Mid-20’s life can feel like an eternal hamster wheel of confusion, doubt, and the insufferably looped-thought that everyone else has it way more together than you do. Should you be soul-searching for your dream job? Does everyone else eat frozen burritos for dinner? Why does [insert name of impossibly chic/poised/glam friend here] always look so put together? 28-year-old writer Kelly Williams Brown has obviously suffered through these questions, and in her book, Adulting How To Become a Grown-Up In 468 Easy(Ish) Steps), she breaks down growing up. The end product is a user-friendly, and super comforting, beginner’s guide to managing these early days of adulthood.
To make the book pop, Williams Brown employs two millennial favorites: the list format, and real talk. Her 468 steps touch on the practical (“Buy toilet paper in bulk.”), the romantic (“Don’t hook up with anyone in your office, no matter how exciting the prospect.”), and the life-alteringly crucial (“No one, ever, will set boundaries for you. So learn to set them yourself.”). You might not be a grown up when you finish the book, but at the very least you'll know you're not the only person out there who (occassionaly) has Diet Coke for breakfast.
Williams Brown e-mailed with PolicyMic about all of her adulting tips, and how her 2011 nugget of a book idea turned into the real thing.
Elena Sheppard (ES): Tell us a little about the Adulting journey. How did this idea become a full-fledged book?
Kelly Williams Brown (KWB): Sure! So I had this idea and it would’ve been like all of my ideas — where there is a three week period of great enthusiasm followed by complete and total abandonment — except I’d told my mother about it.
She decided, for my birthday, to send me to the Willamette Writer’s Conference in Portland, Oregon. Before the conference, I read up on how to write a book proposal (though truly, I had no idea — what I had before the conference was 8 pages; what I ended up sending to publishers was more than 70).
While I was there, I met with some literary agents who were really enthusiastic about the idea, and ended up with Brandi Bowles at Foundry Literary in New York. She whipped me (and my proposal) into shape, sent it out to publishers, and in early October 2011, it was sold at auction.
ES: What was the first moment in your life when you looked at yourself and truly thought, “OK, I’m a grown up now”?
KWB: For me, I really felt it on Sept. 8, 2006. After a LOT of applications and tears, I had gotten my foot in the newspaper door — I was hired to be a county reporter for the Hattiesburg American in Hattiesburg, Miss.
And on that day, I had moved into my tiny carriage house apartment, moved my furniture in (well, OK — my mattress was on the floor and tiny dresser held maybe 29% of my total clothes, the rest of which were folded in neat-ish piles on the floor) and was ready for my first day of grown-up employment.
I was so happy and so terrified at the same time.
ES: If you had to choose the single most important step from your 468 steps, which would it be?
KWB: Eeeesh, that’s a tough one. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to adulthood, and something that’s really hard/important for one person might be obvious/accomplished when you were 6 for someone else.
I think something that was really important for me, personally, was realizing that despite what my parents/professors told me, I was not terribly special and really had to be humble when I started my adult life. No, I was not going to go write for the New York Times. No, I would not have a fabulous apartment. No, I would not always successfully pay for chicken at Popeyes without having my debit card declined (OK, maybe that last one was just me).
I, like everyone, had to begin at the beginning and work hard while accepting that I did not deserve the things I wanted. There was no gold star for trying. I could either succeed or fail, but even if I didn’t succeed, I couldn’t expect kudos for just doing my job.
ES: Was there ever a moment in writing when you felt like you really couldn’t do it anymore? How did you get beyond that?
KWB: Yes! Pretty much once a week, I had to have what I dubbed my “I’m a sham” breakdown. I would come home from interviewing, say, a financial planner and then think about the fact that I hadn’t contributed to my 401(k) in months and instead had spent $200 on vintage dresses. Cue “Who ammmm I, I can’t tell annnnyone annnnnything” hissy fit.
But the truth is that the reason I was qualified to write this book is not that I’m an exemplar adult. It’s that I am a reporter who knows how to find experts and normal people, assemble a whole bunch of info and then turn it around into something readable, useful, and true.
So when I had a meltdown, I just reminded myself that, look: you can’t undo a mistake you made. What you CAN do is take this advice and apply it now, give yourself a small break (because there will never be a time where I am the most frugal, reasonable person when it comes to money) and be honest with people that money is hard for lots of people. If you’re one of them, just do what you can.
ES: Your book is definitely part of a larger conversation about our generation and our alleged self-involvement, or our inability to grow up. Do you think we deserve all the flack we get?
KWB: No. Short answer, no I don’t. But every generation has to deal with the ones above them complaining about how unprecedentedly awful they are. It’s lazy trend journalism that moves magazines and allows people to feel smug and superior by stereotyping a big group.
Don’t get me wrong: Millenials have some work to do. But … we’re also in our 20s, which is not a group famed for their selflessness.
ES: If you could set the record straight on one common misconception about our generation what would it be?
KWB: There is nothing uniquely wrong with us. Also, having a discussion about self-absorbedness in early 20-somethings is like having a discussion about surliness in teenagers.
ES: Now let’s play a game. There are tons of things that 20-somethings do every day and I want your expert opinion on whether or not these are things that are OK for grown ups to do:
Charge $2 on your credit card at CVS:
KWB: I personally cannot knock this one, as I do it at least twice a week. It’s a jerky move if it’s a mom-and-pop store, where they pay so much for credit card fees. But I think CVS is probably doing OK. Then again, if you get in the habit of carrying $10 in cash, then this won’t be necessary.
ES: Go out ‘til 1 a.m. on a work night.
KWB: You can do this once a quarter. Choose wisely!
ES: Take something dirty out of the hamper ‘cause you really want to wear it.
KWB: Are y’all watching me? Ugh. I don’t do this anymore, BUT I will handwash just the things I want to wear, or steam the dry-clean-only thing so it gets fresh.
ES: Pretend you’re not home when someone you don’t want to see (like an ex-boyfriend, or a creditor) rings the doorbell?
KWB: Totally reasonable! It’s your house. You don’t have to let anyone in.
ES: A lot of our readers are also writers. What’s your advice for young people interested in writing (and publishing!) a book? Do you believe in the power of blogs?
KWB: You know, I started my blog semi-cynically. I already had the book idea in mind, and really thought of it as a book, but then again, there can be no non-fiction from 20-something women unless it is first a blog.
BUT! But. My blog became, to me, the most important part of this project because of the amazing readers. Having a big group to suggest steps, weigh in on the ones I already had and call me on it when I was wrong is invaluable as a writer.
Besides which, if you want to write a book, there is absolutely no reason not to blog. It’s a way to be accountable to someone besides yourself, a way to practice, a way to sort our your ideas and concepts before they’re set in stone and shipped to Barnes & Noble.
ES: What’s next on the horizon for you? I read that your book was optioned by J.J. Abrams for a TV show?
KWB: Well, there’s not too much movement on the TV front right now. But I’m staying busy by writing for magazines, working at my day job as a creative at Leopold Ketel, a great Portland boutique ad agency, and working on my next book project.
ES: Lastly, any final words for all of us out there on the cusp of adulthood? Anything we NEED to do right now to be real-life grown-ups?
KWB: There are lots of things you probably should do, but the most important thing is knowing you can. It’s not as complicated as it looks — it’s just making small, good decisions every day.