How to Become a Grown-up in 535 Easy(ish) Steps


By Kelly Williams Brown

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 7, 2013. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

From breaking up with frenemies to fixing your toilet, this way fun comprehensive handbook is the answer for aspiring grown-ups of all ages.

If you graduated from college but still feel like a student . . . if you wear a business suit to job interviews but pajamas to the grocery store . . . if you have your own apartment but no idea how to cook or clean . . . it's OK. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Just because you don't feel like an adult doesn't mean you can't act like one. And it all begins with this funny, wise, and useful book. Based on Kelly Williams Brown's popular blog, Adulting makes the scary, confusing "real world" approachable, manageable—and even conquerable. This guide will help you to navigate the stormy Sea of Adulthood so that you may find safe harbor in Not Running Out of Toilet Paper Bay, and along the way you will learn:
  • What to check for when renting a new apartment—not just the nearby bars, but the faucets and stove, among other things.
  • When a busy person can find time to learn more about the world (It involves the intersection of NPR and hair-straightening.)
  • How to avoid hooking up with anyone in your office—imagine your coworkers having plastic, featureless doll crotches. It helps.
  • The secret to finding a mechanic you love—or, more realistically, one that will not rob you blind.


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Table of Contents


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What's that you say? You're a colossal sham who will never have your life in order? One who eats microwave taquitos in lieu of breakfast? One who has many dead bugs trapped between the windowpanes in your bedroom, which doesn't make sense, because how did they even get there? One whose actions do not reflect the fact that, chronologically, you are absolutely, completely, and undeniably an adult?

Yes. Of course you think that. Everyone does. There is not one adult on this earth who has not felt the deep, unsettling feeling that their life is wobbly and unmanageable, no matter how diligently they sort the recycling and iron their sensible slacks. This is supported by the popular, though incorrect, perception that you're surrounded by people who have it together while you flop around like a fish who can't remember to pay her water bill.

We look jealously around at others, noting their lack of grubby visible bra straps or crusty under-eye mascara sprinkles, and it's hard not to be resentful. Why you and not me? you think, squinting angrily at this person who probably has a beautiful apartment and an actual career and a boyfriend who never uses a skateboard to go from place to place.

But perhaps he has $12.37 in his checking account, or she has no idea how to cook anything, or he slowly lets his car rot from inside rather than pony up the thirty bucks to get the oil changed. Chances are good that person is looking at you the same way.

We all sense our own dysfunction so clearly. And because we can't do that one thing—whether it be keeping a clean house, not feeling shy and awkward at work, or having a credit score of 750—we assign it a high priority on our own personal Things That You Must Be Good At If You Wish To Be A Functional Adult list. We don't remember the fourteen things we do reasonably well; we remember our one arena of miserable failure.

There are certain parts of being a grown-up that come easily to us, and some that… don't. When I asked people what advice they have, they'd say, "Well, this probably seems really obvious, but [thing that was not at all obvious but afterward did, in fact, seem obvious and a little embarrassing that someone had to tell a twenty-seven-year-old]."

For example, I am really, really bad at keeping my house clean. I am good at lots of things, but noticing dirt in crevices is not one of them. In fact, I do not even see the crevice itself. It may as well not exist. So while I don't need to worry about, say, honing my thank-you-note-writing skills, I do need to figure out how to see the crevices that others do. Then I have to remind myself of those crevices, at least once a week.

It is these small discoveries and decisions that, in the end, allow you to behave like an adult. It's developing those good habits; it's having toast with peanut butter instead of cigarettes for breakfast. It's not always, or even usually, fun. But it has perks—personal pride, financial security, and the feeling of accomplishment and control that comes when you just swap in a new toilet paper roll rather than resorting to fast-food napkins.

You can't control the economy, or whether you're single, or when your cat decides to vomit neon orange tummy contents onto your white rug. What is she even eating that is that color? But there are lots of things you can control, and lots of decisions are up to you.

It feels like there are all these things that People Should Know, and if you don't know them, it means you're stupid. You're not. Not knowing how to sew on a button isn't the end of the world. Just figure out how to sew it on rather than obsessing about why you don't know, then tumbling down into the Why Am I Like This Canyon. Fill that gap, and then not only will you know how to sew on that button, but you will feel all grown-up and powerful. So go forth, perform these steps (if you want!), check them all off, and feel smug at your newfound adult skills.

Here is what I'm trying to tell you: Adult isn't a noun, it's a verb. It's the act of making correctly those small decisions that fill our day. It is one that you can practice, and that can be done in concrete steps. And if you slip up and have Diet Coke for breakfast, no one busts in and snatches away your Adult card. Just move forward and have milk tomorrow.


Q: What is adulting? Does it have anything to do with adultery?

A: It does not. The word adulting is taking a noun, adult, and making it a verb. Actually, this strategy works with many nouns (sandwiching, Nashvilling, bridesmaiding, et cetera). But point being, adult isn't something you are, it's something you do. You are a grown-ass man, or grown-ass woman, and you can act like it even if you don't feel like it on the inside.

Q: Who are you to tell anyone how to be a grown-up?

A: I'm Kelly. I'm a reporter for a newspaper in my late twenties who has red hair. You should know this important thing about me: I'm not a super-great grown-up. I'm okay at it, and improving steadily, but I'm in no way a model of what adulthood looks like. I am not the Martha Stewart of basic human competence. Lots of times, Comcast has to call and ask nicely, then not-nicely, for me to pay my cable bill. Or my sink is full of gross dishes, which languish as a tomato-sauce-encrusted monument to my shortcomings.

A while ago, I was talking to my beloved friend Ruth, who suggested I write an advice book, perhaps as a way of extricating herself from the bossy advice monologue I was in the middle of. My mind flashed to the dishes, and my disorganization, and all the things that make me fall into I'm-not-a-grown-up anguish, and I felt I was in no position to tell people how to conduct their lives.

But I decided, since I am a reporter whose job is to go find people who are smart and ask them about things and distill what they tell me into something readable, maybe I could treat this as a reporting project.

This is the result. I definitely threw in things I've learned in my six years of being on my own, but most of this is from others. Lots of times, I've identified them by name and quoted them; others just wanted to share their ideas without their names getting in print. Sometimes, it was just someone saying something really smart to me in a bar. I included those tips, too, even though I didn't know their names. Wise random strangers at bars are modern-day Oracles of Delphi, except drunk and sometimes leaving abruptly when it's their turn for karaoke.

Q: Do I have to do all these steps? At once? They're a lot. It's kind of overwhelming.

A: Nope. You do not have to do a single one of them, ever. It's not a moral judgment—you're not a better or worse person if you have a soup ladle, for example. If you don't want to do a step in this book, if it doesn't make sense in your life, then don't—none of the steps is of "Don't commit genocide!" importance.

Nor should you feel like all these things can or should happen overnight. There are lots of steps you've already done, and some you will never do. The point of this book is not to induce guilt about things you can't do or haven't done. Give yourself credit for the things you do, fix the small things you can, accept that some things won't come easy, or may never come. The point of this book is that even though things seem—and are—complicated and difficult, we have control over ourselves. Someone is a grown-up by virtue of acting like one. And no matter who you are, you can be a grown-up.


  1. Which is a better name for mascara sprinkles: Satan's Pepper or Failure Flakes?
  2. What is something that other people notice and you never do, even when it's pointed out to you, at which point you act like you knew that all along even though it still isn't totally clear?
  3. What is your biggest adult failure to date? Be honest. Did it involve coconut-flavored rum? It did, didn't it? Oh, coconut rum.

1. Get Your Mind Right

The vast majority of this book is full of practical, interacting-with-the-world sorts of steps—wiping your counters or breaking up with your surly boyfriend or whatever. Most of being an adult is not up in your head, it's in your actions. In fact, let's get this out of the way now: Intentions are nice, but ultimately intentions don't really matter because they only exist inside you. Meaning to send a thank-you note but then not doing it is exactly the same as never thinking to send one—that person is still receiving zero thank-you notes.

So, yes. Actions are greater than intentions. But before we get to those actions, there are just a few things you should know.

Step 1: Accept that you are not that special

This is the most difficult and important thing to accept if you wish to be a grown-up: You are not a Special Snowflake.

Step 2: Appreciate those who disagree with step 1

Well, you are to some people. Your parents, presumably, love you very much and think you are perhaps the most adorable, talented thing ever to prance upon this earth. Your friends agree with them, as do your favorite teachers, as does your significant other. When there is a You Parade, these people will be the flag bearers, the drum majors and majorettes, so make sure you are always flag bearing and drum majoring for them, too. These people who think so highly of us are very special and precious, and we must treasure them. Because here is the truth: Most of the world doesn't give a flying fuck about you.

Step 3: Don't get hurt when the world doesn't care about you

It's not as depressing as it sounds. It's not as though the world hates you—it just has no idea who you are. It is, at best, indifferent to your wants and needs, your preferences, your pet peeves, and so on. When you walk into a new office, new city, new country, whatever, you are starting from scratch and cannot call upon that loving capital that your friends and family have for you. You sometimes find patches of immediately friendly people, but that won't be the rule. It is now up to you to find and surround yourself with people for whom you feel affection and respect.

People will come to care about you, but only if you give them a valid reason. Don't assume they'll give you love like your parents, emotional support like your best friend, and cheerful feedback like a soccer coach for seven-year-olds. Because they won't, unless you give them good reason to. And even then, they still probably won't.

Step 4: Accept that right now, you are small-time

Before you go out into the world to seek your fortune, you make a lot of assumptions about how easy things will be or how quickly you'll rocket to the top. You might hit this wall, hard, when The New York Times doesn't beat a path to your door, but instead it is time for you to go be a reporter in rural Mississippi. Or you graduate law school with glorious visions of the important work you'll do for the Southern Poverty Law Center, but find yourself photocopying briefs in Shreveport. Whatever happens immediately post-graduation, chances are good that it will be at least a little disappointing.

So for right now, being a small-time whatever is your position. It's not shameful and it doesn't mean you're a failure. It means you're embarking on adulthood and starting from the beginning, just like every other person in the world must do. When you begin at the beginning, any progress you make is yours. From now on, it doesn't matter who your parents are or how much money they make. It's time to make your own money. You are the captain of your own destiny, even if it isn't all that glamorous or fabulous at the moment.

Step 5: Set reasonable goals for yourself

There will never be a time when every item in my house is meticulously organized in cute storage solutions. It will just never, ever happen. So looking at a bunch of organization blogs and despairing that my living space doesn't look like theirs is not a healthy thing for me to do.

A big part of being a well-adjusted person is accepting that you can't be good at everything. Some things will always be hard. Decide what you can do in those arenas, without making yourself crazy or setting unreasonably high expectations, then feel proud when you do it.

Step 6: Stop enjoying things ironically. Just enjoy them

Know what? I love Britney Spears and Forever 21. And I could pretend like it's this whole meta thing where I'm not actually enjoying it but rather just making this esoteric statement on lowbrow culture, but (insert handjob motion here).

The truth is that I love trashy dance pop and the garments that are its clothing equivalent. You don't need to make your tastes a self-conscious statement about who you are. Just unapologetically like the things you like.

Step 7: Avoid shame boomerangs

I'm just going with shame because it would be too cumbersome to call them "Shame, Anxiety, Remorse, Dread, and Any Number of Ugly Emotions Boomerangs."

Here's how that process works:

Inciting shame incident → bad feelings → forgetting and/or getting distracted for a little while → shame boomerang returns → bad feelings the sequel, et cetera, all damn day

This is the excellent strategy put forth by Internet friend Emily:

Step 1. Acknowledge the problem, and take any possible steps to correct it.

Step 2. Figure out how you will avoid making this same mistake again.

Step 3. Decide on a coping mechanism mantra that you will repeat when the shame boomerang returns ("It's done, and I won't do it again") and then play a diverting mental game, like thinking up what you would name a trio of Siamese kittens.

She didn't put this in, so I will:

Step 4. Really try not to make the mistake again. If the mistake happens again and again, then take a hard look at what you are doing and why.

Step 8: Remember your circle of concern versus your circle of action

Grief counselor Susan Gelberg was the one who told me about this, and said it's helpful for people who are experiencing anxiety and anguish.

There is a big circle, one that contains all of your concerns, ranging from the super mundane ("Why can I never get the stupid wispy sides of my bangs straight? What if they're somehow made of a lost colony of pubic hair?") to the overwhelming ("Global warming! Fuck!"). But there's a smaller circle inside that circle, which is your circle of action. Inside that circle are the things you can actually effect change on. Work on those things. Those are the things that will help you feel as in control as any one person has the ability to be.

Step 9: Begin to separate, in your mind, things that are a Valid Long-Term Plan versus Not A Valid Long-Term Plan

Lots of things are NAVLTP. That is a fun word to try to pronounce out loud, but a bad thing to have in our lives. Common NAVLTPs include:

• Boyfriends you really love but know you don't want to spend your life with.

• Smoking.

• Jobs with little to no possibility for advancement. Not that you need to be the ruthless climbing-the-ladder type, but most people want, eventually, to have a job that is slightly more challenging and lucrative than their current position.

• If you have a drinking problem, you need to deal with that sooner rather than later. One caveat here is that many people who drink a lot in their early twenties do, in fact, kind of naturally taper off as time goes on and hangovers become tougher to deal with. This will happen almost overnight, and it is God's way of preventing thirty-five-year-olds from drinking until 3 AM and making bad life choices. But if you find yourself drinking more, not less, as you age, that is something to consider.

Step 10: Be okay with being alone

Lunch, the bus stop, shopping, parties—all these situations and more, you should feel fine being alone in. Here is what you think others are thinking when they look at you:

Oh my God, that girl has no friends and no significant other. Wow. How has she made it through life this far without finding a single solitary person to care about her?

Here is what they are actually thinking:

I wonder if I remembered to turn off my hair straightener, where is Laura? She was supposed to be here by now, ugh, I hate PT Cruisers so much; how do people not understand that those cars look like giant ugly eggplants?… [other thoughts completely unrelated to you because no one notices or cares that you're by yourself]

You, meanwhile, will be with yourself for the rest of your life, so you'd best learn to enjoy your own company.

Look comfortable alone. You are not itchy, you are not fidgety, you are not looking around desperately for whoever will rescue you from the terrible fate of not being engaged in boring small talk. You're fine.

Step 11: Recognize six-month problems

When you get really upset about something, ask yourself if this is something you will remember in six months. Most things aren't. Most things are six-day problems, or six-minute problems. If the answer is No, I will not remember this, then you need to try to do your best to move on. If the answer's yes, you also need to do your best to move on, but at least a no answer puts you in the proper frame of mind.

Step 12: Distinguish between horses and zebras

I am constantly seeing medical dangers and significance everywhere. I don't have a head cold, I have meningococcal meningitis! And will soon die! I start thinking about how tragic this will be for everyone I know; how sad they will be when they hear how this bright young life was snuffed out so needlessly. What will they say at my funeral? Et cetera… and then I get over whatever extremely minor ailment it is, and forget all the dreadful predictions I made. Until the next time I get sick, and it isn't a headache, it's brain cancer! Or maybe a tapeworm has gotten in my head!

Once, I had a mosquito bite on my arm, and it was infected, so obviously it was the same antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating bacteria I saw a story on CNN about. I called my godfather (who is also a doctor) to confirm my suspicions that I should head to the emergency room.

Luckily, my brilliant godmother (and intermediary to my godfather) answered, and gave me the best quote ever. She was saying it in the context of medical maladies, but I believe it can apply to many other things, too:

"If it's making a galloping noise, it's probably a horse, not a zebra."

In other words, the simplest explanation is probably—not always, but probably—the correct one.

So when you are unreasonably fretting about something and coming up with zebra explanations ("My boss is quiet this morning, so I'll bet she's going to fire me!"), try to steer yourself back toward horse-thinking ("She's probably tired or busy").

Step 13: Pay attention to natural consequences, then learn to anticipate them

Natural consequences is actually a parenting concept, but one I use on myself, because sometimes my ability to thoughtfully reflect on a difficult situation is in line with a four-year-old's.

A natural consequence is, essentially, a situation where a parent doesn't have to punish a child for wrongdoing because the universe sort of takes care of that. A natural consequence of splurging when you don't have the money to do it is that you can't go out with friends. A natural consequence of hooking up with someone at work is that you then get to remember it in all its Technicolor, bodily-fluids glory every time you sit across from them in a meeting. And so on.

I have taken to whispering, to myself, Natural consequenceeeeessssss! when I am experiencing one, to give myself a little Pavlovian incentive not to do it next time.

Step 14: Remember that, for better or for worse, you are in control of your physical self and surroundings

You can make your bed (see step 33) or not make your bed. You can buy paper towels or not buy paper towels. Neither makes you a better or worse person, but you should accept that if you want your bed to be made, there is but one person in the world who is going to do it and that person is you. Extrapolate this principle to many, many other things, because more often than not, it applies.

Step 15: When necessary, look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself some Real Talk

Are you familiar with the concept of Real Talk as popularized by R. Kelly? It means just what it sounds like. We all need a little Real Talk in our lives, but there is only one R. Kelly and so many of us, so you'll need to give it to yourself.

This sounds a little crazy, but looking yourself in the eye in the mirror and saying something aloud is oddly effective. It makes whatever you are trying so hard to mentally avoid into something that exists in the real world. It reminds you that the lies, or truths, you tell yourself are as significant as the lies and truths you tell others.

"This relationship is over, and you need to end it."

"Right now is not the right time to be crying at work. You are a grown-ass woman, and you're going to splash cold water on your face, take a minute to compose yourself, and then go slay it out there."

"Your needs are not more important than other people's needs."

Please note: There is a big, big difference between berating yourself and Real-Talk-ing yourself.

Step 16: When something bad happens to you, do not rush immediately to figure out why it wasn't your fault

Step 17: Get used to giving more than you get

A natural transition, as we go from being kids to adults, is to go from being self-oriented to other-oriented. When we're little, all this love flows to us, and none is expected back. That ratio has now changed, and if you don't acknowledge it, you will not be a pleasant person to be around.


1. What is your worst-ever shame boomerang?

2. Who is the least-special Special Snowflake you know?

3. If you had a pet zebra, what would you name him? Here's a few to get you started: Edwin Brewster, Señor Stripes, Karen, Pickles, Trotters.

2. Domesticity

One of the most jolting days of adulthood comes the first time you run out of toilet paper. Toilet paper, up until this point, always just existed. And now it's a finite resource, constantly in danger of extinction, that must be carefully tracked and monitored, like pandas?

It's not just the toilet paper. There are so many endless tiny details to attend to. Food does not spontaneously manifest itself in the fridge. Surfaces become increasingly sticky and dust-covered if not wiped. Disgusting things, like overflowing toilets and dead squirrels your cat leaves on the bedroom floor, are on your shoulders. No one else will remove that spider biding its time in the shower until it can lay eggs in your ears. No friendly stranger will knock on your door to ask if any ketchup has spilled in your fridge and hardened into indelible red paste, then offer to scrape it up. Half-empty beer cans will release foul, regret-scented gases until you empty and recycle them.

But now, the good news: Billions and billions of people around the world manage to live in a home without directly killing themselves or others via their irresponsibility, and chances are very good you are one of them. There is a 98.5 percent chance that you will manage to keep toilet paper stocked regularly, especially if you…

Step 18: Buy toilet paper in bulk

Sure, this is a specific rather than general step, but it can be extrapolated to this whole chapter. You see, toilet paper is something that you will always, always need. Let's look at this graph illustrating that very principle:

Because toilet paper is non-perishable (thank God, because that would be disgusting), you may as well go ahead and buy a whole bunch of it at once. It saves you money, cuts down on future toilet-paper-purchase expeditions, and guarantees you will never, ever have to leave your house at 5 AM with a digestive system that is on the march. It's not as though the grocery store clerk will look at this large purchase and assume you poop a lot, so just go ahead and do it.

All right. Now that the most important step is out of the way, let's start with searching for a place to call your own, then on to decorating, cleaning, and showing off your domesticity.

Step 19: Find the right place for you

People who live in Manhattan or San Francisco may as well skip this step, since you'll be lucky to find someone willing to rent you a closet without putting down first and last years' rent. But for those with a little more choice in their real estate, here are some great things to look for in an apartment:

Hot water: Go turn on the shower and make sure there is sufficient water pressure and it's nice and strong and not, as my mom once memorably said of my shower, like having an eighty-three-year-old man pee on you. Also, does the water get hot? Is it the either-scalding-or-frigid kind of shower? That's nice to know.

Safety: Come back by the area at night, during the day, on the weekend, and so on. Make sure you feel reasonably safe at all these times.



  • "This hilarious and super-relatable how-to guide for acting like an full of aha moments."—Cosmopolitan
  • "These are the steps I wish I'd had before I grew up. Wait-What am I talking about? These are steps I will start using today! Kelly Williams Brown writes as charmingly and hysterically as she does helpfully. Get this book and grow up!"—J.J. Abrams, writer, director, producer
  • "Fun, chatty, and surprisingly informative.... perfect for the wayward 20-something, or 30-something, or..."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Twentysomethings who are looking for a silver bullet will find it here in the form of 468 silver pellets. Without a doubt, one (or a hundred) of these pellets will change your relationship or your career or your mind or your potatoes, all of which matter in adulthood. Kelly Williams Brown is my kind of twentysomething."—Meg Jay, PhD, author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now
  • "Kelly Williams Brown is wise beyond her years, which is great news for those of us who are immature beyond ours. Her advice is brilliant, warm, funny, and USEFUL, much like the lady who wrote it. I'd love to have her over for tea but I don't want her to see my apartment."—Julieanne Smolinski, blogger, comedian, @BoobsRadley
  • "Kelly Williams Brown, author of Adulting, is the voice of her generation. Unfortunately, that voice is telling her she should make a soufflé and take her LSATs. She shouldn't listen to the voice, and neither should you. Kelly Williams Brown should be writing: period. Anything else is just robbery. Adulting is hilarious and filled with keen insight, a terrific dance down the road of everyday insecurity."
     —Dana Haynes, author of Ice Cold Kill, Crashers, and Breaking Point
  • "Adulting is a must-read for anyone in their twenties! Author Kelly Williams Brown has penned an incredibly helpful how-to geared toward twenty-somethings who may be grown up but don't always feel like it....Adulting is incredibly funny and a pure joy to read."—Wit and Sin

On Sale
May 7, 2013
Page Count
272 pages

Kelly Williams Brown

About the Author

Kelly Williams Brown is the New York Times bestselling author of Adulting, Gracious, and Easy Crafts for the Insane. A former reporter, ad copywriter, and Bourbon Street bartender, she lives with her giant, neurotic dog in Salem, Oregon.

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