I am average. I am mediocre. I am not exceptional. This is exactly how I want to be! This was a huge lesson for me to learn, but my life changed when I finally did learn it. (Photo from Vodka, Unicorns, and Lincoln Logs)
When I was young, I wanted to be an exceptional student. I studied constantly. I wanted to be exceptional because I fed off the attention it got me. I felt I had to work even harder to prove myself since I was short and overweight. I didn’t fit the societal norms on how I should look or act in high school. So, I wanted to be exceptional in school to feel like I was worthy since I felt like I was an outcast most of the time.
Yes, I did earn fantastic grades, but overachieving in school never got me what I wanted and that was to be liked and fit in. I was trying to prove my worth by showing that I could study and study and do really great. However, many years later, I now know proving your worth is a waste in time.
It took me years and years to learn that my value and worth wasn’t based on what other people thought. It wasn’t even dependent on what I achieved. My worth, your worth, and everyone’s worth is inherent from the moment we are born. It is rooted in our humanity and is part of our gift of getting to live. Trying to be above average or exceptional means you are always trying to prove your worth. When you try to prove something, it means you feel like you are lacking.
Now, I get it. The society we live in does set up all these standards and norms to regulate our behavior. And in our capitalist society, it does want to place a value system on those standards and norms to determine our worth. But statistically speaking, if everyone is exceptional doesn’t exceptional just become the average? Think about driving. We all love to think we are great drivers, but I think most insurance companies will classify us on a bell curve meaning most of us our average drivers.
According to Mark Manson, if all of humanity falls across a bell curve of exceptional, average, and below average, only 1% of would be exceptional and only 1% would be below average. That’s not a lot of people being exceptional considering there are more than 7 billion people on this planet. Plus, when you think of someone who is exceptional, are they exceptional at only one thing but nothing else. Take Simone Biles; she is an exceptional gymnast. But is she an exceptional business woman or scientist or artist? To become the elite athlete she is, she had to give everything into her training, which probably doesn’t leave time to become exceptional at much else. I don’t know about you, but I have too many things that I love and I’m passionate about to commit to one thing to become exceptional. I don’t want to miss out on those things, so I’m choosing to be average at the many things I love.
Still using Simone Biles as an example or any other elite athlete, what happens when they can no longer do their sport? They are no longer going to be exceptional and join the ranks of the average. And it can be much worse! What if that athlete develops their entire concept of self-worth around being exceptional, and they can no longer compete at the elite level they were? What happens to their concept of who they are? It seems like it is potentially a very dangerous mental place to be.
Trying to be exceptional as child affected me as well. It’s common to have that youthful exuberance that I’m going to change the world. I’m going to leave an impact. I’m going to study hard, be successful, and achieve, achieve, achieve. I really believed I was special and was going to change the world. Now, there are kids out there doing just that and I don’t want to stop them. But I wonder how many of them have their self-worth tied up in it like I did.
Tying my self-worth to my achievements caused me to have 3 major breakdowns/breakthroughs where I decided to completely change my life and change me. The first breakdown was during college when I had to give up the idea that I was a science person who was going to be an engineer when she grew up. My senior year, I switched majors from environmental engineering to women studies and my life changed for the better. The second breakdown was when I was finishing grad school. I had always pushed myself from a young child to be the first person in my family to get a PhD. By the time I was done writing my master’s thesis, I knew I was done with academia and wanted to try something else. So, I moved to California to start my corporate career.
I put my heart and soul into my corporate job with the goal to climb. When I moved to California and started this job, I thought I’m going to go do this job and achieve, achieve, achieve. I overworked and destroyed my health. After 10 years, I was totally miserable with my life, my job, and who I was as a person. I also had lost myself which happens when you work 60-to-80-hour weeks all the time. The last two years, I started questioning everything, but I didn’t know what to do next or how to make the changes that would help me be more satisfied with life. But what I did do is start thinking about my self-worth, and how I had attached to what I accomplished and how hard I worked. I started to realize my value as a human isn’t all this work. It’s how I live my life as a human. My value was my whole being.
I also started exploring cemeteries on all my travels to photograph them. I can remember sitting in the cemetery in Barcelona thinking about these monuments to the dead. The only memory of some of the people buried there was their monument in stone. I thought, I’m not that special. I’m not changing history. No one is going to remember me 50 years after I die. I’ll just be another headstone. All the things I’m trying to achieve or accomplish in hopes of being exceptional don’t mean anything after I’m gone. And here I was making myself miserable trying to be exceptional. So, it was freeing to think, “I’m not special.” I’m never going to change history. I’m just a cog in the wheel. I’m average. I don’t have the power or riches or network or influence to change the world, so why am I destroying myself over this.
I still didn’t know how to change my life, so I stayed another year in my career until I was laid-off. Which helped prove even more, all the hard work and accomplishments I had in my career didn’t make me valuable to the company. Thank goodness I had already started the work to define my value as inherent and as being a kind and good person. In the year after the Barcelona cemetery, I had work to move my self-worth from my achievements to me as human based on how I lived my life with love, acceptance, forgiveness, and many more human qualities.
After being laid off, I went on a 4-month road trip adventure to explore the US and try to get back in touch with myself. That road trip was a gift and allowed me to re-evaluate what I valued in my life and how I defined success. I remember feeling like I had been sold a false story on what it meant to be successful: have a good job, work hard, climb the ladder, get the promotion, and so on. I had bought into a lie that wasn’t making me happy with my life.
As I travelled around the US, I started to think about what was important to me in life, what were my values were, and what success meant. I realized that people and deep connections with people was extremely important. It was more important for me to see the beauty and abundance that surrounded me every day in this world than it was to have a powerful career. But this change in me didn’t completely solidify until I was finished with my road trip and trying to figure out what to do for work next. Although I loved my California life, I need the big fancy career to continue to afford to live there. I decided to move back to Ogden so I could have more options on what to do with my life, and after 4 months of living here I knew I was going to stay.
I also knew that I was no longer going to focus all my energy on what I accomplished. Rather, I would focus on people, art, and connecting to the world around me. I also knew that I wasn’t going to strive to be exceptional anymore. That wasn’t a value that suited me. I was comfortable in being average.
What I found is that being average gave me freedom to try new things. I no longer had the expectation I would need to excel or be good at something to do it. I could do things because they brought me joy or contentment. I didn’t have that nasty bug of perfectionism floating around me (which I will talk about in another blog). I was able to jump into Ogden with a full heart and participate in everything I loved because I loved it, not because I was good at it.
Also being average doesn’t mean I’m not trying my best or working hard. It means I am content with what I do and who I am. I’m not trying to overachieve. I’m not defining my value in what I accomplish. It means that I can try new things. I can continue to grow and learn, and it gives me a lot more space to grow and learn since I don’t have to strive for the unattainable perfect. I am no longer constantly trying to prove myself to myself. I can relax and enjoy my life because my worth as a human is inherent. Every time I go to compare myself or criticize myself for not accomplishing enough, I sit back and think – I AM ENOUGH!
Through a lot of this process and redefining my values, I’ve also thought a lot about the world I want to live in. How do I contribute to making the world a better place? I realize being exceptional or special might give me a little more influence over big structural changes I’d love to see in the world, but I wasn’t born into that world. All I can do is focus on my life and how I live it. I might have the power to influence those around me so we can create a better place together. But honestly, being special or exceptional isn’t a help in this situation. My being average means I can live my values of love, kindness, acceptance, and connection to each other and the earth as an example that anyone and everyone can do too. You don’t have to be special or exceptional. You just have to be you, and I just need to be me. Average is exactly how I want to be.