In Defense Of Being Average

We're all exhausted from the quest to be the best. What's wrong with being average?

In today’s competitive world, being called “average” feels offensive. The word “ordinary” is often synonymous with failure. The suggestion that you’re just like everybody else is an insult. Instead, we all want to be special, unique, and exceptional.

Except that the vast majority of us are not.

“Our desire to excel has to do with evolution and the idea that if you were the average caveman, you’d starve to death,” says Dr. John Grace, a Crystal River, Florida, psychiatrist and author of The Importance of Being Average (John Grace, 2008). “Just getting by didn’t quite make it then, and we’ve inherited a sense of desperation in our genes. As a result, we think that just making it today is much more horrible than it really is.”

The 2012 Wellesley, Massachusetts, High School commencement address given by teacher David McCullough sparked controversy when he told the graduating class: “You are not special. You are not exceptional . ... You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.” Some called McCullough “mean-spirited,” while others praised him for telling the truth. McCullough's speech touched a nerve and grabbed our attention, going viral with more than 2.3 million views.

While we don’t want to be considered average, we don’t mind assigning the title to others. “We don’t get mad at people when they’re doing the best they can,” says Grace. “It’s easy to accept the rest of humanity as being average; it’s only devastating when it comes into your private circle.”

But being average is a worthwhile endeavor, says Grace. He offers four reasons why accepting your limitations can give you an advantage:

1. You’ll Be Happier

People who accept being average tend to be happier people, says Grace. “Striving for excellence is a constant struggle,” he says. “The world tends to reinforce us and pat us on back when we’re achieving and improving, but even professional athletes plateau.”

Instead of feeling validated by external accolades, Grace says average people learn to validate their own existence. “When you stop looking over your shoulder for a reaction, you’ll have a better quality of life,” he says.

2. You’ll Be More Productive

When you embrace the areas in which you’re average, you’ll maintain a higher level of productivity, says Grace.

“Average people are satisfied with consistent, sustainable performance instead of looking for an exceptional performance,” he says. “Consistent is easier to maintain over a longer period of time.”

3. You’ll Find Satisfaction in More Areas

Chances are your greatest joy will come from an area of your life in which you’re average, says Grace.

“I’m much better at taking tests than I am at being a parent, but parenting is much more rewarding,” he says. “When you realize you’re an average parent who will make mistakes, it can become one of the most enjoyable aspects of your life. And how you handle your life becomes a model for your children.”

Grace says you can try to improve areas where you’re average, but don’t obsess about making them amazing. “We all have natural weaknesses that aren’t ever going to be exceptional,” he says. “It’s about accepting our limitations.”

4. You’ll Lead a More Balanced Life

If you’re determined to be exceptional, then you’ll only pay attention to an area where you get reinforcement.

“John McEnroe is an exceptional tennis player, but he’s below average at anger management,” says Grace. “Average people feel a better sense of balance because they’re not so focused on one aspect of their life.”

Accepting average also allows us more opportunities. “Many of us deny areas or avoid doing things we’re not good at to maintain an illusion of perfection, but we end up missing out on a lot of things that way,” says Grace. “When you accept that you’re average, you can explore several areas instead of focusing where you have to be amazing.”

[Image: Flickr user Christian Kadluba]

Add New Comment

8 Comments

  • Ian Wasti

    Stephanie, I just wrote a book about this entire concept. I'm a government consultant who has seen too much effort and stress expended by people that doesn't result in outcomes that result in real happiness. I've been on a mission to de-program us from the motivational posters and meaningless platitudes of our lives. I currently have a kickstarter project for the book, check it out: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/31387505/the-perfect-antidote-why-greatness-is-overrated

    The book is finished and I have the preface up on the site. Would love to get feedback and comments and continue the dialogue. Great article!

  • chartlittleford

    With all due respect, I don't think the Bill Gates example is exactly on target. He at least is brilliant at something ... most of us aren't and that is what's hard to accept. I love the idea of this article though. Point 1 seems spot on and in-and-of-itself worthy of exploration. The rest of the points are not convincing. #2: It's hard to imagine there's an inverse correlation between success and productivity. Steve Jobs, Frank Gehry, Diane Sawyer, Meryl Streep ... these people all look incredibly productive to me. #3: Under no circumstances can you compare the rewards of test-taking to that of parenting regardless of competency. And #4: I don't think John McEnroe would prefer to be an average tennis player with a cool attitude. Even still, I yearn to be convinced that I'm better off being average but this summary of Dr. Grace's work doesn't do it.

  • Ian Wasti

    Great comments. I think the argument is even deeper though. Your point about Gates is true and that most of us don't have his skill set, or Jobs', or Streep's. The problem is in that most of us are average despite a pursuit of "success" that has essentially failed. We spend excess effort and stress and strife for outcomes that 1. we're often not capable of achieving, and 2. don't equate to our true happiness anyway. I would also argue that there is NO correlation between success and productivity. There are too many random factors in our lives to be able to say that doing more equals "success" Check our Dr. Leonard Mlodinow's book "The Drunkard's Walk". What if we stopped a blind pursuit of societal definitions of success and greatness and instead realized when "Good" is good enough? If you yearn to be convinced, i encourage you to check out my argument here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/31387505/the-perfect-antidote-why-greatness-is-overrated

    Thanks!

  • Gennaro Ascione

    I think that this article is sharable. You have to know your limits in order to accept them. At the same time I think that you always have to try to improve yourself. In other words, I can say: "I know that I am not a champion, but I can always do something more, so just try!".

  • Sheila Hendry

    We are all average and always will be. Let's just imagine Bill Gates sewing a dress for one of the Pink Helmet Crew. Computers, brilliant, sewing a Tutu, I so very much doubt. Just cos someone is brilliant at something that the world sees doesn't mean he is brilliant at everything. We are all a bit of everything and if we add up our good bits and our not so good bits we must end up with average.