Julie Lythcott-Haims (MFA Writing 2016) was 26, had been married for two years (“with the poofy wedding dress and everything”), had taken the California bar exam, and was heading to the West Coast for “a fancy job with a fancy law firm.” But despite all those accomplishments, she says, “I didn’t know yet in my bones that I was an adult.”
That didn’t happen until her moving van caught on fire.
“The van taking all of our belongings—the couch, the car, the scrapbooks—from Massachusetts to California, caught on fire somewhere between Texas and Oklahoma,” she recalls. “We wouldn’t know the extent of the damage until it got to San Leandro.”
She was with her husband and her parents when she received the uncertain news. How her parents handled the moment was influential: they were compassionate, offered their condolences. And then?
“And then we sat down for dinner,” Lythcott-Haims says, laughing. “My parents signaled to us, by not micromanaging, that they knew we could handle it.”
Lythcott-Haims went on to “adult” her way from that California law firm to Stanford, where she served as associate vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising—experiences that deeply informed her 2015 parenting book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, which became a New York Times bestseller while she was still a CCA graduate student.
Her latest book, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, is an advice-filled follow-up for the ages—and for all ages. Because, as it turns out, adulting is hard. Even for adults.
“Adulthood is this period of life where we are more or less in charge of ourselves. It’s not attached to an age,” she says. “Adulting doesn’t mean you have to go it alone, but you want to strengthen your own capacity to choose and handle and resolve things. To ask for help when you need it, but not always ask for help and presume other people are going to do it for you. Adulting is inherently saying, ‘I’m capable. I’m capable of at least trying, and I’m going to try because it’s my life.’”
We caught up with Lythcott-Haims days before her new book launched on April 6 to discuss the implications of adulthood after the pandemic; how her CCA thesis project became a transformative memoir, Real American, about being a Black and biracial child in America, and her advice for the Class of 2021.
“We are constantly learning from the curve balls that get thrown our way, and at some point, I think in our teens, or our early twenties, we all have a moment,” she says. “Mine was a moving van on fire. And my new book is full of other people’s stories like this.”
Adulting doesn’t mean you have to go it alone, but you want to strengthen your own capacity to choose and handle and resolve things. … Adulting is inherently saying, ‘I’m capable. I’m capable of at least trying, and I’m going to try because it’s my life.’”
Q. What motivated you to write Your Turn?
A. For quite some time now, Millennials have been famously saying, “I don’t know how to adult.” This book is a compassionate response to a plea from a generation of people who seem to feel inadequate at entering a stage of life all humans go through. I’m an older person further down the path of life who is trying to shine a warm light back in the faces of those who are younger than me to illuminate possibilities, to illuminate opportunities and pathways forward, to demystify it, to show them where the treacherous places are so that maybe they can avoid some of them.
Yes, it is hard—and sometimes even terrifying—but it’s also delicious to be in charge of yourself, to not be subject to other people’s expectations of where you should go and what you should be. If people younger than me are feeling scared about entering a phase of life I know to be amazing, I have a lot of compassion for them around that fear, and I want to help draw them forward.
Q. Has the process for becoming an adult changed in the past year?
A. If you had told me a year ago that, a year hence, we would still be in a pandemic; that, nevertheless, I would complete this book; and that my book tour would be entirely virtual? I would have started to cry and run off into the woods. Yet here we are. Adulthood is a perennial stage of life. We all go through it, assuming we survive childhood. Tragedies befall human communities on a regular basis.
There was a generation that emerged into adulthood following 9/11. There was a generation that emerged into adulthood following the great recession of 2008. Now there’s a generation emerging into adulthood following this pandemic. I think that’s evidence that these massive setbacks and disappointments are not anomalies. They happen. They are a part of life.
I think this past year was actually a tremendous opportunity for many of us to grow up a bit more. It’s been an opportunity to clarify our own values and act accordingly. That is very much a quality of adulting: knowing what you believe and acting from a space of integrity with your values. We have pared away the things that don’t matter, the relationships that were not nourishing, the choices we’ve made around work or activities that were not rewarding. It’s also required a lot of adaptability. All of this has been an opportunity for tremendous problem-solving and learning about the constraints and adapting to the constraints.
That is hella adulting.
Also, for many, this past year—with the pandemic and the traumas, the reminders of systemic racialized violence—has been a reckoning, and we can grow stronger as adults when we face that stuff head-on, and with our hearts, and change our behaviors accordingly. The pandemic has taught me that there’s plenty we can’t do. I’ve tried to use my design-thinking skills to reframe it as what can we do?
Q. Why did you decide to study writing at the graduate level?
A. I had been told in high school and college that my writing was not my strength. I was praised for my ideas and for my oral articulation, but my sentences were apparently quite passive. I did not have much confidence in my writing ability. When I yearned to write a book on a very compelling concern I was having as a college dean—the extent to which many young people were being overparented while still at college—I needed help. I needed guidance and an understanding of how one crafts a compelling narrative over 300 pages.
And I needed to be around writers. Writing is a community you join largely because you’ve decided you are one. It is an identity that we confer upon ourselves, which is both liberating and daunting. I wanted to join a community of writers, grow stronger in the craft of writing, and also begin to feel permission to call myself that thing.
Q. Why did you choose CCA?
A. I chose CCA because of Donna de la Perrière [former adjunct professor], who offered a class called Mad Girls, Bad Girls: Transgressive Women through History. Damn! That spoke to me. Then I looked at the website and saw writers like Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian. If people like them were at this place, then maybe I could be at this place. I was also deeply inspired by how diverse the faculty was, from Faith Adiele to Juvenal Acosta to Anita Amirrezvani. I knew by then that it was critical to me as a person of color, as a Black person, to be in community with plenty of people of color and with people who exist in the liminal spaces of life. I just felt that the writer I was aiming to be would be brought forth at CCA.
Q. Did that happen?
A. Yes, CCA was one of the first environments I was in where age didn’t seem to be the most important or defining demographic characteristic. Here I was, 44, going back to grad school. Most of my classmates were younger than me (though I was not the oldest), but what I learned was it wasn’t about our age, it was about our intentions. I also pretty quickly learned that it wasn’t my age that made me different, it was that I didn’t have any tattoos!
I also was coming from a position of prominence in higher education, just down the road at a place called Stanford. I was really intentional about the fact of that not being helpful as I made my way toward my writing identity. I did not introduce myself to people, to my new classmates or my new professors, with what I used to do. I didn’t want either the positives or negatives associated with that identity to entrap me. I was starting anew as a writer, and becoming a writer was going to have very little to do with the prior careers I had. I had a tremendous amount to learn.
Q. Was that scary?
A. Yes, but I’m the sort of person that likes to live on the edge of terrifying and exhilarating. So it was scary, but it was also liberating.
It was so beautiful that I had to be kicked out. I was supposed to be Class of 2014. Trouble was, I got a book deal in the fall of 2013, my second year, so I went part time … By the fall of 2015, I’d been asked to do a TED Talk about this book. I was now a New York Times bestseller, and I got a call from Gloria [Fyrm, MFA Writing chair at the time].
She says, “Julie, congratulations. How are you? Fine, fine. We need you to graduate.” I needed to do my thesis. I asked if we could retroactively decide that my book could be my thesis? She said, “That’s not how it works.” The lawyer in me tried to give a good argument about why it should, and finally she uttered a phrase that changed everything: “Julie, we would be remiss as your faculty and, more importantly, as your friends, if we didn’t force you to have the second book ready.”
So I set out to write a thesis. Taking advice from another faculty member, I took everything I’d ever written and just laid it out on the screen. That was my first thesis attempt. I was calling it a collage! My thesis committee was Juvenal Acosta and Faith Adiele, and when they saw this first attempt, they were like, “This is crap. You can’t just throw everything together and call it a thesis.” They said what I was doing well within this mess was writing about race and they urged me in that direction.
The second draft of my thesis was what became Real American, which is my memoir on being Black and biracial, dealing with microaggressions and blunt force racism from childhood into adulthood, and having children of my own who would have to contend with these things. I’m so grateful for my thesis committee, and I’m proud of that book. There’s no question that that it exists because my faculty were insistent that I finish—that I not just linger. I would not be an author without CCA. It was an unfathomable pivot, and CCA people have been essential in my identity formation as an author.
Q. What advice would you give graduating students in our Class of 2021?
A. I like to quote the late poet Mary Oliver, who said in one of her poems, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I have her in my mind asking that question all the time. It’s the question I want to ask of the graduates.
Life is happening. Now. Living is an active verb. Don’t wait. Don’t sit around waiting for your life to start. This is actually your life. You had the great wisdom to attend CCA, and now you’re graduating and you’re going to go out into the world. Your task is to continually hone the self that you best know.
As artists, some of us will find that it’s hard to have the work that we’re good at and that we love also be the work that pays the bills. Be intentional about those choices of what to do, how to do it, where to live, what kind of money to earn, what kind of compromises to make. Those are your choices to make. You should get advice and guidance from people you trust, but those people are not the deciders. You are. You are in the driver’s seat of this one wild and precious life. Other people’s expectations or judgment? Throw that judgment out the window and keep going.