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:
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”