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In Defense of Being Average

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In Defense of Being Average

There’s this guy. World-renowned billionaire. Tech genius. Inventor and entrepreneur. Athletic and talented and handsome with a jaw so chiseled it looks like Zeus came down from Olympus and carved the fucker himself.

This guy’s got a small fleet of sports cars, a few yachts, and when he’s not giving millions of dollars to charities, he’s changing out supermodel girlfriends like other people change their socks.

This guy’s smile can melt the damn room. His charm is so thick you can swim in it. Half of his friends were TIME’s “Man of the Year.” And the ones who weren’t don’t care because they could buy the magazine if they wanted to. When this guy isn’t jetsetting around the world or coming up with the latest technological innovation to save the planet, he spends his time helping the weak and helpless and downtrodden.

This man is, you guessed it, Bruce Wayne. Also known as the Batman. And (spoiler alert) he doesn’t actually exist. He is fiction.

It’s an interesting facet of human nature that we seem to have a need to come up with these sort of fictional heroes that embody perfection and everything we wish we could be. Medieval Europe had its tales about gallant knights slaying dragons and saving princesses. Ancient Rome and Greece had their myths about heroes who won wars single-handedly and in some cases confronted the Gods themselves. Every other human culture is replete with such fantastical stories as well.

And today, we have comic book superheroes. Take Superman. I mean, the guy is basically a God with a human body wearing a blue jumpsuit and red underpants on inside-out. He is indestructible and unbeatable. And the only thing as sturdy as his physical fortitude is his moral fortitude. In Superman’s world, justice is always black/white, and Superman never wavers from doing what’s right. No matter what.

I don’t think I’m exactly shaking up the field of psychology by suggesting that, as humans, we have a need to conjure up these heroes to help us cope with our own feelings of powerlessness. There are over 7.2 billion people on this planet, and really only about 1,000 of those have major worldwide influence at any given time. That leaves the other 7,199,999,000 +/- of us to come to terms with the limited scope of our lives and the fact that the vast majority of what we do will likely not matter long after we’ve died. This is not a fun thing to think about or accept.

Today, I want to take a detour from our “make more, buy more, fuck more” culture and argue for the merits of mediocrity, of being blasé boring and average.

Not the merits of pursuing mediocrity, mind you — because we all should try to do the best we possibly can — but rather, the merits of accepting mediocrity when we end up there despite our best efforts.

Behind the Curve

Everything in life is a trade-off. Some of us are born with high aptitudes for academic learning. Others are born with great physical skills. Others are athletic. Others are artistic. Others can fuck like rabbits and never break a sweat. In terms of skills and talents, humans are a wildly diverse group of smelly creatures. Sure, what we end up accomplishing in life ultimately depends on our practice and effort, but we are all born with different aptitudes and potentials.

Bell curve

This here is called a bell curve. Any of you who have taken a statistics class and survived will recognize it.

A bell curve is quite simple. Take a population of people, like, let’s say people who play golf at least once a year. The horizontal axis represents how good they are at golf. Further to the right means they’re really good, further to the left means they’re really bad.

Now, notice that it gets really thin at the far ends of the curve. That means there are a few people who are really, really good at golf. And a few people who are really, really bad. The majority fall into the mediocre middle.

We can apply a “curve” in this way to tons of things in a population. Height. Weight. Emotional maturity. Wages. How often people like to fuck. And so on.1

For example, this is Michael Jordan dunking a basketball:

Animated GIF of Michael Jordan dunking

It’s well-known that he’s one of the best to ever do it. Therefore, he’s way on the right side of the bell curve, better than 99.99% of anyone else who has ever dunked a basketball. Few can compare.

Bell Curve

Then you have this guy:

This Guy Not Dunking

Obviously, he’s no Michael Jordan. In fact, chances are many people reading this right now could do much better than this guy. That means he’s probably towards the bottom end of the bell curve, an extreme on the other side.

Dunk Comparison Bell Curve

We stand in awe of MJ because he’s more athletic than all of us.2 We laugh at the trampoline guy because he’s less athletic than most of us. Both are at different extremes of the bell curve. And most of us are the majority in the middle.

We’re All Pretty Average at Most Things

We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. But the fact is, most of us are pretty average at most things we do. Even if you’re truly exceptional at one thing — say math, or jump rope, or making money off the black gun market — chances are you’re pretty average or below average at most other things. That’s just the nature of life. To become truly great at something, you have to dedicate time and energy to it. And because we all have limited time and energy, few of us ever become truly exceptional at more than one thing, if anything at all.

We can then say that it is a complete statistical improbability that any single person can be an extraordinary performer in all areas of their life, or even many areas of their life. Bruce Wayne does not exist. It just doesn’t happen. Brilliant businessmen are often fuck ups in their personal lives. Extraordinary athletes are often shallow and as dumb as a lobotomized rock. Most celebrities are probably just as clueless about life as the people who gawk at them and follow their every move.

We’re all, for the most part, pretty average people. It’s the extremes that get all of the publicity. We all kind of intuitively know this, but we rarely think and/or talk about it. The vast majority of us will never be truly exceptional at, well, anything. And that’s OK.

Which leads to an important point: that mediocrity, as a goal, sucks. But mediocrity, as a result, is OK.

Few of us get this. And fewer of us accept it. Because problems arise — serious, “My God, what’s the point of living” type problems — when we expect to be extraordinary. Or worse, we feel entitled to be extraordinary. When in reality, it’s just not viable or likely. For every Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, there are 10 million scrubs stumbling around parks playing pickup games… and losing. For every Picasso or DaVinci there have been about a billion drooling idiots eating Play-Doh and slapping around fingerpaints. And for every Leo Motherfucking Tolstoy, there’s a lot of, well, me, scribbling and playing at writer.

The Tyranny of a Culture of Exceptionalism

So here’s the problem. I would argue that we have this expectation (or this entitlement) more today than any other time in history. And the reason is because of the nature of our technology and economic privilege.

Having the internet, Google, Facebook, YouTube and access to 500+ channels of television is amazing. We have access to more information than any other time in history.

But our attention is limited. There’s no way we can process the tidal waves of information flowing through the internet at any given time. Therefore the only ones that break through and catch our attention are the truly exceptional pieces of information. The 99.999th percentile.

All day, every day, we are flooded with the truly extraordinary. The best of the best. The worst of the worst. The greatest physical feats. The funniest jokes. The most upsetting news. The scariest threats. Non-stop.

Our lives today are filled with information coming from the extremes of the bell curve, because in the media that’s what gets eyeballs and the eyeballs bring dollars. That’s it. Yet the vast majority of life continues to reside in the middle.3

Extremes Bell Curve

It’s my belief that this flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that “exceptional” is the new normal. And since all of us are rarely exceptional, we all feel pretty damn insecure and desperate to feel “exceptional” all the time. So we must compensate. Some of us do this by cooking up get-rich-quick schemes. Others do it by taking off across the world to save starving babies in Africa. Others do it by excelling in school and winning every award. Others do it by shooting up a school. Others do it by trying to have sex with anything that talks and breathes.

There’s this kind of psychological tyranny in our culture today, a sense that we must always be proving that we’re special, unique, exceptional all the time, no matter what, only to have that moment of exceptionalism swept away in the current of all the other human greatness that’s constantly happening.

For instance, here’s a five minute video of nothing but some of the most amazing feats you can imagine:

The crazy thing is that every single person in this video, for their five seconds of incredible footage, likely spent years and years and years practicing their craft as well as dozens of hours of recording to just get that perfect five second spot.

Yet we are not exposed to those years of practice. Or those hours of drab and failed footage. We’re merely exposed to each person’s absolute finest moment — possibly in their entire lives.

And then we watch this and forget about it within minutes. Because we’re onto the next thing. And then the next.

B-b-b-but, if I’m not going to be special or extraordinary, What’s the point?

It’s an accepted part of our culture today to believe that we are all destined to do something truly extraordinary. Celebrities say it. Business tycoons say it. Politicians say it. Even Oprah says it. Each and every one of us can be extraordinary. We all deserve greatness.

Oprah gives away tacos

The fact that this statement is inherently contradictory — after all, if everyone was extraordinary, then by definition, no one would be extraordinary — is missed by most people, and instead we eat the message up and ask for more. (More tacos, that is.)

Being “average” has become the new standard of failure. The worst thing you can be is in the middle of the pack, the middle of the bell curve.

The problem is that, statistically speaking, pretty much all of us are in the middle of that bell curve almost all of the time, in almost everything we do. Sure, you might be a world-class putt-putt golfer. But then you have to go home and be a lousy father and get drunk on cheap beer faster than 90% of the population and piss the bed at night. Or worse, you could be Tiger Woods. No one stays exceptional for very long.

A lot of people are afraid to accept mediocrity because they believe that if they accept being mediocre, then they’ll never achieve anything, never improve, and that their life doesn’t matter.

I find this sort of thinking to be dangerous. Once you accept the premise that a life is only worthwhile if it is truly notable and great, then you basically accept the fact that most of the human population sucks and is worthless. And ethically speaking, that is a really dark place to put yourself.

But most people’s problem with accepting being average is more practical. They worry that, “If I accept that I’m average, then I’ll never achieve anything great. I’ll have no motivation to improve myself or do something great. What if I am one of the rare few?”

This, too, is a misguided belief. The people who become truly exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they are obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. That they are mediocre. That they are average. And that they can be so much better.

This is the great irony about ambition. If you wish to be smarter and more successful than everybody else, you will always feel like a failure. If you wish to be the most loved and most popular, then you will always feel alone. If you wish to be the most powerful and admired, then you will always feel weak and impotent.

All of this “every person can be extraordinary and achieve greatness” stuff is basically just jerking off your ego. It’s shit sold to you to make you feel good for a few minutes and to get you through the week without hanging yourself in your cubicle. It’s a message that tastes good going down, but in reality, is nothing more than empty calories that make you emotionally fat and bloated, the proverbial Big Mac for your heart and your brain.

The ticket to emotional health, like physical health, comes from eating your veggies — that is, through accepting the bland and mundane truths of life: a light salad of “you’re actually pretty average in the grand scheme of things” and some steamed broccoli of “the vast majority of your life will be mediocre.” This will taste bad at first. Very bad. You will avoid eating it.

But once ingested, your body will wake up feeling more potent and more alive. After all, that constant pressure to always be something amazing, to be the next big thing, will be lifted off your back. The stress and anxiety of feeling inadequate will dissipate. And the knowledge and acceptance of your own mundane existence will actually free you to accomplish what you truly wish to accomplish with no judgments and no lofty expectations.

You will have a growing appreciation for life’s basic experiences. You will learn to measure yourself through a new, healthier means: the pleasures of simple friendship, creating something, helping a person in need, reading a good book, laughing with someone you care about.

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? That’s because these things are average. But maybe they’re average for a reason. Because they are what actually matter.

Footnotes

  1. These curves are not always symmetrical and they vary in their height and width, but the same concept applies.
  2. Yes, even more athletic than Kobe Bryant. Yeah, I said it.
  3. There’s a great quote from Eric Hoffer that says, “The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle.”
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