3 min read

A theory of maturity

Reader question: “Maturity—what does it mean and how is it achieved? Does artistic or business vision reflect it?”

I may be getting over my skis here as I don’t claim to be mature, but I do have a theory of maturity.

Maturity is the ability to act congruently to different situations. Acting congruently is a way of relating to a situation that is appropriate given the context.

I’ll describe this definition in relation to growing up, and then try to come back and see if it connects to artistic and business vision.

A big part of growing up is learning that different situations require different modes of interaction.

Your default mode as a kid is to just express whatever emotion arises in the moment.

So parents and teachers introduce the concepts of “being polite” and “having manners.” These are socially constructed systems that make maturity easier by giving you simple rules to follow that often lead to congruent action.

When you ask for something you say “please.” When you receive something you say “thank you.”

Like any explicit framework, manners have their limits. The most congruent action may be impolite in the moment, but you have to learn scales before you can play jazz.

This model of maturity also captures the failure mode that you can fall into when trying to be “more mature”: you just pick a singular mode and default into it all the time.

For a lot of people this is “sit down and shut up” mode. This is a mode that can be very successful in school—you won’t get in trouble and everyone will say you’re a good kid. The adult version of this is “office drone” mode where you’re basically “sitting down and shutting up” all day every day. This is how squares get made.

It also applies in the other direction to people who exclusively stick to a more high energy mode regardless of the situation. See: successful businesspeople unable to exit “business mode” and have a personal life.

You should act differently at a wedding reception, a funeral, and a football game. Different situations will call for you to act pious or riotous, solemn or silly, reserved or reckless, and any other reaction that fits the situation. And of course, what each of these reactions look like will vary strongly from person to person.

But the challenge with taking this approach is that you will mess up a lot. If you remain in “sit down and shut up ” mode, you won’t bump up against the walls of different contexts. You won’t make mistakes, but you also won’t learn what those situations are really calling for.

So what does maturity in business and artistic vision look like?

Business is maybe an easier place to start. Maturity in business is about becoming familiar with the rules and systems that make up the business world. That world itself is massive and complex, with tons of different contexts ranging from the norms of being a self-employed freelancer to an executive at a large corporation.

I’ve only experienced small subsets of that world, but as you get more experienced you recognize how different congruent action can look in different situations.

Your relationship to customers, clients, employees, the market, competitors, investors, partners, your own product... the list is endless.

Take your relationship to the market. An immature relationship to the market is to make something and then get mad and stomp your feet when the market doesn’t want to buy it. A mature relationship to the market is to try to understand and navigate that relationship with all of the reading between the lines, customer relationships, guesswork, and placing bets that you recognize might still not pay off despite all the work you did. And if they don’t pay off, genuinely internalizing the reasons why.

And just like growing up, the only way to truly internalize the shape of the different contexts in the business world is by bumping up against their walls. Looking to the elders in any context can be helpful—parents and teachers when growing up, folks like Warren Buffett when running a business—but experience is still mandatory.

Artistic vision is a bit harder for me to speak to, since there are so many different worlds that exist within “art.” There’s the “art world” of museums and galleries, there’s the world of having art as an engaging hobby, there’s “art” as commercial entertainment product, and then there’s a kid fingerprinting.

Maturity at the highest level of abstraction would be understanding which world you’re inserting yourself into, and not fooling yourself about what that means. For example, approaching art as a hobbyist (making something on nights and weekends that speaks to you) and then not being confused when the “art world” doesn’t care about you (I have no idea what the first step would be here but probably something more akin to talking to a gallerist or dealer) would be immature.

Maturity isn't necessarily “better”. Immaturity can be a great way to break through harmful norms, and reset them in the direction of a more valuable outcome. But the line there is always blurry, and often only legible after the fact.

But maturity can make it easier to navigate the world. As your understanding of different contexts grows there are fewer genuine surprises. And when there is a surprise, it feels more like an exciting chance to update your growing understanding rather than a frustrating mystery. The hard part is remembering the limits of that understanding and where it ends. But that too is its own maturity that is rewarding to grow.