You don’t want to be typical

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School was easy for me most of the way through. I got A’s and I didn’t have to try. When I got a B, I was asked what’s wrong. The first time I got a C, I think a special parent-teacher conference was arranged.

Most of my friends were thrilled that they “passed”. Some of their parents gave them money for C’s and up.

I resented the double standard. I almost always did well, so why was I rewarded for that with increased scrutiny and disappointed faces?

A lot of times in my life I figured if I was doing better than average, better than typical, then I should be happy with my efforts and so should everyone else. If “typical” is good enough for the typical person, then hovering a little above “typical” should be more than enough, or else I must have entitlement issues.

It took me a long time to learn that typical is no good. There’s no reason to regard it as the “good enough” line. Typical health is pretty bad. A typical career is draining and unrelated to the worker’s real interests. Typical credit card debt is in the thousands. The typical level of fulfillment in a person’s life is far below where it could be with some self-examination and habit overhauls.

Having higher standards than what’s typical doesn’t mean you think you’re better than everyone else. It only means everyone is running way below their capability, and you want to make up some of the distance. It’s one of the most tragic yet also glorious truths of human beings: that we tend to live up to only a fraction of our potential, in virtually every area. There’s no reason to assume that on average people make use of 50% of their capabilities. Our species should win the “squandered potential” award.

But aren’t we the species that builds incredible buildings, writes brilliant literature, and achieves staggering technological innovations? Not really. It’s not our species that does those things. It’s always the work of individuals who are celebrated precisely because they are exceptional. All of the familiar symbols of high human achievement — the Gandhis, the Edisons, the Picassos and Gretzkys — were atypical. They had atypical standards for their work and for their conduct. They did not do what everyone else was doing. They didn’t find a comfortable place in the middle.

What keeps us all so lame? Conformity, for the most part. A fear of sticking out, screwing up, falling down. We are silently guided by an absent-minded belief that we shouldn’t do things other people aren’t doing. The safest thing is the old thing, the proven thing, the boring thing. The typical thing.

Don’t use what’s typical as your standard for yourself. Being a fear-driven person, I did for a long time in pretty much every area, and so I figured carrying a “manageable” Visa balance, for example, was okay. I thought spending $3000 a year on drinking was okay, that it was okay to leave dishes in the sink and clothes in my floor, that it was okay to eat crap food because it was apparently good enough for people around me.

We use what’s typical to calibrate our expectations for how much we ought to earn, how much time off is reasonable to insist on, how much frustration our relationships and obligations should create for us, the scale of our goals, and how happy we ought to be to be. Don’t do this.

Millions of people believe that when they finally make high five figures, have a home and kids and a faithful spouse, that they ought to be happy, even though they know they’re not. They know they meet society’s standard, but have never thought that society’s standard should have nothing to do with their own. 

Inside we all know that a lot of areas in which we are typical are areas where we are selling ourselves short. Typical is disappointing, regardless of what other people think of it, because almost everybody recognizes in themselves they are capable of a lot more than they’ve ever actually seen from themselves. Nobody dreams of being typical.

You do not want a typical job. You do not want typical credit card debt. You do not want typical health. You do not want to retire at the typical age. You do not want typical results. You do not want a typical level of fulfillment. Nobody does. Stop pretending.

We often defend habits that keep us mediocre because we reason that staying afloat is hard enough, so why should we need to add extra effort to that? But it doesn’t work that way. Staying afloat is harder than cruising, and even flying, in anything but the very-short-term.

What makes life hard is enduring a typical, draining line of work, suffering from typical finances and typical health, spending a typically low amount of time on creative pursuits, and putting off atypical ideas you have, like working for yourself or selling everything and traveling abroad.

Others will, typically, encourage you to be typical. It makes them feel better about their typicalness. Tell people you want to travel in the Middle East and they’ll tell you it’s dangerous. If you take a leave of absence to write a book they’ll tell you it’s a bad career move. If you say you intend to retire at 40 they’ll laugh. Refuse to eat meat, open up your relationship, or go Buddhist, and watch otherwise good-hearted people try and keep you typical.

Typical isn’t always inadequate or unfulfilling, but it usually is, and it should trip a red flag for the growth-oriented person. An area in which you don’t exceed typical is probably an area where you’re making a major compromise that keeps you from much higher levels of fulfillment and peace. Some part of you knows it.

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Photo by e.t.


Kurt Gundersen November 14, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Hmmm I think there’s an awful lot of suffering in this comment thread. Everyone trying so hard to figure out what they should be doing, how they should measure that, what it means to be typical, a-typical, at what level will I finally feel satisfied, etc. And as soon as you think you figured it out, the rug gets pulled out from under and you realize that wasn’t it either. Ego will jump through hoops to justify just about anything.

If we end up beating ourselves up because we haven’t been deemed better than the average/typical Joe, then I’m not sure how helpful that is.

I play the guitar. I’m pretty good, not great. Could be better if I wanted but why? If I’m happy with my level of guitar playing, why should I strive to be better than average? Maybe I’m already better than average, maybe not even close. I don’t even know and I don’t care. Reaching my full potential as a guitar player doesn’t equal happiness or make me a better person. Maybe I’m driven to be the best guitar player I can be. That’s fine too but that means the time spent doing that is going to result in my being average at a lot of other things because there are only so many hours in a day.

I think if we look to our level of ability at a variety of things to build up our ego and make ourselves feel good about ourselves, it’s just going to be a losing battle in the long run. Live a good life, be of use, help others as much as you can. Striving to be better at all you do all the time and thinking that’s going to lead to happiness or satisfaction is just a formula for achieving neither of those things; that striving will never end. Let our natural, healthy passion dictate what we excel at. If you love to sing and being great at it (or the best you can be) is your passion, go for that! But there are only so many hours in a day and driving ourselves into the ground to better ourselves (and outperform the average person) in as many things as possible will just lead to not a very happy life, always chasing after some ideal that only exists on a relative level that is constantly changing anyway.

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