When I was younger, I wanted to grow up to be someone amazing. Someone who made a meaningful contribution to the world. I equated being an ‘average’ person to being a failure. This mindset led me down a path of perfectionism that was completely unsustainable.
With the increase of internet memes about gifted child syndrome and burnout, I’ve realised that I’m not alone in my struggle with the pressure to be extraordinary. This mindset is not limited to the classroom and the office. In fact, most aspects of life seem to encourage competition and comparison.
In this post, I defend being average and explain why we shouldn’t give in to the pressure to be impressive.
Who gets to be impressive?
It’s easy to blame parenting or teaching for creating the pressure to do better than our peers. However, I think the problem is a lot more systemic than we might think.
Artists and inventors have been overlooked in the past and present because of their gender, sexuality, race, or socioeconomic class. This already diminishes the idea that who we choose to recognise is based on talent alone. And still, having access to the right people and tools is advantageous to mastering a skill.
It’s convenient to argue that people who are deemed impressive are only such because they meet specific societal norms. I find that determining remarkability is an image-based process. It’s all about how we perceive the person who’s being recognised, not necessarily what the achievement actually is.
However, we’ve now started making efforts to recognise people who don’t fit the conditions. And that creates the ‘underdog’. There’s something inspiring about a person who overcomes trials and tribulations to be successful. But the underdog complicates our image theory.
I think singer Alice Fredenham makes for a simple but interesting case study of this. Alice auditioned for the 2013 seasons of both The Voice UK and Britain’s Got Talent. Her audition on The Voice was confident and fun, but didn’t impress any of the judges. Her Britain’s Got Talent audition on the other hand, showed her dressed more plainly and quivering with fear, which the judges adored. There was speculation over whether she was faking the nerves on her BGT audition or if the previous Voice audition obliterated her self-esteem. But I think it goes to show that image is the real ‘X-factor’ when it comes to being extraordinary.
Youth as an advantage
‘Respect your elders’ is a prevalent ideal in many cultures and traditions. It is based on the belief that older people are wiser because they have more experience. So, you would think that older people would have the advantage in terms of determining remarkability. However, it seems that younger people’s achievements are now perceived as more impressive.
Perhaps this is because younger people have less time on the Earth to refine their talents than older people. Therefore, younger people are the underdogs. We seem to resonate with the concept of potential more than mastery. The image of a young person succeeding is much more captivating than an older person doing well.
However, this can create problems. I think YouTuber amandamaryanna puts it very well in her video about child prodigies:
‘Putting youth achievement on a pedestal takes a mental toll on everyone. From older generations to young people who feel like we haven’t done enough, to the ‘wonderkins’ who’ve aged out of the fluorescent limelight their adolescence afforded them.’Amanda Maryanna, amandamaryanna, the age of achievement: america’s obsession with prodigy, 2022
We are urged to attain our goals at younger and younger ages, despite our life expectancy rates improving. The idea that there’s an expiry date on our worth is terrifying. It’s no surprise that so many people feel compelled to push themselves to their limits so early in life. Also, I think that the belief that people over a certain age have nothing worth celebrating is very reductive.
But with youth currently having the advantage, the underdog theory can be reversed. The world’s oldest competitive powerlifter, Edith Murway-Traina, is much more impressive at 100 years old than her younger counterparts. This is an example of an underdog succeeding despite the youth advantage.
Some people who get recognised meet certain conditions, and others are underdogs who overcome said conditions. So, what determines a person’s remarkability if it isn’t talent or social characteristics? I think it’s luck.
Instagram- a case study
I created an Instagram account to help with promoting my blog. Since Instagram is a visual platform, my artwork, not my blog content, is what determines my account’s popularity.
It’s easy to become engrossed in your account’s insights and analytics, especially when Instagram makes it so accessible. However, I was curious and looked into other art-based accounts to see what draws the most attention on Instagram. The experience was very chaotic!
I don’t think Instagram popularity is determined by skill at all. There are several cases where self-taught artists who express that they’re ‘just doing it for fun’ outperform those who have a university degree in fine art. In some cases, trendy fan art does better than original work. But in others, artists have more followers simply due to being on the platform for longer and having timeless pieces. Some accounts do better because they take a structured, marketing-based approach to their content. Others do better because they’re more disorganised and personal.
While there’s probably an algorithm that explains this, I think it’s pretty random. The ‘most popular’ or ‘best’ artist on Instagram was determined by a multitude of factors that are beyond our understanding. I think this mirrors how people receive recognition in real life. There will always be someone who didn’t receive an award despite their hard work. Being celebrated is a result of luck.
A fear of being ‘painfully’ average
I have been on all sides of ‘average’ at different points in my life. In primary school, my math skills were so poor that I needed extra help to catch up with the rest of the class. In contrast, there was a certain period in high school when I suddenly earnt high marks due to overworking myself. That perfectionism was continually rewarded until I burnt out and couldn’t maintain those high grades. Since then, I needed to get used to being just average again.
People who are exceptional, whether they are far ahead or falling behind, get special attention of some sort. People who are doing ‘just fine’ are dismissed with a ‘yeah, whatever’ approach. When you’ve previously been validated for your abilities, it’s disheartening to be faced with the silence of being average. Wanting to be more and going the extra mile isn’t always due to a superiority complex or attention-seeking behaviour. I think in my case and with a lot of people I know, it’s a people-pleasing tendency.
It’s okay to be average
Before I was ranked among my peers, I was an average kid that didn’t worry if I was better or worse than everyone else. There was a tranquillity to being ‘just fine’. Fortunately, I can draw on the peace I felt as an average child to feel comfortable being an average adult. But I can’t imagine how it would feel to be considered ‘gifted’ your whole life and not meet that potential as a boring, average adult. It must feel like a loss of identity for some.
Impressiveness seems like a fleeting concept to me. Even if you’ve done something life-changing, there’s always something more interesting. There’s always someone to beat your record.
I understand that the idea that you’re expendable isn’t the most comforting one. But I think there’s great power in embracing your averageness. It enables you to set healthier boundaries that aren’t based on external validation. You simply exist.
It’s okay to be average. In fact, it’s great! It means that you’re doing well, and people are happy with you. If you wish to improve, that’s completely on your own terms, but it’s not a requirement. I became inspired to work on projects based on passion and joy after I stopped worrying about being perfect. It made me much more productive and fulfilled.
Sources that inspired me
The Truth Behind “Gifted Kid Burnout” Memes by Annemarie Cutruzzola
Why I Stopped Making “Good” Art by Emma
The Pressure to be Extraordinary is Hurting Your Mental Health by Shaina Waterhouse
Overcoming the Need to Be Exceptional– The School of Life
In Defense of Being Average by Mark Manson