In recent years, there has been a big shift towards being told that we are all extraordinary people and that we can all attain greatness – that we can all become legends. Perhaps this form of self-improvement advice has always been around and is now simply being magnified by the powerful influence of social media but I don’t necessarily think so.
There is an ocean of self-help books aimed at making you financially rich for example. Then there is the legion of popular Youtube channels pumping out inspirational and motivational content, telling us that we CAN be great and that we WILL be extraordinary…if we just listen to some ten minute speeches backed up by dramatic music and imagery of people working out. And let’s not forget the feel-good content enforcing the notion that we are ALL extraordinary people.
Being average = to have failed in life – apparently. Being average is to be a nobody and that’s a bad thing…apparently.
Before I continue however, let’s remind ourselves of the dictionary’s definition of “extraordinary”, shall we?
adjective: extraordinary; adjective: extra-ordinary
1. very unusual or remarkable
And here lies the biggest contradiction of all because if all of us could indeed become extraordinary then, by the metric of comparison, we would all once again be the same. We would be ordinary, not extraordinary. So to peddle the idea that we can all be extraordinary achievers living the high life is an outright lie. All of the self-help gurus seem to skip over this point but it’s hardly surprising when they are trying to get you to subscribe to their Youtube channels or persuading you to pay them money to access a simple five-step programmme that will have you wiping your nose with £50 notes and drowning in pussy within the year. The irony that they are making stacks of money from your desire to make money is so delicious, it has my mouth watering.
My initial inspiration for this post was Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck. It’s a book that I have referenced here numerous times (and even reviewed) and with good reason. The book contains straightforward, realistic advice centred around home truths and becoming more grounded. Mark puts the “extraordinary ordinary” contradiction like this:
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. When a culture’s standard of success is to be “extraordinary”, it then becomes better to be at the extreme low end of the bell curve than to be in the middle, because at least there you’re still special and deserve attention.
A lot of people are afraid to accept mediocrity because they believe that if they accept it, they’ll never achieve anything, never improve, and that their life won’t matter.
This sort of thinking is dangerous. Once you accept the premise that a life is worthwhile only if it is truly notable and great, then you basically accept the fact that most of the human population (including yourself) sucks and is worthless. And this mindset can quickly turn dangerous, to both yourself and others.
The ‘dangerous’ part is actually quite relevant to a theory that I read about the other day; a theory that inspired me to finally write this post. It was a discussion on the problem of mass shootings in the United States and why there are so many shooters that appear to have lost their minds and all empathy for other human beings. Could it be that their disilluson and disatisfaction with society led them to unload on a shopping mall of innocent civilians? Could it be that they feel that they were promised extraordinary things and a certain type of life – that they are owed it – and when it didn’t materialise, they converted all of their bitterness and warped resentment into an ammunition clip before emptying said clip into a school hallway?
I’m no psychologist or expert. I’m not even American. But even so, I saw some potential truth in that searching explanation for these heart-breaking tragedies that continue to occur in the US.
Because the education system is flawed. It teaches children what the System wants them to know in order to to mould them into shiny new cogs to keep the machine running; to keep business running; to keep the rich and the powerful in rich and powerful positions. We aren’t taught the realities of life. We aren’t taught about the real battles that we will have to face as individuals. School taught us that if we work hard and make good grades on our exams then the pieces will fall into place on their own. Our grades will earn us good jobs, we will own our own spacious home and we will drive about in a nice BMW or Mercedes. We will have a beautiful wife and two beautiful kids that we love playing with in the back garden.
Except it doesn’t necessarily work that way and to lag behind on reaching that destination means that you are failing. I worked hard all through school and got great grades but I haven’t “made it” yet. I left education just as the banking crisis tanked the economy and so my grades and CV didn’t mean jack. Eventually, I took a retail/manual labour job in order to get some money coming in and to gain work experience and guess what? I’m still there. In a different role but still there in the same sector. Thing is, school and education doesn’t teach you that there are other obstacles such as personal motivation and self-confidence, both of which I admit to suffering with. After all, you can get the best grades but if you aren’t great with people then the paper they are printed on could be irrelevant. In my case, I’ve never had any real direction or firm idea of what I wanted to do.
Right now, I too could be severely disillusioned and feeling betrayed by society. In fact, I DO feel a pang of jealousy when I see a dude around with his beautiful lady and two kids, enjoying themselves in the park or at the beach. I think to myself, “damn, that’s where I should be by now.” In this situation, it’s easy to feel resentful and bitter about society. It’s easy to hate on other people. But I have to remind myself that everybody’s situation is different and that some people DO have distinct advantages or have had better opportunities. I am an average guy with an average job, an average pay, average looks and you know what? That’s okay. I have Grand Canyon-size space for improvement but it isn’t failure. I know that I’m not owed anything. It’s all down to me to work things out in my head.
Unfortunately, our lovely media is more than willing to finish the job that education systems start. We are shown a 24/7 feed of people who have achieved extraordinary things. We follow and idolise celebrities with fat bank accounts who are untouched by the “street” problems that we average folk have. We digest carefully-packaged TV shows that follow successful people and their money-making antics. We put our brains on the shelf and stare at “reality” television which, in fact, is nothing like reality at all. We forgo personal development and improvement for hours of watching our favourite Youtubers and their lives or scrolling through the social media feeds of those with more money and material wealth than us.
And all of it is force-feeding our subconscious a highly toxic message: if you aren’t like these extraordinary people then you are a nobody – you are failing at life.
If you aren’t earning wads of cash and driving about London in a supercar then you are a lower-class person who is doing life wrong. If you don’t have Kate Upton’s tits or Kim Kardashian’s arse then you aren’t attractive. If you aren’t living in an expansive, modern home then you are slumming it and are failing. If you aren’t the life and soul of the party then you are boring and irrelevant. If you are a guy and you don’t have a trouser-straining horse cock then you won’t be able to satisfy women in bed.
I could keep going but there isn’t the need – you get what I’m saying here. The message from society is clear: if you aren’t like these uber successful or beautiful people then you aren’t doing it right.
Being “extraordinary” is directly linked to success and how we elect to measure it. The problem is that we have a pretty shitty metric for success, especially here in the West. We judge the worth of others based on their bank balance, material wealth or physical looks and we are judged on the same criteria by our peers. Worse still, we compare ourselves to others – compare ourselves to the extraordinary people that we are shown by the media. We are all different and live in different situations with different backgrounds. To pit yourself against somebody else, Top Trumps style, is utterly pointless and harmful to your own personal growth.
I should point out (disclaimer-style) that we aren’t all guilty of being so shallow and misinformed. Likewise, not everybody is out to reinforce the fallacy of extraordinary = successful. But it is an undercurrent that undeniably runs through our society.
I’m also not saying that there aren’t useful things that you can take from the abundance of self-improvement videos and books out there because there certainly is. Anything relating to how the human mind works or can be utilised in a better way for example. You should also still seek improvement but it needs to be on your terms, not somebody else’s. You need to improve for yourself and for your loved ones, not for society.
Basically, focus on yourself and do what you need to do in order to feel happy in yourself and be the best version of you. Don’t do what society encourages you to do. Don’t aim to be like what you see on TV or social media. Most importantly, stop comparing yourself to others and judging your worth based on whether or not you measure up to them.
It’s okay not to be extraordinary. Being average is not failure.