When I first graduated from university in 2019, I was on top of the world. I had won awards, gotten a first class honours, and was even a board director.
I thought that moving into work would bring me the same amount of success.
I promptly fell into depression when I came back to Singapore to start working. It was ironic that one day, I was jetting across the world like a seasoned executive (only that I was a jobless student looking for a job)… and a few weeks later, I was seated in front of the psychiatrist, being prescribed anti-depressants.
Getting you ready for adulthood is not something that university will naturally prepare you for, given that the most important thing for them is ensuring that you get a job.
Universities are often rated on how high their graduate salaries are, and the percentage of their graduates in full-time employment.
That’s why you will see them sending you surveys post-graduation (and of course reminders to donate).
This article aims to get you ready, whatever stage of life you’re at.
Adulting is a mindset, and not an age.
More than a how-to guide, this serves as a series of first principles that will help you to make your transition smoother.
But first off, why listen to me?
I got sacked in my first part-time job. In my first fulltime job, I was so bad that I was issued with a Performance Improvement Plan (a get better or get sacked plan).
You might think that I’m the worst example to follow.
But I’d urge you to have a read, because different from the authors on the shelves who talk about how successful they’ve been at their career, I’m someone who’s failed multiple times at my career.
That gives me skin in the game.
And as someone who’s spent $10,000 (yes that’s why I’m eating tuna in cans) on writing a book on adulting, I hope it shows that I’m that interested in supporting you in your journey.
But enough about me.
Care for yourself first
Don’t tell anyone I did this. But as you grow up, you will find yourself being invited to more weddings.
And in Singapore, you’re expected to give money to wish the bride/groom well.
Well, I love the friends who invited me for their weddings.
But I didn’t give them any money.
Please don’t tell them!
At that time, I had just quit my job, and with no certainty over my income, I had to keep every penny. Especially when I was already living on tuna cans.
But I share this story because I want you to know that it’s okay.
It’s okay to care for yourself, over and above the needs of the people around you.
Preparing yourself for adulthood is realising that you come first. As you grow up, you may have been used to people telling you what to do, and begrudgingly… you listen to them.
After all, when they are your parents, you have to.
But what do you do when you grow up, and can finally spread your wings? It’s not about not listening to them.
It’s recognising that you can listen to them, and still not do what they say.
It’s recognising your needs come first.
Be ready for a life without answers
Growing up is neat and tidy. Just move from grade to grade, do your exams, and rise steadily.
Not so in adulthood.
It’s not that tidy. There’s no answers.
How do you get ready for that?
There’s value in telling yourself that not everything you do will work, and being willing to see that as a learning experience, rather than a failure. When you do that, you start to make things open-ended, and allow yourself to learn from what you’re doing.
When I left my first job, I was distraught. I had spent the 6 months prior to apply for 52 jobs.
And for the first 4 months after, I was rejected by all the jobs I applied for.
You may be facing the same. It is painful.
And it’s embarrassing.
You might be used to asking people ‘how to…’ but that’s the perfectly wrong question to ask. Asking an entrepreneur how to be successful is not going to help you be successful.
I’m not trying to frustrate you. But telling you what to do with your life, writing a listicle of easy answers you can use in your adulting journey is easier than trying to explain to you the principles that will help you.
There are no simple answers to life, and the faster you realise that, the faster you will transit better to adulthood.
How you approach the problems you face in adulthood will depend on your worldview, your experiences, and how you’ve failed in the past. You will be unique. Giving you my unique experiences may help me, but it’s definitely not going to help you.
Stop complaining and do something
As a social worker, I had the chance to listen to many people’s problems.
As a writer today, I get the chance to see bigger scale problems in person.
In these two jobs, I realised that the difference between problems, and possibilities, were the people who were willing to get their hands dirty and do something.
Often when you’re amongst groups of people, you would hear people complaining. Those people will probably not get anything done. They are content with sitting there, complaining about their jobs, but when you present them a solution like ‘Why don’t you just quit?’, they will hem and haw.
They aren’t willing to make the changes that are painful but helpful, and only willing to sit in their chairs complaining.
So stop listening to them, and get away from them.
The people you spend time with will determine your success in adulting
Transiting to adulthood will depend a large part on who you spend time with.
You know the oft cited advice.
You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.
When I first left my job, I was lost. And broke, earning barely $700 a month.
But my friend, an entrepreneur, shared that he also began this way.
Earning barely a thousand dollars a month, he slowly built it to a million. Then 5 million.
You get the idea.
He inspired me to see that preparing yourself for adulthood was less about the paycheck, but more about doing something you want.
Ultimately the question you need to ask yourself is,
What do you want?
Because if you don’t know what you want, it doesn’t matter where you go.
If you want something average, hang out with more average people. If you want an abnormal, outsized outcome, like getting very rich, very fast, you need to find people who are ahead of you by one or two steps. Don’t find Elon Musk if you’re trying to be rich (and not yet rich). He’s probably thinking on a different stratosphere to you.
But find the local businessman who’s managed to make a living and thrive.
Preparing yourself for adulthood is finding the right people to journey with you, so that you can grow from them. This journey is best taken together.
Stop copying people, build yourself
As you become an adult, you will realise that the world is going to tell you things. Like this or that is important.
You should go into computer programming! Because that’s the latest hottest field!
When I first chose social work as a course, I remember one parent (I won’t tell you who, but you can probably guess) that told me,
Can choose medicine, law, or engineering, don’t know why choose social work…
If I had listened to this parent, I would probably be half of where I am today.
People you respect are going to tell you to copy, copy, copy.
If you do, you would be living a life you hate.
Adulting is about embracing what you have, not what others want you to have.
When I first quit my job, I remember a friend telling me
Do you know you have to contribute to your CPF (retirement sum)?
How are you going to buy a house?
How long can you survive?
The natural advice is for you to do what everyone is doing, because that’s what is safe.
Preparing yourself for adulthood is about doing something that’s true to you, to who you are, and owning what you have.
So many of us fail growing up because we are issued report cards that are marked according to what the world marks as ‘good’ – like academic grades, degrees you have, or the number in your bank account.
Nah. You can have all of that and still not be happy.
Better yet, do something that really excites you.
When I quit my job (again, please don’t see this as advice to quit), I finally found myself again. The money was slow.
But it was something that fired me up everyday, especially when I saw how readers would write to me. You can have that too. As long as you work at it.
Adulthood is not easy, accept it
This journey you’re on is not going to be easy. It’s not meant to be.
In fact, in ‘Fathered by God’, John Eldredge frames the journey as:
I remember the moment when I felt I’d achieved a breakthrough in my adulting.
It was the time in February 2020. I had been taking antidepressants for 4 months, since returning back to Singapore in September 2019 to take on my first fulltime job.
There were days when I wanted to give up. I wondered why it wasn’t easier.
But that evening, I laughed for the first time in many months. It wasn’t a lousy laugh.
It was good, full-blooded, and entirely strong.
That reminded me of the time when I saw the breakthrough. That finally in fighting depression for so many months, I had finally gotten a breakthrough.
Don’t stop fighting in your journey. It is hard. It won’t get easier, but you will get stronger.