Enjoying the ordinary is extraordinary
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