human behavior

On being ordinary

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Habits & Manners, Recommended Reading by humanb on July 3, 2012

I’m not special.

I haven’t excelled at sport. I quit basketball in 10th grade because I didn’t care enough about winning (or practicing) and was starting to suck.

I quit women’s rugby too – halfway into my sophomore year of college, because I couldn’t be bothered learning the rules properly (or weight lifting), and it was starting to show.

I haven’t excelled academically. Yes, I was a straight-A student in high school (not ordinary), and would’ve been salutatorian, but once I was told there was a race for the 2nd prize, I started skipping calculus. So I slid to 3rd.

And fine, I graduated from Harvard (not ordinary), but I remember about 10% of what I’ve learned there in terms of information, and will be paying for that amnesia for the next thirty years in monthly instalments of $168. I did come away from college with much stronger critical thinking and communication skills than I had previously; but those skills and that degree didn’t translate into an illustrious career.

Speaking of which, I haven’t excelled professionally. I’m a junior doctor now, as of 1.5 years ago, but I don’t plan on specialising in anything. I’ll probably work in an Emergency Department as a part-time, non-specialized medical officer for the duration of my working life, because I want the maximum amount of free time possible to do all this other stuff, like write, draw, make driftwood crafts, hang out. Still, sure, being a doctor isn’t ordinary, but my job status is certainly perceived as such within the profession.

And I haven’t been keeping up with the Joneses in the white picket fence race either. I’ve got no house to show off or renovate, and no exceptional children to boast about.

I don’t even have a Facebook account or Twitter feed, so I’ve got no ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ to speak of. Also, I’m pretty sure there are fewer than thirty of you that even bother to skim this blog.

And you know what?

I’m fine with all that.

In fact, it never occurred to me to be not fine. Like most people, I suffered delusions of grandeur well into my 20s. I knew I was destined for great things, and not only because my mother had said so. These things didn’t eventuate however and I can’t say that I was terribly disappointed in the end. When I finally came to the realization that I was ordinary, it was more of a quiet ‘Oh’ moment.

There’s an article in the New York Times about how children today feel enormous pressure to excel. To be special. To distinguish themselves. And as an end in itself rather than for the benefit of some greater good. The article was inspired by the commencement speech of English teacher, David McCulough, Jr. to Wellesley High School seniors this past June. He told them they weren’t so great after all: “You are not special. You are not exceptional.” He also said this, which I think all parents should tell their children (and themselves):

“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

Teachings don’t get any more basic than that. That’s kindergarten stuff right there. It’s almost insane that so many of us reach adulthood without having learned it.

Go live your life already and stop measuring it against some stupid rule bar. Chill out. Be a decent person to everyone and find pleasure where you can.

 

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5 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on July 3, 2012 at 7:05 am

    I think special people have the characteristics discussed in the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. Speaking as one that knows YOU, it is the way you live your life, human behavior, that makes YOU “special.”
    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/if/

  2. Terri said, on July 4, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Well, you make a great point about the importance of contentment in our lives. I’ve thought about this post for a bit and it’s odd because I see you as such an extraordinary sort of person that I can’t imagine how you see yourself as so ordinary. I suppose we can never be objective about ourselves. I was reminded of something historical (surprisingly!). When Julius Caesar finally was able to view a famous bust of Alexander the Great, he went into a fit of uncontrollable weeping. He said that he knew that no matter what he accomplished in his life, he’d never be as great as Alexander.

    Caesar seriously needed to read this blog.

    • humanb said, on July 4, 2012 at 12:04 pm

      What a great story about Caesar! Thanks for the compliment, T. Whether I’m ordinary or not, or whether anyone else is or not, is not as important I think than accepting that it’s perfectly okay to to be an average Joe or Jane, provided you’re decent and give your all. Thanks for reading!

  3. Sullen Jones said, on July 7, 2012 at 9:29 am

    I enjoy your blog posts. I found this one very engaging and I immediately started penning a reflection of thoughts while riding the bus. (Sadly, I must admit, I had to summon the courage to publicly post my thoughts which I am usually reticent to do.) Alas …

    Ordinary – what is it? Is it a moving target, much like exceptional is? For example, the fact that you don’t have an active Facebook or Twitter account could be seen as exceptional. It depends on the context, the environment, or the people you are being compared to, right? I think being ordinary or exceptional is less about comparison and context and more about identity. Children adopt the idea they are special, exceptional, etc., in part (I surmise) they go from being the center of the universe (massive amounts of attention directed their way) to having to share the spotlight with … everyone else! This is a jarring transition for some. As they formulate their identity (or deal with the one thrust upon them), slowly but surely (we hope) they realize their identity is not about attention received nor the possibility of being exceptional or ordinary. It is about how they conduct themselves during life’s journey, and not only what choices they make but how they make the choice and deal with the ramifications of those choices. Do you disagree or agree?

    I resigned from my gig last month. My last day is later this month. I have always wanted to fight injustice, make the world a better place, more efficient, thoughtful, and with less unnecessary pain.* I have been successful at doing so “on the side.” I have worked hard to be more than a decent human being. When looking for new career options over the last four years, however, I discovered that I too deeply tied my “good” identity to the options. Subconsciously, I felt as though I would betray myself but taking a role that did not fulfill my desires for good, progress, thoughtfulness, etc.. I’m not sure if this is the right way to look at the world or working. Specifically, identity and one’s vocation need not (and probably should not) be one in the same. So, if you lose your job or vocation, one does not lose the self.

    So between the exceptional and the ordinary, who is the person? My hunch is that as s/he dives within and unearths or summons spirit, soul, “true self”, s/he will excavate uniqueness, which is by nature exceptional — not that it matters.

    (*Philosophically, I wonder if there is a such a thing as “unnecessary pain” if one assumes choice, false choices, and cause and effect cause it. Things happen for a reason: microscopically because of a choice and, macroscopically, experience can lead to knowledge, wisdom and understanding.)

    • humanb said, on July 7, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Thanks Sullen, for sharing you exceptional thoughts. 🙂 Your supposition about the development of children is right I think. They are at one stage the most egocentric creatures and are forced to reconcile their self-perception with the reality of a world in which they are but one of many, not the centre of the universe. Your words regarding identity are true and eloquent: “[T]hey realize their identity is not about attention received nor the possibility of being exceptional or ordinary. It is about how they conduct themselves during life’s journey, and not only what choices they make but how they make the choice and deal with the ramifications of those choices.” I especially appreciate your mentioning “how they make the choice and deal with the ramifications”.

      Congratulations on leaving your job! A life spent proving something to anyone but yourself is a life wasted. You have the most noble of goals: to fight injustice, to make the world a better place.” I share them, but one of us is actually doing something to achieve those goals. Taking risks. I don’t suppose there is anything I can do to support your efforts, but let me know if there is.

      And thank you for reading! I’m honoured that you take the time.


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