You Can Be Ordinary and That’s Okay

When we were kids, we were told that we could achieve anything.

You are unique, you are special, you are gifted.

Was our mantra; the soundtrack of our developing years.

We had our names Sharpied on star stickers on classroom walls. We received participatory ribbons at talent shows, spelling bees, and school spirit games. We grew up with Harry Potter, Power Rangers, Teen Titans, Matilda, Batman – all who were bestowed extraordinary gifts; all fitting into the narrative that we are extraordinary main characters in a world of ordinary side characters.

Thus enrobed with protective layers of hyperbolic affirmations – we set off to claim the world. We envisioned ourselves propelling through triumph after triumph and alighting gloriously at the peak of our luminous accomplishments.

But dreams rarely align with reality.

The real world barged into our visions, denied our gifts and held us down as we watched our dreams drop one by one.

Image by Joe Dator for The New Yorker

Image by Joe Dator for The New Yorker

Thus we lumber through life with each layer of affirmation peeled, scratched, torn off by the bitter elements stinging our deflating hearts. In our lowest moments we rip the layers off ourselves. Life isn’t fair.

Life isn’t about talent and even hard work doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s genetics, luck, statistics, a combination of a million other things beyond our control. Some people make it, the majority doesn’t.

We’re not all born to be CEOs featured on the Forbes spread, we’re not all meant to be chart-topping artists, we’re not all destined to write a Barnes & Noble Bestseller with our smiling portraits emblazoned on the back cover, or destined to be Olympians, or the next Elon Musk or Jackie Chan.

That’s the gut-wrenching truth.

We are learning it the hard way. We see special folks soaring ahead as we slam into plateaus after plateaus and start all over just to get back on track again. Aren’t we special too? If they’re made of the same stuff (star stuff, as Sagan says) and we all shit the same stuff and decompose into the same stuff – why are they so different from us?

To console ourselves, we dole out bravado aphorisms such as “A winner is a loser who never quit,” and other blanket statements to assuage our searing realizations that hard work won’t take us to the top.

But that doesn’t mean we should quit trying. We may never see our progresses reach the height that “special” people achieve, but when we climb enough to reach the bright clearing where our successes shine brilliantly in our lives – we are being extraordinary.

Perhaps we’ll never be famous-extraordinary. Perhaps we’ll never reach perfection or towering success, but there is something extraordinary in being ordinary.

My mantra had become, as Chuck Palahniuk articulated:

You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.

And that brusque reality is okay. It’s okay to be ordinary. We’re not the blazing sun lighting up the world, but we are flecks of stars everywhere, tiny but glimmering.