Have an Average Day
Enjoying the ordinary is extraordinary
Illustration by Thom Glick
I once was talking to my friend and mentor Steve Chandler when he said to me, “Have an average day!” Taken aback, I asked him what he meant. Isn’t the idea to have great days, even exceptional ones?
He told me a story about one of his mentors, Lyndon Duke, who studied the linguistics of suicide. After receiving doctorates from two universities, Duke began analyzing suicide notes for linguistic clues that could be used to predict and prevent suicidal behavior in teenagers.
Duke came to believe that the enemy of happiness is “the curse of exceptionality.” When everyone is trying to be exceptional, nearly everyone fails because the exceptional becomes commonplace, and those few who do succeed feel isolated and estranged from their peers. We’re left with a world in which a few people feel envied, misunderstood, and alone, while thousands of others feel like failures for not being good, special, rich, or happy enough.
When I was in the thickest cloud of my own suicidal thoughts, I was at university and I remember wishing that I could run away from my scholarship, change my name to Bob, and take a job pumping gas at a full-service station somewhere in the Midwest. Only in my fantasy, people would start to notice something special about me. They would begin driving miles out of their way to have “Bob the service guy” fill up their cars and to exchange a few words with him, leaving the station oddly uplifted and with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose.
I was, to my way of thinking, doomed to succeed.
Delusions of grandeur? Quite possibly. Depressed and miserable? Absolutely.
One of Duke’s breakthroughs came when he was dealing with his own unhappiness and heard a neighbor singing while he was mowing his lawn. Duke realized what was missing from his life: the simple pleasures of an average day.
The very next weekend, he went to visit his son, who was struggling to excel in his first term at university. “I expect you to be a straight C student, young man,” Duke said. “I want you to complete your unremarkable academic career, meet an ordinary young woman, and, if you choose to, get married and live a completely average life!”
His son, of course, thought Dad had finally flipped, but it did take the pressure off him to be quite so exceptional. A month later he phoned his father to apologize. He had gotten A’s on his exams, despite having done only an average amount of studying.