No One Feels Like a Grown-Up—Not Even Adulting Author Kelly Williams Brown

DON'T WANT TO GROW UP
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Being in your twenties is a weird time. On the one hand, you feel like an adult. You live in your own apartment (or a place you share with other people who are not your parents). You have a job and regular paychecks (we hope). But then you wake up to find your fridge empty except for a six-pack of Guinness. You’ve heard the term 401k, but you really don’t know what it actually means. And you have no idea how to buy a car. So, does that mean you’re not a real grown-up?

Kelly Williams Brown understands that strange place a lot of us find ourselves in while we’re in our twenties. She couldn’t figure out why her fridge smelled weird or how to make it through a month without overdrawing her bank account. But in the process of researching and writing her book Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, she discovered that no one is a “perfect” grown-up, but most people really excel in at least one area. We caught up with Kelly to learn about how she approached this project, what it means to be a grown-up, and how to get a job that allows you to cuddle with baby alpacas.

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Melissa Suzuno: What’s the best way to describe your current job/employment situation?

Kelly Williams Brown: I do a mix of things—I write for magazines, I’m working on sort of an adulting project but I don’t want to say too much about it just yet, and I also do lots of freelance copywriting for ad agencies and directly with businesses. It’s a mixture of the solo writing time and then getting to work on a team, which is really important to me.

Melissa Suzuno: What was your major in college? How does it relate to what you’re doing now?

Kelly Williams Brown: When I went to college, I was 100% certain that I wanted to be a journalist. I was thinking TV at first, but after one stint at a TV station, one internship, I was like, ‘Oh this isn’t right for me,’ so I switched to print.

My degree is a BA in Communications with an emphasis on print journalism and a minor in Spanish.

Throughout college I had a lot of internships at various publications and then once I graduated, with journalism there’s kind of two paths—either you go to New York City and scrape your way up through the magazine world (and that didn’t sound very appealing to me) or you go to a really small market. In my case, that was Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My first job out of college was as a general assignment reporter for the Hattiesburg American, and yes, that is really the name of the newspaper.

MS: How did you go from being a general assignment reporter to writing Adulting? What were some of the steps along the way?

KWB: I worked in daily newspaper reporting for about six years. I worked briefly in New Orleans at a publishing group that did a business journal and some magazines—I was an associate editor for them—and then I moved up to Salem, Oregon. I was the entertainment/pop culture/humor columnist reporter for the Salem Statesman Journal.

I know that newspapers are really struggling and there’s lots of layoffs and downsizing, but I’m really incredibly grateful for my time as a newspaper reporter because it made me familiar with all kinds of writing. When you work at a newspaper, you have to be able to do something very serious—there were days when I was randomly in the office on a weekend and a murder call came in and I had to go report on it—up to let’s do a silly video about baby alpaca day at a local farm.

MS: Haha, that sounds amazing!

KWB: I was always scamming on opportunities to hold baby animals and I was good at it, too, frankly. I really got more opportunities than you would think.

By then I had had a humor column, and I hate to call it a humor column because that makes it sound really old-fashioned or not funny. But I think it’s pretty funny—people really liked it—and my friends and family would be like, ‘Do you want to write a book?’ and I was like ‘Oh, I don’t know… I kind of hate that much commitment to something, that sounds stressful.’ And I don’t write fiction, and I’m not going to write some historical piece like “the battle that changed World War II” and I also wasn’t going to write a memoir about being in my twenties when I was still in my twenties… You know, a lot of people do that, those books can be great, but I personally did not want to do one. So I was like, okay, I guess I’m not going to write a book because I have no book ideas.

So I was giving advice to someone, my wonderful friend Ruth, and she’s very sweet, and she said, ‘You give very good advice. You should write an advice book.’ And I was thinking, I can’t advise anyone on anything because of the way my refrigerator smells and Comcast has to call me and be like ‘Where’s our money?’

I was 26 at the time and I had a job, I had a cat that I had kept successfully alive for seven years, and I had moved across the country by myself, I had a tiny 401k, a nice boyfriend, but I felt like, ‘I’m not a grown-up. I don’t have it together.’

And then I sort of realized that everyone feels that way. That everyone is good at some parts of being a grown-up and bad at others. So why not treat it as a reporting project and talk to hundreds and hundreds of people about how do you keep your house clean, how do you ask for a raise at work, how do you write a thank-you note?

MS: Let’s talk a little bit more about Adulting. What was the research/writing process like?

KWB: When I got started with the book, I started thinking about family friends or mentors that I had. I was in my twenties and I had friends who were in their thirties and forties and fifties and I would think, Bonnie is the most gracious person I know, I should talk to her about how to make small talk at a party and feel comfortable. And then I thought, this is the guy who helped me with my retirement planning, so why don’t I talk to him about money stuff?

I would also crowd-source a lot of people. I’d been working in Salem, so I knew a lot of different kinds of sources. One thing I was really thinking of when I did the interviews was, I’m going to assume that the reader doesn’t know anything. And I’m pretty sure that almost anyone who picks up my book will find one of the chapters like, ‘Duh, obviously’ and other chapters like, ‘Oh my gosh, I never knew this!’ So I was looking for people who could explain stuff in a way that didn’t require you to be an expert in financial planning. It didn’t assume that you have $50,000 to invest. It’s more like, how do I keep from overdrawing my bank account?

One comparison I would make is if you’re someone who wants to start jogging and you’ve never been a jogger before, you’re probably not going to pick up the phone and call someone who does ultramarathons. You should talk to the person who started running a few years ago and who runs 10ks and is working up to running a marathon. You want to find that person who still remembers what it’s like to not know and be at the beginning place. Because then the advice is going to be closer to what someone can use.

I also did the traditional journalism thing where after I interviewed someone, if they were really great, I would say, ‘Thank you so much. I really appreciate this. Do you know anyone else who has a similar field of knowledge who I could talk to?’ And they would say, ‘Oh you should speak to so-and-so, they’re great.’ And some of them were just people out of my life. I had a mechanic in Salem who I absolutely loved, he was just the best mechanic ever—he still is, the fact that I’ve moved doesn’t take away from his greatness. So I thought, I’d just talk to Shane for a little while. And I was like, ‘Shane, if your daughter was buying a car, what would you want her to look for?’ and he was like ‘This, this, and this.’

We had decided the chapters and the basic outline ahead of time, although of course it changed a little bit in form. The way I divided it up was I wanted a month per chapter and I would spend the first two weeks doing all the research I could—and I was working half-time at the newspaper at this point—so I’d do all the research I could, compile it all, fact-check, run it by other people, talk to someone who was completely clueless about whatever it was and ask if they understood it and it made sense, and put it together in cohesive form. Usually the writing of the chapter itself was just a really intense week and a half. I’d get it off to my editor and she’d edit or send it back about a week or so later and by then I’d be in the middle of researching something else, so it’d be sort of fun to have something else to jump to when I got tired of endless interviews.

MS: How did you go about finding an agent and publisher?

KWB: I did something that I think is a really great suggestion for any writers who are interested in writing a book and have not written one before, which was to go to a writers conference. I went to the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland. Conferences are great because you get to be around other writers, even though other writers (myself included) are total weirdos. But one of the main lures is it’s a really good chance to meet agents and editors. And you can sign up to pitch to them.

Most of my pitches were group pitches and they were pretty intense because it would be the agent sitting at a round table, and everyone was there, and some of them literally had those timers from board games and you had 90 seconds to go through your idea and they would be like, ‘That sounds interesting, do you have a book proposal, do you have a chapter?’ For fiction it needs to be done before anyone will look at it. But for non-fiction you don’t have to have written the book to sell it, you just have to have a really good book proposal.

Now I had what I thought was a book proposal—it was 11 pages long. By the time I got my agent—I didn’t actually hook up with her at that conference, it was one of her colleagues who said listen, you need to take this to my colleague Brandi, she’s amazing. (And she really is—she’s an amazing agent and editor.) So by the time Brandi got done with me and the book proposal, it was 75 pages long, so it was really like I did not have a book proposal. I thought I had one.

She shopped it around to the various publishing houses in New York. I was very lucky in that there was a lot of interest in it. It actually sold at auction, which is wonderful, I think there were actually seven or eight publishing houses that were into it. That was like the most exciting day of my life when all the offers come in at certain times. I just wish it could have been like an actual auction with the paddles, but that would have been asking way too much. That would have been really exciting…

MS: Well, when you do the movie version then you can rewrite that scene.

KWB: Yes, I’ll take so many creative liberties with the glamour of a book auction.

So I ended up at Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette. They do a lot of pop culture and humor, like Jon Stewart’s book and Amy Sedaris’s book, so they are an amazing publisher. I got put together with Meredith, who’s now one of my dearest friends, who was my editor. It was the first book she’d acquired or edited, and obviously it was the first book that I’d ever written, so we were both going through this together. She and I have really similar senses of humor, so she was great at saying, ‘Let’s make this a little funnier; I don’t think this is quite right.’

I went down to half-time at the newspaper once I got my advance, which was not a lot of money, but I had always been so poor as a reporter that it seemed like a massive amount of money to me. That was the time in my life when I was writing the most because I had a lot to write for the paper and an entire book to write in seven months. For me at least with writing, the more I do it, the better it gets, the easier it gets to find my writing rhythm.

I went half-time at the paper and half-time writing the book and following the outline with the chapters that we talked about earlier.

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MS: In the process of conducting interviews, what were some of the pieces of advice that stood out to you the most? What were some things that you were slightly embarrassed but grateful to learn?

KWB: Oh my gosh, like every single interview, I was like, ‘I am so ashamed that you had to tell a 27-year-old that, but I’m really glad that I heard it.’

I’ll give you an example, and this is so embarrassing. I’m a really messy person. I do my best to keep my house in order, but I’ll never have a sparkly clean house. I need to be realistic about that.

So I was talking to Carol, who is a family friend who has the most beautiful pristine home I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even like Lysol-y. It’s not like she’s following me around and cleaning things, it’s just always seems so sparkly and perfect. And she said, ‘Oh, you know, as I’m going about my day, if I notice a little toothpaste fleck on the faucet, I’ll just wipe it up right then. I’ll just wipe as I go.’ And I was like, ‘So you wipe things up as soon as they spill?’ And she was like, ‘Yes. What do you do?’ For me there had been this big, elaborate calculation, like is it big, is it orange, is it going to stain? Leave it for a designated “wiping up time,” which was so insane!

Yeah, if something gets somewhere, just immediately wipe it up. I was embarrassed to have to be told that at 27, but that’s the thing—for people who are naturally clean, that is such an obvious thing, and for people who are not gifted, like myself, you really need that extra reminder.

MS: How do you define being a grown-up?

KWB: I think there’s two ways of looking at it—chronologically if you’re 21, you’re a grown-up.

But it’s important to not think about being a grown-up as something you are or aren’t, because no one thinks they’re a grown-up. I would interview people in their fifties who would be a really successful heart surgeon or whatever and they would say, ‘I’m not a real grown-up. Why do you want to talk to me?’ and I was like, ‘No seriously, you are a grown-up.’

I think it boils down to: The only things that you need to do or remember are to be decent and kind to yourself and other people, try to figure out what needs to be done and do it with a minimum of fuss or complaining, and also just remember that there’s no magic wand that you can wave to make yourself into a perfect human being who never makes mistakes, never has failings, never has insecurities. All you can do is take things one step at a time and move forward through life and you will be okay if you do it.

MS: You mention in the book that you’re not exactly qualified to write it because you sometimes feel like a sham. Can you speak about this a bit more? As best as you can tell, is not feeling like a legitimate grown-up a newish concern or have people in their twenties always felt this way?

KWB: I can’t speak historically, because I don’t have insight. I imagine if you are a medieval peasant you don’t spend a lot of time, thinking, ‘Am I a grown-up?’

I believe it’s called impostor syndrome, and it’s very real, and women particularly feel this way. I have a list of pretty impressive accomplishments to my name and I’m happy that I do, and I still think that I’m pulling a fast one, that it’s an elaborate trick. It’s hard to just accept that this is something that I’m good at because I worked really hard at it.

I think we all think that we’re not grown-ups and we all have these ‘I’m a sham’ moments.

It’s really hard because I’m an anxious person, I can be a depressed person, I can do a lot of negative self-talk, which is not helpful in any way. Me sitting around thinking, ‘You’re never going to write anything good ever again,’ that’s not useful in my life, and also it’s just a thought. It’s not real. It has no existence in reality, it’s just a thought within my head.

For me when I start getting into that cycle of anxiety or negative self-thought, I start doing something called “labeling my thoughts,” and I know we’re way off track here and into woo-woo stuff, so I hope you’ll forgive me that, but this is really helpful for me. I got it out of a Zen Buddhist book—my grandmother was a Zen Buddhist.

Let’s say I’m stressing out about writing and I’m thinking I’m a failure and I’m never going to write anything good again. When I have that thought, I say to myself—not out loud, I’m not that crazy—I’m feeling anxious about writing. I’m having a thought about writing. I’m having a thought about the future. When you start to do that, you realize that it’s the same thing over and over and over and you remind yourself that it’s not real; it’s just a thought.

MS: I like the discussion questions you put at the end of each chapter—have you heard of anyone reading your book in a book club and actually discussing them?

KWB: I wish! I’ve never heard of reading it for a book club, but something that was one of the most touching and sweet things in my life was a group of high schoolers just outside of LA started an “Adulting club,” and they would get together and learn about it. It was like, you guys, just stop it, that is so sweet.

Sometimes I’ll get emails from people with what they think the three best names for a trio of Siamese kittens would be, so people do weigh in. But I think a much more interesting party than just going through and discussing the contents of the book would be going through those ridiculous questions. [Editor’s note: Each chapter ends with a series of “Discussion Questions,” which are usually related to something that came up during the chapter, but also pretty silly at the same time. See below to find out what I’m talking about.]

MS: Which set would you most like to hear people respond to?

KWB: If I was just going to pick one section of three questions, they are all on page 38, the end of the domesticity chapter:

1. Name one thing that you overlooked before you signed a lease for an apartment that you really really really really wish you hadn’t.

2. What’s the very worst chore that exists in the whole world?

3. Make a diorama of your home when it was at its very messiest and share with the group. How does this scene make you feel?

But I think my favorite question in the whole book is at the end of the money chapter, it’s number 2: “Have you ever had your credit card declined? Did you just slink off sheepishly or offer a super-implausible explanation? Did you say, ‘Oh my god, I have to contact my bank, something terrible has happened!’ and then rush off as though the only possible explanation was that your bank account had been drained by an elite international ring of thieves? That’s what I did.”

Every time I had my card declined—which was not that uncommon for a period in my life—I’d be like, ‘Oh my god! I have to alert the bank! Something terrible has happened!’ I would put on this big show for the people at Trader Joe’s or wherever when clearly it was just that I was poor.

MS: Aww. But I like that you turned it into a whole acting scene.

KWB: Oh my god, yeah, you really had to sell it. One time I got my card declined at a Popeye’s, but luckily she had already given me the Diet Coke. At least I had that.

We do live these lives with Instagram and Facebook and everything where it’s sort of this conspicuous lifestyle where everything is always great and you never talk about problems and your food is beautiful and you photograph the one tiny corner of your apartment that looks great. Being in your twenties is hard, it’s straight-up hard. And we don’t talk about it and we’re ashamed and I think I’m the only person who has ever been poor or the only person who has ever had a messy house or the only person who’s ever said something stupid at a party, you know, and it’s just not the case. We’ve all to one extent or another been there.

MS: What advice do you have for college students/recent grads who are interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?

KWB: For me, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I found my internships much, much more valuable than my classes. I hate to say that, but our journalism professors would say, ‘Slack off on homework if you’re chasing a story for The Maroon, that’s what’s important.’ And getting that real-life experience while I was in college and seeing what the day would look like, these are the people you would work with, this is what you would do, this is the environment you would work in, was really useful.

In one case it showed me that, no, I don’t want to work in TV news, that’s not an environment that I want to spend my life in. And in another case, going to a newsroom for a newspaper was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m home. I found my people.’

I think it’s really a good idea if you have an idea—or even if you don’t have an idea, if you’re like, ‘Well, I’m kind of into this, I’m kind of into that, I wouldn’t mind trying that…’ Get those internships—and be pushy about it. My internships that I got, for the most part, were just me emailing someone. I did not apply for an internship or anything, I would just email them and be like, ‘My name is Kelly Brown. I’m studying such-and-such at XYZ university and I’m interested in these aspects of journalism. Would it be okay for me to come stop by and introduce myself?’

And for the most part, people really will take a few minutes out of their schedule, because people love giving advice (spoken by someone who wrote an entire advice book!), and they get a kick out of this feeling that they’re mentoring the young pups.

Another great tool is informational interviews. The way to go about this is any time you go to a city, if you think you might want to live there, do some research and find a few companies you think you might like to work for. Email someone who is not the boss boss, someone who’s a couple of rungs down, and say, ‘My name is Kelly Brown. I’m interested in such-and-such and I happen to be passing through town for a few days. Would it be okay for me to stop by and buy you a cup of coffee or introduce myself?’ That way if a job opens up there in the future, they know who you are, they have seen your face, and you’re not just a random stranger who’s applying.

You can also do informational interviews in town—it doesn’t have to be while you’re traveling. I just did one last week with a recent graduate who had been in touch with my friend who works in advertising, and she told her to talk to me, and then I put her in touch with a few editors.

People want to do that for you, people want to help each other. So don’t be afraid to use those connections.

Homework time! Kelly mentions the importance of seeking out people for informational interviews. Keep in mind that this doesn’t even need to be about work-related topics. You can follow Kelly’s lead and interview people who are just really good at doing something you want to learn how to do like talk to strangers at parties or bake a killer shepherd’s pie or decorate your apartment in a way that is substantially better than tacking up posters with chewing gum.

Also, you should definitely go out there and read Adulting! Not only is it full of super useful information and advice, but Kelly is a hilariously entertaining writer.

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