What Does “Adult” Mean Today?

If Adults Won’t Grow Up, Nobody Will

Because they don’t do tragedy. They do children’s clothes.

With that sentence, Peggy Noonan makes the point I’ve been trying to drive home in my posts about the YouTube shooting.

But she’s very wrong when she cites attire as a symbol of being grown-up.

She mistakes East Coast Style for West Coast Style.

I won’t say it’s always been the case that the west coast has dressed casually. Hollywood studio heads — when the studios were still studios, generally owned or at least still headed by their founders — used to wear suits to signal their authority. But the creative people — the ones who actually made the money that made the studios possible — tended towards casual dress.

That’s because the gestalt on the west coast is far different from that of the east coast. The east coast is all about corporate finance, while the west has been about self-expression through art. Even back in the old Hollywood studio days, the studio heads had to answer to the moneymen in their east coast offices.

Here’s something interesting she points out:

Tim Cook of Apple, in an impressive and sober interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, said last week something startling, almost revolutionary: “Privacy to us is a human right.”

That stance by Apple started with Steve Jobs. But given how Jobs kept his illness secret from the world, I have to wonder if he would have still felt that way if he had not developed cancer. How important was privacy to Jobs before he had an illness to hide? Jobs was not someone to play by The Rule Book.

She opens her column with this:

I want to write about something I think is a problem in our society, that is in fact at the heart of many of our recent scandals, and yet is obscure enough that it doesn’t have a name. It has to do with forgetting who you are. It has to do with refusing to be fully adult and neglecting to take on, each day, the maturity, grace and self-discipline that are expected of adults and part of their job.

There are two separate issues there.

The first is “forgetting who you are.” This is easy for the tech titans to do. They came about their riches with more speed than has ever been seen in world history. Plus, as techies, they tend to see the world differently to begin with. Their worldview is not exactly a meritocracy nor a hierarchy, but one of argument. That’s because they deal with ideas, not rules. And it doesn’t matter who has the best idea. The tech titans just see themselves as, more or less, just another person with an idea. The outsider in the group is actually Tim Cook, who was never a techie. He’s always been corporate and didn’t grow rich through his own creations. He became an adult well before his ascendancy at Apple.

The second is “refusing to be fully adult.” Well, that’s because many became rich before they ever developed into adults. And once rich, a person easily becomes isolated. Being rich ends the struggle that leads to seeing how to deal with the adult world. It’s too easy to remain a brat. But she’s wrong when she thinks its “obscure enough that it doesn’t have a name.” It does and she should know it: The Peter Pan Syndrome. She and I are close enough in age for her to have encountered that term in the 1970s. Plus, she’s read Jordan Peterson’s book, where he makes the point about the Peter Pan character in the Disney movie symbolizing the refusal to grow up. She can be excused for that lapse, however.

Her column is an odd mix of appearance and behavior. The two should never be mixed. These are very different issues. It’s entirely possible to dress in “soft clothing” yet have an adult’s view of the world. Likewise, it’s entirely possible to be festooned with all of the appearance of adulthood — the suits that she is so enamored of in her column — yet be even less mature than a Mark Zuckerberg. Take a stroll among the brokers on Wall Street to confirm this. The dissonance would make her head explode.

So what exactly does it mean to be “adult” today? What did “adult” ever mean anyway? Who defines what “adult” is?

Because my own issue with “being adult” leads to thoughts of suffocating creativity.

Walt Disney’s father saw Walt as being foolish. His “adult” father could never see the value in what his son wanted to do with his life. Walt’s “foolishness” created an empire that outlived him. And the only reason Walt’s father is even remembered today is because he both fathered and tormented the young Walt.

And what of George Lucas, at the time he was creating Star Wars? Until his movie broke all box office records and upset all past Hollywood thinking, movies that dealt with outer space were seen as “childish.” How much of an “adult” was Lucas for even wanting to do such a movie?

And what are we to think of people who write and draw comic books? Are they not “adult?” Well, what were considered the trash books of the past have now spawned incredible amounts of money. Money is usually a banal yardstick people pull out to measure “adulthood.”

And here’s a newsflash for Peggy Noonan, who I’m sure is using a Macintosh these days. When the graphical user interface (GUI) of the Lisa and Mac were unveiled to the world, it was scorned by those using PCs with its commnand-line DOS. A GUI was seen as something for morons and “children.” Had that attitude prevailed, the world would be a very impoverished place today. Go on, try to handle audio, video, and graphics (which includes mapping) with just a command-line!

Going further back, IBM and its cohorts in the field of computing laughed at microcomputers — as they were called back then — as being “toys for children.”

Had those who saw themselves as “adults” prevailed in the cases I’ve cited above, what kind of a world would we be stuck with today?

What is my own definition of being “adult?” It starts with one simple principle: Having the courage to say “I don’t know” more than saying “I know.”

Because the one damned overall lesson of growing up is to know how much you don’t know.

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