Afraid of average

Graduation season is in full swing. I’m pretty sure none of the rousing college commencement speeches will be exhorting students to go forth and be average. The grads will be launched into the workforce where they will be bell-curved, compared, measured, scored, evaluated, and sometimes graded as average. But we need many average or ordinary people living their lives, doing their duty, to have a healthy and stable society. Can we exhort ordinariness without accepting mediocrity?

The media lead us to follow celebrities as their glamorous and decidedly not average lives are splashed across TV and the pages of People magazine. We see kids obsessed with likes, followers and selfies in an effort to be noticed, to have influence, to be anything but average. Is it not sad that many young people seem conditioned to think that their lives mean nothing if they are not popular with dozens of “friends” who have clicked on their Facebook pages?

We parents share the responsibility for this outlook.  As author Heather Choate Davis observed, “Our own egos are so fragile we cannot bear to give our lives to the raising of children only to have them become ordinary people. There, I said it. The worst thing a 21st-century child of interesting parents could be: ordinary. Like us.”

But, again, living the life of solid virtue and contribution to society is in the end what most of us must do for there to be any society at all.

Successful businessmen and -women are publicly feted, and we should absolutely celebrate their accomplishments, without envy. But while the business elites are impressive to read about, the average Joe will not flit off in a private jet, dine with elder statesmen or hobnob with the glitterati at Cannes.

For those in the workplace, the presumed default aspirational setting is CEO — or bust. But people seem to be more stressed than ever before. Stress happens when you feel you can’t control a situation. Take control of the situation, and you can take control over the stress. If you feel you should, rather than you want, to be chasing a promotion, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and reassess the situation.

When my children were young, I was the family breadwinner and had no choice about being in the workplace. At that particular point, I didn’t want to climb the proverbial career ladder because doing so would have meant even more sacrifices on the time I was able to spend with them. So I found ways to grow by taking on, contributing and excelling in lateral positions that gave me deeper as well as broader knowledge. That didn’t mean I didn’t want to do well, but I did want to lead a life on my own terms, not those of someone else.

In other words, I wanted to live an entirely average life.

“Excellence” and “average” are not mutually exclusive. If we do whatever we do to our best ability, and seek to do it well for its own sake, that may be average or ordinary but certainly not mediocre.

America can’t exist without “average” people. Average people raise their families, bake cakes, volunteer in the community, coach the local Little League team and sit on their town planning board. They go on vacation, send birthday cards, look for the best deals at the supermarket, chat with their kids on Skype and share photos and news on Facebook. They read books, meet their friends for coffee, host dinner parties and know where to go to get the best lobster roll.

They are ordinary people living average lives well and in that do extraordinary things.

As anyone who is an oldest child can probably relate, average isn’t acceptable. Most of us in this birth order feel intense self-pressure to be an overachiever, to accept nothing less than excellence and perfection from ourselves. And that is not bad to a point. But slowly I’ve learned to frame things differently, giving excellence a slightly different definition.

To me, that definition is a life well lived, not well worked, to love and be loved and to live a life in service to God and those whose lives intersect mine. Leave it to a queen (Queen Elizabeth II) to say it best: “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.”

My average life is wonderful. Happy, usually blissful, sometimes exciting, sometimes painful, filled with love, laughter, family and friends. Entirely ordinary and, I may hope, adding my small contribution to my country and society.

Sometimes average is something to celebrate.

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Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.