This month I’m posting every day, picking the top voted reader question and answering it. With 41 votes, submitted by Carey, is:
What is your advice to a guy who truly DON’T feel a calling/urge/nudge to be any other than an average Joe who loves his family?
My interest in this question is based on the fact that there are people who are pretty average and are meant to be. They are the blue collar glue that holds society together. With all the “you can be extraordinary” hype that is flying around these days, I wonder sometimes what those kind of folks take away.
In America we’ve perverted exceptionalism to mean something selfish. Much like the obsession with productivity, we’ve inflated people’s ambitions such that everyone believes they can be exceptional at anything they wish. There is an unavoidable arrogance in wanting to be great, an attitude of “Get out of my way, I’m trying to be exceptional!” To which everyone around says “yes, you are an exceptional asshole.”
Exceptionalism is not necessarily good. The worst people in history were exceptional, that’s why they’re in history books. Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pat, or even Madoff all did horrible, hurtful things to other people with their exceptional talents. They were also productive, shedding light on another value we’ve twisted into meaninglessness. Exceptional and productive people contribute only if they create positive value for others. Earning vast personal wealth or being a star-athlete doesn’t make you a good person, especially if your success has come at the expense of others. There are many examples of over-achievers who were awful to their families and friends, as their obsession with becoming exceptional blinded them to their the destructive power of the own narcissism. For the fate of humanity, it’s better that you’re mediocre at doing the right things than exceptional at doing the wrong ones. It’s ok to be average if you’re using your averageness for good.
If I were stranded on a desert island I wouldn’t want “exceptional people” as companions. There wouldn’t be enough space on the island for their collective egos. I’d want ordinary, good natured, honest, hard working people who were reasonable to deal with, had faith in collaboration, and wanted to build a community more than a shrine to their individual achievements. It’s people with blue collar attitudes who have had the most resistance to the hype of over-achievement. It’s people who felt comfortable with themselves without a world record to their name or a fancy car to drive that provide the basis for civilization at all. Most all-star teams fail because there is too much ego, and the level of talent is less of a problem that wanting attitudes. In most kinds of work you don’t need that many exceptional people to do the work a team needs to do.
It has always been the salt of the earth among us, like firefighters and teachers, that make the largest sacrifices for the smallest rewards, for the greater benefit of the people around them. They don’t do it to be on the cover of a magazine, they do it because it seems the right thing to do. They are the highest form of exceptional people in that they don’t demand attention for their contributions. They’re more interested in living in a loving family, a great neighborhood, or an amazing country, than any personal achievement, which fundamentally changes the way they apply their talents and who they hope to help with them.
We are a social species and it’s clear what matters most to our own personal well being are our bonds with friends, parents, children, coworkers and neighbors. It’s our ability to share our daily experiences with them that defines a fulfilling life more than anything else we do while alive. And it’s this that is the greatest tragedy of people in pursuit of the exceptional: they believe it is their achievements that will win them the love and respect they need to feel whole, when the opposite is true as wholeness can’t be won. It’s only through the ordinary, humble participation in the lives of people around us that fulfillment can be found.