About Polly Chester

Polly is a thinker, writer and social worker with passions for human rights, caring for the environment, social justice, social policy, epistemology, philosophy and psychology

Wondering how to act like an adult? Don’t worry, we’re all faking it

Certified adult Polly Chester thinks that the longer she lives, the more she doubts that many people ever reach proper adulthood and this becomes particularly apparent when they crash their cars.


Amongst my pals who range between the ages of 20 and 70, a particular philosophical topic of conversation often arises, which starts along the lines of:

“I don’t feel like an adult. When will I start feeling like an adult?”

This topic has come under close scrutiny for me over the past few days, because my “adult” life as I know it was under threat when I was involved in a nasty motor vehicle collision on a motorway.

I was driving home from work on a Friday afternoon, wearing sensible office clothes and musing over my upcoming sensible adult weekend activities when a car careered sideways onto the motorway in front of me, spinning like a whirling dervish. It was one of the most confusing things I’ve ever seen. Cars on the motorway usually travel facing in the correct direction and at a similar speed, unless there is a traffic jam.

Not this car. It was spinning much like the ironic horror house carousel ride that has featured in my nightmares since childhood. Trying to make sense of the situation in a split second was like trying to unscramble an egg.

By the time she hit the front end of my car, the driver of the offending vehicle was pointing the wrong way down the motorway. Luckily I’d managed to slow down to about 80km/h before we collided head on. “Fuck!” I remember yelling on impact, right before another driver hit me from behind.

As I sat on the motorway, trembling and winded, my first thought was “I’ve got to get off the road. I don’t want to be that dickhead blocking all the adults who are trying to get home to their families on a Friday night.” I tried to restart my car, unaware of the fact that it was completely written off. It wasn’t budging, and my belongings were in disarray on the floor. An off-duty fireman helped me climb from my car and after looking at the exterior of the vehicle, I understood that I was lucky to have escaped with my mortality intact.

The point of telling this story, however, is not so much about recounting the accident itself as it is about how you can tell when you are an adult. Apart from my soft tissue damage (thank you BMW for your shithot engineering that definitely saved my life) and the psychological trauma of enduring a horrible car accident, what has been most painful is enduring the lack of responsibility taken by the other drivers. I reckon this is the characteristic that crafts the distinction between being a kid or an adult.

Allow me to explain why I feel this way.

After the accident, I learned that neither driver had bothered to fork out the nominal amount that is required for third party, fire and theft insurance. As a result, I’m now in a position where neither of the two parties who crashed into my vehicle is willing to take responsibility for the crash. In other Western countries such as the United Kingdom, it is illegal to drive without third party insurance acquired through a private broker. In Australia, compulsory third party insurance that covers medical costs is included within the cost of your registration, but taking responsibility for the damages you cause to someone else’s vehicle through a private broker is optional. This is a huge problem for mugs like me who in this instance, have chosen to be socially responsible and invest in the insurance.

If the accident had have been my fault, my insurance would have paid out both parties and I would have kicked myself, cut my losses, grudgingly bought a new car and ensured that my next insurance policy was comprehensive. As it stands, no one who caused the accident is willing to pay for the damage that they caused. I can’t comprehend how any adult would be OK with shirking such a responsibility, so I feel that this is one of those defining moments when it’s pretty easy to see who is behaving like an adult.

Lifespan development literature says that early adulthood usually hits somewhere after being a teenager, at around 20 years of age. Then comes middle adulthood at 40 and late adulthood at about 60. Incidents like this really blow that biological timeline out of the water. Adulthood as we refer to it in the philosophical context is not biological, it’s more to do with a highly subjective state of mind or sense of achievement which seems to have very little to do with age. The longer I live, the more I doubt I feel about whether many people ever reach adulthood.

I reckon we all possess an internal mind-collage that’s attached to the concept of adulthood. Things like owning a house, becoming a parent, owning a business, mastering a profession, developing a more conservative fashion sense, being in charge of other people, having an accountant, owning a new car, knitting, cooking a decent soufflé, having loads of toilet paper and canned goods at home in case of an “emergency” or buying expensive wine rather than whatever’s on special might all attribute to being an “adult”, depending on your perspective. But after recent events, I am certain that none of that really has anything to do with being an adult.

I think I’ve finally settled on what adulthood means to me. Being an adult is about a willingness to own your shit. Being an adult is sticking your hand up and saying “I’ve fucked up and I’m sorry, and I want to make it right.” Being an adult is about conversing frankly with other adults; about dealing with conflict even though it’s uncomfortable to do so; about reaching compromise and not necessarily conclusions or closure. Most of all, I think it’s about disaster prevention and intelligent planning; making decisions for today with your future self in mind. Newton’s Third Law doesn’t look favourably on people who couldn’t be bothered using a sensible decision making process.

The women who collectively wrote off my car were much older than me. I know this because I have seen their driver’s licenses. But in my eyes, neither of them were adults because even before the accident occurred, they have demonstrated a lack of ability to take responsibility for their actions, within their failure to organise car insurance prior to driving at high speed on a very busy motorway.

I don’t think that adulthood is about how you feel. I don’t think anyone ever really feels it. We are all faking it. It’s about what you do and how you do it. The adult-y sense of achievement may or may not follow, but that doesn’t really matter. All you need to do is to act your age.

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