Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary.
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?
Madeline Levine, a psychologist, said that for baby boomers, “the notion of being special is in our blood.” She added: “How could our children be anything but? And future generations kept building on that.”
More recently, 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. Because “extraordinary is often what the general public views as success,” said Jeff Snipes, co-founder of PDI Ninth House, a corporate leadership consulting firm. “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?”
Ordinary and normal smack too much of average. It seems that we all want to live in Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average.
Ms. Levine said she was once scheduled to give a talk on parenting the average child at a school in Marin County, Calif. Although she usually packs in the audiences, not one person showed up.
“Apparently no one in the county has an average child,” said Ms. Levine, the author of the forthcoming book, “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success” (HarperCollins).
While there are some extraordinary children out there, the myth is that all children in high school will be like that, she said. And that, Ms. Levine said, is putting enormous stress on students.
Most people, she said, have talent in some areas, are average performers in many areas and are subpar in some areas.
The problem is that we have such a limited view of what we consider an accomplished life that we devalue many qualities that are critically important.
“We would do kids a great service if we opened the tent a little more,” Ms. Levine said.
The Toronto Star did that in March 2012 when it printed a column about Shelagh Gordon, who recently died of a brain aneurysm, with the headline, “Shelagh was here — an ordinary, magical life.” At the same time, The Star ran online interviews with more than 100 people whose life had been touched by the 55-year-old Ms. Gordon.
Read more at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/your-money/redefining-success-and-celebrating-the-unremarkable.html?_r=1&ref=education