When his first book tour ended, Brad Montague missed hearing other people’s stories so much that he launched what he dubbed a Listening Tour. First visiting elementary schools and later also nursing homes and retirement communities, he hoped to glean new wisdom as to how he might become a better grownup. Now, in this playful and buoyant book, he shares those insights with rest of us –timeless, often surprising lessons that bypass the head we’re always stuck in, and go straight to the heart we sometimes forget.
Each of the book’s three sections begins with the illustrated story of “The Incredible Floating Girl.” Brad weaves this story together with lessons of success, fear, regret, gratitude, love, happiness, and dreams to reveal the true reason we are here: to fly, and to help others fly.
I don’t know the exact moment they allowed me to begin sitting at the grownups’ table. I do know I have yet to feel comfortable at it.
Growing up! It seemed like a good idea. Actually, it seemed like a great idea. Grownups have keys to cars, they can eat ice cream anytime they want, and they have all the answers. All of them.
Answers were something I wanted, and something I’m still wanting.
It all seemed so simple. Growing up would just happen to me. I had it all figured out: One day I would wake up and enter the kingdom of adulthood. Magically, this transition would be accompanied with facial hair, knowledge of tax laws, and a keen ability to find great deals, parking spaces, and difficult answers to crossword puzzles. Basically, I would know everything. Absolutely everything.
Cue high school graduation. Nothing. I walk the stage a bit wiser, I think. I touch my face—only minimal beard growth. Definitely no knowledge of tax laws. I come to the conclusion that my adulthood superpowers just haven’t quite kicked in yet. Cue college graduation: same. Marriage? Lovely, but now there are two of us who don’t have it all figured out. Cue children—and this is when, for me, panic really begins to set in. Now there are other little humans being brought into this mess and no answers. None.
I need those magic grownup powers. Maybe you do, too?
Before we go any further, it’s only proper that I let you know something: I am no expert. There, I said it. In fact, when it comes to most things, I’m what some might call gloriously inept. To ease my conscience I’ve pulled together a short, and by no means comprehensive, list of things I’m not great at (see facing page).
Now that that’s out of the way, I can let you know that I’m at least trying to be great at one thing: being a grownup. Despite my best efforts, I am what some would refer to as a “grownup.” I still can’t help strongly relating to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s words in The Little Prince, though. He says, “I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.” True words, right? There are many who give being a grownup a really bad look. You’re already thinking of names. Be nice.
For me, it was shortly after discovering I would be a father that I dubbed my life Operation Be a Better Grownup. It was a wake-up call. This meant stepping up and becoming the dad I’d always promised myself I’d be. This meant becoming fully alive so that I could truly make this tiny new life proud. This meant coming to terms with the fact that I had no idea what to do next.
I feverishly set out to learn from anyone and everyone what it might mean to be a better adult human person. I began listening more, something I wasn’t necessarily great at. I spent time with young people and old people. I confronted what it might mean to be a bad grownup. I questioned the virtues of maybe being just a boring grownup. Best of all, though, I began to dream about what it might look like to be a great grownup. The kind of grownup I’d always wanted to become. The kind of grownup I’d forgotten I could be. The kind of grownup that the kids of the world need us to be.
It’s been both refreshing and frightening to discover that most of the adults I once looked to for guidance felt as clueless as I currently do. I spent years leaning on them for advice on how to do this life thing, and the whole time they also had no clue where to put their salad fork, either. That fourth-grade teacher who transformed the way I see the world and myself in it? She was a scared, new teacher just trying to figure it all out. That mentor I go to so often for advice on how to be fulfilled in my family and career? He’s trying to make sense of his place on this planet, too. My mother, who nurtured me, inspired me, and loved me into being? She was an overjoyed and terrified young woman, and I was her first child.
Growing up, just like breaking up, can be very hard to do.
This book is the result of hundreds of conversations with thousands of people, young and old, about becoming a better grownup. It began as a project focusing only on children’s ideas about growing up, but evolved to include my discussions on adulthood with actual grownups. Those in both the morning and the twilight of their lives have a lot to teach us about what it means to grow and mature. These people don’t always get the microphone, but this journey taught me just how much that needs to change. Each chapter focuses on key insights I’ve learned from listening to kids and former kids. I am indebted to the many educators in classrooms, assisted-living centers, and hospitals who opened up time in their already crowded schedules. These wise souls helped shape this book and, with no exaggeration, my life.
One thing great grownups do is tell bedtime stories. This book, however, is not a bedtime story. Bedtime stories are told out of a desire to lull a little one to sleep. Within bedtime stories we hide little pieces of goodness to help children in their waking hours. We tuck important lessons into these stories about sharing, telling the truth, and overcoming fear. But at the end of the day—and that’s when these are told—bedtime stories are really meant to reassure, calm, and get the young listeners to just go to sleep already.
I share this story, and this book, because it is a wake-up story. It is about my attempt to become a real-life, wide-awake grownup person. It is about how listening for wisdom woke me up. I asked questions and then did this thing that was fairly new to me, in which I actually listened to the responses. What I heard made me completely reimagine my adult life.
In spite of my uneasiness at being a grownup, I keep showing up. On the day my daughter was born, I held her. I’m told that each day, across the world, nearly 350,000 babies are born. That day, one of 350,000 new bundles of light in the world was handed to me. Me. There I stood, feeling a feeling that I’ve come to associate with being an adult: the feeling of being both gigantic and oh so very small. This new little baby girl looked up at me.
What did she do?
I recalled this moment to friends and loved ones later and they all unanimously agreed—it was gas. But I knew better. That little laugh was packed with hope and possibility. In spite of all my inadequacies and all my feelings of unworthiness, she laughed. This little girl entered the world and then my arms and then she immediately laughed. Having just accomplished one of the most remarkable feats any living thing can do—entering the world—she laughed. In the face of grand beauty and mystery, she laughed. Maybe we could all do the same.
In moments big and small, she has continued to laugh, affirming my suspicions that it really was more than just gas. There’s such a joyful lightness to her that, at times, I remain fearful she’ll simply float away. This led to the inspiration for a story included throughout this book, “The Incredible Floating Girl.” It’s a simple tale told in three parts, and it frames the book’s beginning, middle, and end. It’s not a bedtime story. It’s a wake-up story.
At this moment, we’re the grownups in the room. For just a few short heartbeats, blinks, and breaths, we get to be here. My hope is that this book inspires more moments of childlike joy for you. Holding my daughter that first day and hearing her laugh, I was overwhelmed by the exuberance. In that moment, my heart and mind were not occupied with the burden of adulthood. I was simply focused on the thrill and beauty of becoming a better grownup. Whatever your role or wherever you may find yourself, I hope this book inspires you to do the same. Secretly, also, my hope is that one day in the far-off future, should my children find themselves also scratching their heads about growing up, they’ll find this book right when they need it, read these stories, and remember.
While there is much I don’t know, one thing has become increasingly certain for me: Being a better grownup has a whole lot to do with being more like a child. We become fully alive when we listen to the child within us and the children around us. Our work, our ideas, our to-do lists, everything in our wake—it all changes when we view it as a child does. We become softer, kinder, and, yes, sillier. I’m convinced a life lived like this can create a more helpful and hopeful world for kids and former kids everywhere.
Here’s to better grownups. May we be them. May we raise them.
Excerpted from Becoming Better Grownups by Brad Montague. Copyright © 2020 by Brad Montague. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.