Have an Average Day

Enjoying the ordinary is extraordinary
by Michael Neill, from Catalyst
January / February 2008
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Illustration by Thom Glick

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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.

This is the paradoxical promise of an average-day philosophy: The cumulative effect of a series of average days is actually quite extraordinary.

If we put this together with another one of Duke’s discoveries—that the meaning of our lives comes from the differences we make with them, though these differences need not be huge to have a profound impact—we may well have the ultimate prescription for a happy, productive life:

Be an average, happy person making a small positive difference (and having a happy, average day). In doing this, you create a kind of exceptionality that everyone can share.


Michael Neill (www.geniuscatalyst.com) is a success coach, media commentator, and author. Copyright © 2007 Michael Neill. Excerpted from Catalyst (Sept. 2007), an independent journal of healthy living. Subscriptions: $18/yr. (12 issues) from 364 E. Broadway, Salt Lake City, UT 84111; www.catalystmagazine.net.


Calculating Cumulative Rewards

With just a little mental math, you can calculate the exceptional impact of a series of average days.

1. Choose an area of your life in which you have been trying to excel, such as writing, sales, or being a parent.
2. Consider what would constitute an average day in that area. For a writer that might be 90 minutes of writing; in sales that might be speaking with five new prospects; a parent might aim to spend an hour a day 100 percent focused on the kids.
3. Project forward. If you did nothing but repeat your average day five days a week, what would you accomplish in three months? A year? Five years?
     Writing 100 or so hours over a three-month period is enough to complete a book; in a year that would be two books, some poetry, and a screenplay. Speaking with 100 new prospects over the course of a month would definitely lead to new sales.
     A parent who spends at least an hour a day focused on children racks up 90 hours in three months. In five years, if a parent made even a small difference in each of the 1,800 hours she or he spent, the impact would be anything but average. —Michael Neill


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Post a comment below.


1/5/2008 12:00:00 AM
As someone who has suffered from mental illness, this idea has been quite "normal" for me for some time. During the depths of my depressed despair, I went to a bank. The teller had on "average" clothes, an "average" hairstyle, and had pictures of her "average" children at her booth. In a flash of an instant, I could see her "normal" day, married or not, getting up to help her kids get to school, coming to work, cleaning house when she got home, putting the kids to bed. And I thought about how frustrated she might think she was with this arrangement. But for me it was miraculous! Did she know how lucky she was to have an "average," "normal" life? It was an insight which changed my experience of living. And if that's not enlightenment, what is?

M. Laurel
1/4/2008 12:00:00 AM
The concept of "average" being "enough" has profound potential, certainly for the original audience of suicidal teens who feel they don' measure up. Why then the summary sentences: "Be an average, happy person making a small positive difference (and having a happy, average day). In doing this, you create a kind of exceptionality that everyone can share."? Then the purpose for allowing oneself to be avergage mutates into a desire to achieve "exceptionality." Argh! Must we aim to find that everything is in some way rich and fulfilling? Do people feel guilty because they were unable to effect significant change in the lives of others today . . . or because we heap accolades on those who do Big things and ignore those who don't? As long as we define who we are by what others perceive us to accomplish, we are all doomed to feel that our own small lives are less than significant, even a drain on society. This is the kind of thinking that engenders thoughts of suicide, and not just among teenagers. Where is the satisfaction that could come from being able to say at the end of the day that, "I hurt no one. I cheated no one. I belittled no one. I judged no one. I brought no heartache into the world today."?

Dr. Paul O. Radde
1/3/2008 12:00:00 AM
As the author of Thrival! How to Have an Above Average Day Every Day, I take your assertion as one of "realizing" one's self and experience on a daily basis. This is not just mindfulness but also looking for the richness within and in one's experiences and circumstances. Most in this culture are looking to "improve" -- the implication of my title as well. However, improvement leads to a kind of self-comparison with which one is never "enough". In Thrival one seeks to have the "richest experience of one's live" -- which is not alway happiness. However, this richness can come from realizing oneself in various contexts, insperiences, and experiences.

Lori Blain
1/3/2008 12:00:00 AM
I am savoring this refreshing idea. Yes, a few minutes of an ordinary day devoted to something positive or enjoyable can lead to extraordinary things. I have recently stopped myself from feeling guilty on the rare days that I have nothing pressing to do. I try to remind myself that a day doing nothing is not wasted if we enjoy it.

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