In the novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller wrote: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.” The implication was clear: being mediocre or just ordinary is a bad thing and to be avoided at all costs. Yet most of us go on to live by most measures are pretty ordinary lives.
So what’s wrong with being ordinary?
Okay, so what is really wrong with being ordinary then?
Clearly, we live in a world of the extraordinary. Social media ensures we are constantly exposed to the brilliant showreel of our lives. All this is leaving some feeling like they are not quite up to the mark, or making the most of their time at work or life. Whilst the overwhelming feeling of being distinctly inadequate and having a flagging sense of self-esteem. Social media is both a pleasure and a curse in this case. LinkedIn, for example, we tend to celebrate the extraordinary, the high achievers and the people telling you about the anonymous good works they do.
Our culture insists we are all destined to do or be something truly extraordinary. They tell us that each and every one of us can be extraordinary. We all deserve greatness and to have greatness thrust upon us. This statement is contradictory of course. As if everyone was extraordinary, then by its very nature, no one would be extraordinary. Being average or just plain old ordinary has become the gold standard for failure. The worst thing you can be is in the middle and a very average individual. Most of us shy away and are afraid to accept being ordinary. Accepting the ordinary suggests we will never achieve anything worthwhile. Never improve and that life will never amount too much. It’s a tough gig being in the middle these days.
Taking pride in the ordinary
Anyway enough of all that, the question you might be asking, what is ordinary and why highlight ordinary people and ordinary lives? All good questions of course. To be ordinary, to applaud ordinary, to accept the ordinary is not always viewed as a worthwhile pursuit. After all, the definition of the ordinary is the routine or of a kind to be expected in the normal order of events. However, to be able to appreciate the ordinary is a skill and a way of life, that enables us to lead extraordinary fulfilling and satisfying lives. Being accepting of how things are, helps us to relieve the stress and anxiety of a need to bolster a need for status and adulation.
Left is a bell curve that we all recognise and no doubt get the principle. Take any group of people with any subject and you will see the same spread of results I am sure. (Image – https://markmanson.net/being-average)
Now, notice that it gets really thin and pointy at the far ends of the curve. Meaning, of course, there are very few people who are very good and truly bad. However, the two outliers are the aspects the media & social media focus upon. This the constant drip feed of bloated overblown achievements, that can crush our self-esteem and pride in our own achievements. Remember the promise of us all being able to achieve greatness and to be brilliant at what we do? All this keeps us striving toward unachievable goals, or buying more stuff to help us feel good when things are not quite how we want them to be.
On Being Ordinary
Clearly, the majority of us fall into the ordinary, average or middle. Hence the fact there will be more ordinary people in the middle than either side bell curve. Absolutely no harm in striving to be better of course through many different means. The theory of deliberate or purposeful practice developed by Anders Ericsson (2016) and Matthew Syed (2011), is as good as any and can be attributed to the root of many successful people in sport, work and in life. The targeting of a skill that needs to be practised purposefully over and over again to gain mastery over it.
Most of us do things because we enjoy them and that’s all fine and dandy. However, we will never gain mastery over it as it’s just for fun. When we identify areas to purposefully practice and work on, with a growth mindset with time and application we can get close to excellence. That’s the theory at least.
Leading an ordinary life is by no means a cop-out by any stretch of the imagination. We all I am sure to have aspired to greatness at some point in our life, (I wanted to be as good as George Best but that is a whole other story). However following the hollow dream can be a worthless and disappointing activity. Leading to a range of difficulties and mental health challenges. Clearly setting out to be mediocre or ordinary can never be the goal either. Although for some people just achieving this state is a long and difficult path.
Supporting the Extraordinary
The extraordinary is the people who do and accept that the outcome of being ordinary is just fine. People that do most jobs that are………..well just ordinary. They may be parents doing jobs that are perhaps routine, straightforward and perhaps a little humdrum. They rationalise these jobs as doing it for the kids or any number of other reasons. On reflection, they are perhaps the most balanced of people who accept work as what it is a means to an end. A means of getting money to pay their bills and support the family. What more noble enterprise to engage in than doing a job for those reasons. Extraordinary people who have embraced the celebration of the ordinary and have accepted that contentment and satisfaction ar all okay.
Needless to say, as mentioned earlier we cannot accept that being just ordinary is the goal……or can we? Having had the privilege of working with so many disabled folks with huge challenges, long-term unemployed, those returning from a long illness or parents getting back of the career horse after a long period of childcare; the ordinary will do quite nicely thank you. Those hard-working people view that fulfilling independent work and just being “ordinary” again is the goal. The extraordinary sensation of being accepted as a co-worker, working mum/dad, freelancer etc and by getting to the ordinary is inspiring to a very ordinary person like me.
Deliberate and Purposeful Practice.
In a coaching context to move people forward to their goals, we can utilise the theory of deliberate and or purposeful practice as discussed before. We identify the knowledge, skills, experience and abilities the individual has, along with the deeper stuff about self. Stuff like the vision for career/work, drives and motivations, beliefs and values and how we could stretch the individual to look at areas of improvement. The practising of the key skills in a career, the direction of travel, a narrative that tells the listener why they would be foolish not to employ this individual.
Of course, the individual has to“want” to practice these aspects of their career and to grab opportunities when they appear. This is why the people mentioned before become exceptional. They have faced the numerous issues that they have and navigated their way around it, identifying key areas to develop to help them become extraordinary. So the extraordinary story becomes the ordinary that enriches all of our lives. All this creates confidence, improved self-esteem, self-efficacy and a purpose to get life back on track through meaningful work. Whilst striving to be just ordinary again.
Needless to say, these techniques are not just for those who have faced difficult challenges. Anyone who aspired to be a better leader, manager or transition a career into something that is more meaningful. Anyone that wants to get better at an interview, develop a compelling CV, start a business/freelancing etc, then all of this applied in equal measure. Of course, I am just touching the tip of the iceberg for helping people develop careers and meaningful work.
Can we accept our Ordinaryness?
So where is learning to accept the ordinary leading us? For most people, the problem with accepting being ordinary can be more practical. We worry that “If I accept that I am ordinary, then I will never be respected or achieve anything.”There will be no motivation to improve or do something other people will be proud of. What if I am just ordinary?
Of course, this is a misguided belief. Those that become truly extraordinary in life do so because they don’t believe they are exceptional. They become great because they won’ tot improve their lot in life and become exceptional through hard work, deliberate or purposeful practice, grit and determination. That drive to become exceptional then stems from the unshakeable belief that they are not that great at all. That they are in fact just very ordinary. They are in the middle and can achieve so much more. In the case of the extraordinary people mentioned before, they are determined to have a life that they can be respected and have a normal life once more. The sheer hard work and determination make them exceptional.
We know deep down that not everyone can be extraordinary and achieve greatness. Like those pseudo-inspirational quotes that are there to make you feel good for a few minutes and to get you through the day. However, we get somewhere close if we dedicate ourselves to the theory that practice makes perfect. So please strive to be extraordinary in whatever you do in your work or life whatever way we choose to do it.
Ridding yourself of the constant pressure to always be something outstanding will be lifted if we embrace and celebrate our ordinary self. The stress and anxiety of feeling inadequate will start to dissipate. The knowledge and acceptance of our own ordinary existence can free us to achieve what you truly wish to accomplish. Help us to focus on what is important and make the most of what we are without the need to be a world beater. So go forth celebrate the ordinary.
Ericsson, A. Pool, Pool. (2016) “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Syed, Matthew. (2011) “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”, Fourth Estate
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