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Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner Ph.D.

Definition of a successful adult: Part I

Success in adulthood is defined by...

I hear it from both sides.

From 20-somethings: Every time someone asks me what I am doing with my life I say something different. The truth is, I don't know what I am doing. Why is it so hard? I'm really scared that nothing is going to turn out the way I want it to. I don't know where to start.

From parents: I never thought having a 20-something would be this hard. How much should I be worried? I don't know what to tell her. She has no direction of her own. Everything that comes out of his mouth is crap; he never does anything he says he is going to do.

Negotiating the transition to adulthood is no small task. It's a life task. One of life's big, important challenges.

But when people want advice on how to help young people during these years, including young people themselves, what they are really asking me is-how can I help them succeed?

My response is this: we don't know. We don't know what defines success in adulthood, so it's not that easy to tell someone how to get there.

When I say that we (psychologists who research these issues) don't know, it's not that I don't want to be helpful. I do.

My position is this: saying that we don't know something is the most helpful we can be when we really don't know.

Not knowing should help reduce the expectation that there are rules that are being ignored. It should reduce the stress that one is doing it "wrong."

How can we know how to help someone achieve success in adulthood when we don't know how to measure it?

Recognizing that we don't know something should encourage us to think about what we think we know. Coming from a place of not knowing should force us to challenge our assumptions and be more comfortable considering the different ways of approaching the issue.

Last, accepting that we don't know, and that what we think we know is based on values should encourage us to set goals for better understanding how it is we can define successful adulthood. If it is a goal to help them become successful adults, we are encouraged to consider where we are sending them.

Which of the following are necessary components of a successful adulthood? Which ones are missing?

Success in adulthood is defined by...

• educational and occupational achievement.
• health and healthy behaviors; taking care of one's self.
• maturity.
• an absence of problems.
• having good friends.
• finding a love partner.
• mental health, not being depressed or anxious, not drinking too much.
• staying youthful.
• knowing who you are-figuring out your identity.
• disconnecting from/remaining connected to your parents/loving your parents in a different way.
• being responsible.
• doing what you want to do.

So, this one goes out to you, what does it mean to be a successful adult? What's most important?


About the Author

Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner, Ph.D., is an applied developmental psychologist at Rutgers University.