Why It’s Ok To Be Average

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, and Pol Pot 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.

10 Responses to “Why It’s Ok To Be Average”

  1. Mike Nitabach

    Great post, Scott. It illustrates vividly the delusion that underlies disdain for managers and lauding of “superstars”. By creating supportive contexts in which multiple reports can fulfill their own professional goals, have fun, and earn a living, good managers have the potential to create a lot more net happiness than superstars working solely for their own benefit.

    When I started my scientific career, I wanted to become “famous”. Now I find it much more rewarding to focus on creating a great environment for young scientists to fulfill their own scientific and professional goals.

    1. Scott

      Thanks Mike. I had similar ambitions early in my career and had a similiar change of philosophy.

      One omission in the post is the possibility of being a star and being community oriented. It’s certainly possible. I do know a handful of people I’d put in that category, so I don’t think it’s a true dichotomy. But for the purposes of a short essay I left out that case.

      It’s also true that to be a great athlete or scientist you depend on others significantly – it’s possible to both an arrogant and humble person, depending entirely on who is around you at the moment.

      There was another 400 words of my draft that I cut that tried to explain why American culture places so much pressure on individuals to achieve in a very individualistic way, and if that’s a recent phenomenon or not. But I decided that’s another line of thinking entirely.

      1. Christoph Begall

        I hope that you will take the time to also write something about this line of thought, because hopefully that would be valuable in dealing with this phenomenon. Maybe sometime….

  2. Shantnu Tiwari

    Great post.

    The problem is, most so called “exceptional” people that the media loves are actually assholes (and I use the term in the purely clinical way as defined in Bob Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule). Like investment bankers, these assholes lead to good short term gains, at the expense of long term growth.

    If we go back to our caveman roots, anything that helps the tribe is what makes us useful to the tribe. A good parent maybe more useful to the society than some high flying executive who ignores his kids for his company, and ends up losing both.

    At the end of the day, I think we need to define our own rule for what is exceptional. As you say, we may need more people doing stuff that benefits the society, our tribe. Who gets more respect- the investment banker who earns eight figures, or the nurse who works with the elderly? Who do you think people will get up and offer a seat on a busy train?

    1. Scott

      Shantnu. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I suppose the missing piece is media that reinforces the values you describe. For some reason popular media today (or ever?) doesn’t focus on those stories. Why is this? Everyone blames media companies, but they respond to culture at large and what sells.

      You’re right, we need to define our own rules for what’s exceptional. Although it has it’s shortcomings there are magazines like Good that claim to be about a certain form of progress. In theory the web grants us the ability to choice what we consume, but somehow it seems it hasn’t been as liberating or as enlightening as it was supposed to be. I need to think about this more.

      1. Shantnu Tiwari

        “In theory the web grants us the ability to choice what we consume, but somehow it seems it hasn’t been as liberating or as enlightening as it was supposed to be. ”

        I think the reason maybe, that in spite of all the power the web gives us, most people are still dumb consumers. Most people don’t even comment on blogs- if they find something they don’t like, they just move away and never challenge the author.

        Reading blogs like yours and the commenters here may give the impression that there is a huge number of enlightened people on the internet; but if you really look at it, percentage wise, its an insignificant minority talking to another insignificant minority.

        But would be interested to hear your further thoughts on the subject.

  3. Sean Crawford

    Back when I was a soldier on parade being addressed by our officers and important strangers, everyone made sure to tell us that we were important and worthy just as we are, having our professional standards of excellence and “help a buddy” actions. Normal is good, and if someone is awarded a medal for heroism or earns a promotion that does not diminish the rest of us at all.

    I thought of this when a civilian schoolteacher was on the radio saying he was against awards lest normal kids, as he put it, “feel punished.”

    For Shantnu especially:
    If only a minority get involved in life, then I want to be part of that minority.

    At my university there was some poetic justice: Most students would (sarcasm) suddenly discover their school spirit on late Friday afternoon and cram like idiots into the bar… Only those precious few with the spirit to read/hear/watch student media would know about a temporary liquor license thingy off in a lounge. Going there, I would know all the faces from during the week: here were the students with initiative. I always had a good time.

    1. Shantnu Tiwari

      “If only a minority get involved in life, then I want to be part of that minority.”

      I agree whole heartedly with this!

    2. Scott

      As do I.

      Aren’t our closest friends simply a minority of our choosing?


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