In a recent New York Times article (6.30.2012), journalist and author Alina Tugend suggests that, at a time when young people are exhorted and expected to be exceptional, there may be something to say for the virtues of being unremarkable. The following is a selection from her piece.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the ordinary and extraordinary lately. All year, my sons’ school newsletters were filled with stories about students winning prizes for university-level scientific research, stellar musical accomplishments and statewide athletic laurels.
I wonder if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.
We hold so dearly onto the idea that we should all aspire to being remarkable that when David McCullough Jr., an English teacher, told graduating seniors at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts recently, “You are not special. You are not exceptional,” the speech went viral.
“In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement,” he told the students and parents. “We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”
I understand that Mr. McCullough, son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, is telling these high school seniors that the world might not embrace them as unconditionally as their parents have. That just because they’ve been told they’re amazing doesn’t mean that they are. That they have to do something to prove themselves, not just accept compliments and trophies.
So where did this intense need to be exceptional come from?
Parents seem to be increasingly anxious that there just isn’t going to be enough — enough room at good colleges or graduate schools or the top companies — for even the straight-A, piano-playing quarterback, and we end up convinced that being average will doom our children to a life that will fall far short of what we want for them.
As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and author of the book The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden, 2010) said, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.”
And that’s a problem, says Jeff Snipes, co-founder of PDI Ninth House, a corporate leadership consulting firm. “Extraordinary is often what the general public views as success….You make a lot of money or have athletic success. That’s a very, very narrow definition. What about being compassionate or living a life of integrity?”
How do we go back to the idea that ordinary can be extraordinary? How do we teach our children — and remind ourselves — that life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes, but can be more about our relationships and special moments?
As Mr. McCullough said in his graduation speech: “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.”
When I told a friend that I was writing this column, she reminded me of the last paragraph of George Eliot’s great novel “Middlemarch” and its celebration of the ordinary: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
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See also: Did Krugman Go to Economics Camp? (Comments on “You’re Not Special”)