.

The Big Picture means that you’re worrying, all the time, about whether this decision is Right, or whether it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

But you have to do what seems like a good idea at the time. You have to, because you don’t have another choice. You have to make yourself happy now. You have to do what you know you want, instead of what you think might be the correct decision.

You have to make a lot of Small Pictures, and hope they add up to something beautiful.

And you’re going to get it wrong. You’re going to fuck it up. You’re going to go somewhere you didn’t expect, and you’re going to end up someplace you never, ever planned.

And you have to learn to love it. Just like you learned to love everything else.


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