Do You Need to Be Exceptional?

Photo by Peter Morawski on Trend hype / CC BY-NC-ND

Growing up, I always felt like I needed to be exceptional. I had to prove that I deserved to exist by winning an Academy Award or being on a 20 under 20 list - and then 25 under 25, then 30 under 30, and well, I never have made it onto one of those lists but I've kind of aged out of that kind of thing--I guess that dream is dead.

(Of course, I had a wonderful blend of insecurities that made me desperately want this kind of accolade but also led me to believe that I should excel through 'natural talent' and/or that I was so useless that putting myself out there would be an embarrassment, so I never actually put enough work into anything to give me these outcomes.)

My mom would often try to reassure me, telling me that most people are ordinary and that's a good thing, but I just hated the idea of blending in. If I was indistinguishable from the crowd then what was I?

Since learning to value myself as a human being I have had a decreased (although not completely eradicated) need to stand out.

If you identify, then I recommend you hop over and read this School of Life article "Overcoming the Need to Be Exceptional"?

They describe this intense need to be exceptional not as ambition or drive or something else to be lauded. They describe it as a problem:

"It seems odd to look at achievement through this lens, not as the thing the newspapers tell us it is, but – very often – as a species of mental illness. Those who put up the skyscrapers, write the bestselling books, perform on stage, or make partner may, in fact, be the unwell ones. Whereas the characters who – without agony – can bear an ordinary life, the so-called contented ‘mediocrities’, may in fact be the emotional superstars, the aristocrats of the spirit, the captains of the heart."

This reminds me of when I was on the SAD Mag podcast talking about my (very much non-bestselling) book. The host asked me if I thought that successful people could also be happy and I said probably not when it comes to the super-successful. The ones that are driven to never stop and achieve more and more greatness are probably compensating for a deep hole in their hearts.

She lamented that getting healthy then means becoming less impressive.

I guess that's true, but it's a matter of scale. There is a degree of greatness, I believe, that can come from a very healthy contribution to the world. A whole person who says, "I can make the world better in this way," and then offers up their best can be great. They just are unlikely to put in the life-killing, soul-smothering hours that it takes to be at the top of the pile because their goal isn't the top. Their goal is to make a contribution to a cause.

But there is an entirely different kind of greatness that has nothing to do with any of that. The kind that comes when you don't have a deep sense that you are not enough and give yourself to your immediate community: family, friends, and a simple job.

"There may be immense skill, joy and nobility involved in what we are up to: in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; in maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; in keeping a home in reasonable order; in getting a lot of early nights; in doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; in listening properly to other people and, in general, in not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive."

My grandpa was a man who lived just this way. His life was all about small things: family, friends, and his work as a math and science teacher. He volunteered for causes he cared about. When he was younger he worked weekends to make sure his family had enough. He was involved in his church. He took his grandkids on driving lessons.

When he passed away and people gathered to reminisce and celebrate his life, I realized just how great he had been--without magazine covers.

"As we may discover once we are beyond others’ expectations, life’s true luxuries might comprise nothing more or less than simplicity, quiet, friendship based on vulnerability, creativity without an audience, love without too much hope or despair, hot baths and dried fruits, walnuts and dark chocolate."

Right now my heart is whole enough to know that I will get more out of this kind of life than one where I chase accolades but not quite whole enough to let go of an inner fear of becoming forgotten or irrelevant. I am getting there. How about you?

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