The Curse of Being Average and How to Flourish Anyway

FIRST, THE BAD NEWS: you are not permitted to be average. There is a rule. Surely you know this, even if the requirement is not written. It just “is.”

We think of the rule as a “curse,” one of life’s biggest problems, even if not much discussed. We therefore try to disguise our “averageness,” overcome it, hide it under a sofa.

When it doesn’t fit we get cosmetic surgery, tutoring, and take courses to improve our college entrance exam scores. Or lift weights, get tattoos, use makeup, wear fine clothing, comb-over a receding hairline, and rent the right apartment in the tony neighborhood. We even cheat on tests.

Have you ever met a person who prefers mediocrity? Who shoots for a pedestrian education at a run-of-the-mill school; or wishes he’d come from lackluster parents? “My dad is more average than your dad!” is not heard on the playground. We don’t want an undistinguished job at an average salary in an unremarkable town.

Why do so many worry about this? A few reasons:

  • There are no more small ponds. That is, you can’t easily be a “big fish in a small pond,” a standout in a village. TV, the internet, and the global economy make comparisons with the best people worldwide inescapable.
  • Many others are trying to “pretend” they are not forgettable. We often compare ourselves – knowing our personal deficits all too well – to the surfaces and self-reported glory of those who aren’t always honest in portraying themselves.
  • Life isn’t fair. The Theory of General Relativity had already been invented when you were born. Doing it a second time gets you no points on your score sheet. Nor can you split the atom or invent the steam engine.
  • We tend to compare “up.” We might remind ourselves that we aren’t at the bottom of the scale, but are more inclined to make comparisons with those we believe are “better off” and more worthy.
  • Much of the First World encourages the lie “you can be anything you want with enough effort.” Tell that to the guy who can’t tie his shoes but expects to compete in professional basketball or the lady who fails high school algebra and still wants to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. The media singles out the one person who triumphed over astonishing odds as an example of what is possible, not the tens of thousands who did not. We believe the media.
  • All of us have been transformed by evolution. Our ancestors succeeded in producing offspring who survived. Being above average tended to help in finding healthy mates and outmaneuvering bad guys. We instinctively aim for the same goals.
  • There is no escaping the bell-shaped curve. Think about intelligence. Assume all people fit into the bell-shape below. As one moves to the right of the tall vertical line marked 100, you find those higher in IQ (intelligence quotient). Moving from 100 to the left, the IQ scores get lower. Fifty-percent of all people fall below the arithmetic average of 100. Yikes!

THE GOOD NEWS: Being average doesn’t consign you to life’s landfill. If you don’t believe me, read The Invoice.

You have not only the inherent worth of your humanity, but whatever contributions you can make to society, friends, and family, even if those acts are not recorded in the history books. By the way, my contributions won’t be there either.

Be the best you can be, which in some areas may be above average, in others not. Giving maximum effort is within your power, even if sometimes you will only get a mediocre result. Such is life, no matter what you are told.

Be defiant in the face not just of worldly injustice, but nature’s random assignment of physical and intellectual gifts. Rip your life from Mother Nature’s hands and remake the internal qualities still in your control.

I have watched some of those gifted in the unequal genetic lottery – people of towering intellectual firepower – sink under the weight of a self-imposed desire to be “great” in the judgment of the world. They are like the mythological Icarus, who thought he could (and should) fly close to the sun, not remembering his wings were made of wax and would melt. Icarus fell to earth.

Some journeys are just too dangerous and difficult for all but a tiny few. Some journeys are not necessary unless your make them so. You can enjoy most other trips as long as a rarely achieved destination is not one of your requirements.

Near the end of our days most of us keep our own score – or no score at all. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” as William Bruce Cameron wrote.

If you are preoccupied by the placement of your face on the totem pole of life, the higher the better, you may be missing some things: the appreciation of experiences good and bad, what you can learn from failure and the different lessons taught by success; the value of friendship and love, the taste of food you prepared even if you followed a recipe, the wind in the trees, the smile between you and a stranger, a good novel, laughter …

You cannot make yourself grow six more inches, but you can change your character, make yourself proud of yourself because of your virtue and acts of kindness or fairness, emotional generosity or courage. We must accept some of our limitations. Socrates, still discussed over 2400 years since he died, was said to be a homely, penniless man. He was not concerned. He also married a woman who wouldn’t stop criticizing him. He wasn’t much concerned about this either. Be like Socrates but marry better.

If you stop condemning yourself for “not measuring up,” then you will have more time to enrich your humanity. The loftiness of your character is in your power. If you become an honorable person who demands basic decency of himself, not just others, you will have accomplished something beyond price or rating.

As Queen Elizabeth II said, “the upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.”

The top image is called Daruma by Soen Kogaku. It is sourced from Wikiart.org/ The Bell-Shaped Curve comes from IQ Test Labs.

13 thoughts on “The Curse of Being Average and How to Flourish Anyway

  1. Ha! Where to start? Odd that you should post this (synchronicity at its finest?) as I have been musing over this for the last couple of months. I hesitate to say it out loud but, yup, sometimes I am disappointed that I wasn’t much more than average in my life. I have thought about how it would have been to have been recognized for something beyond the contributions to community and family. I know those are important but how would it have been to have been the writer, the artist, or the politician that I admire? I was never destined for greatness in the world of science or technology (just not that interested) but I’ve always been passionate about words, people, our inner worlds and the connections between and among people. Those passions never brought me any kind of recognition but nor did I take the time and energy to fully pursue them. Too busy making a living and making a difference in my own world….
    I think it’s interesting to wonder why I would even care? I can rest assured that I was strong and capable in my professional responsibilities and that I made a difference (in the moment) to many kids, families, and coworkers while I was employed. I also know that my family of origin values me and the family that I created values me. So why would I even care about being better than average?
    I’ll think about that for awhile. Thanks for your insights.
    We are having a HOT June weekend – uncharacteristically close to 100 degree temps but I kind of like the change from the typical summer marine layer that keeps me in long sleeves for much of a summer day. How about Chicago? Enjoying your summer?

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      You are a thoughtful, considerate man, as I understand you. That already sets you apart. We all are programmed to care and reminded to care about our “ranking.” You’ve got lots of company, JT. As to writing, I recently had occasion to think about John R. Tunis, a prolific author of baseball books, widely read when I was young. I read a bunch of them. His name is all but forgotten today. You can find his books today for pennies. A good many are back in print after a long time being out of print. Will his name survive? Who knows. You and I won’t be around to see it, nor will Mr. Tunis. Sic transit gloria mundi. But the weather here is warm, if wet, so there are some compensations.

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  2. Outstanding article! Came from poverty and through a para-professional job, my husband and I achieved a middle-classed status. A big step up for me. We lived a simple life and saved our money. We are happy spending our time together. Life is good.

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    • Achieving and maintaining a middle-classed status, especially from the bottom up, is more and more remarkable in a time of increasing income disparity. You have much to be proud of. Thanks, Nancy.

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  3. While reading this, the words that came to mind were “average in some ways/things, great in others.” Thanks for this article. 🙂

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  4. i enjoyed this post, there is so many ways we try to not be average even without consciously thinking about it. I sort of think that there is safety in being average and you have more to connect with others by sharing your averageness with them. It can be a lonely place at the top

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  5. Yes, Claire, and the fall from the top, whether athlete or politician or entertainer, is both inevitable and greater. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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  6. Interesting article, Dr. Stein. Could it be that “the curse of being average” is a preoccupation of affluent societies? When individuals face economic, social or political adversity/oppression, concerns about being an average person are far from their thoughts. Survival is all that matters.

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  7. Many truths here and apt observations. I guess it also depends on one’s “yardstick”, doesn’t it? When comparisonitis strikes, it’s helpful to read obituaries. I’m often struck by the incredible tributes written for seemingly average or unknown people who were definitely not average to their loved ones–ordinary people who still managed to do extraordinary things. Never in these obituaries do I find references to one’s weight, waist size, number of Instagram followers, hours worked, or bank account (unless the person was one Forbes list). It’s hard to keep perspective when we’re encouraged to outdo each other. Our culture has almost turned the word average into an obscenity! On that note, I wish you an above average Father’s Day, Gerry. 🙂

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