A while ago a question posed on Quora caught my eye. “How can I stop being average?”. In answering it I began to think that this is probably a question many of us ask in one way or another much more regularly than we might think.
The notion that “average” is something to aspire to is where the problem starts. Why would we have such mediocre expectations of ourselves and what can we really hope to expect if we push ourselves no further than what we see as “enough”. I think we can safely assume that nobody aspires to be anything less than average and so, on that basis, average is about the minimum we want from ourselves.
Part of the issue with judging ourselves on this scale, which presumably runs from “below average” through “average” to “above average” with ghastly and godly extremities at either end, is that this reductionist thinking creates an existence which is defined by some sort of undefined measurement. A scale on which there is no global benchmark and is therefore rendered worthless by the fact that it bends at the whim of personal opinion.
We do some things which turn out well and others which suck, and our reluctance to be seen as average or worse serves only to make us anxious about trying anything at all. We worry about failing to such an extent that we keep quiet feeling a greater sense of safety in nothingness than there is in striking out and finding that the wings we strived so diligently to develop don’t actually work after all.
The problem is compounded when we start to compare our abilities with those around us. Already fearing that we might be less than we aspire to be we easily find conclusive proof that this is in fact the case. We greedily scoop up anything that others do well, and for “well” read “better than me”, and this creates a double hit of demotivation. Not only do we compound the fear that we are less than average but we miss the illumination and learning we can glean from those who have something to teach us about what we have to develop in ourselves.
As a blogger it would be lunacy to avoid reading other people’s work. It isn’t hard to find writing that inspires me but the line between feeling inspired and fearful that everyone writes better than I do is a thin one. Of course when we look for people to model and learn from we risk feeling overawed. What would be the way to avoid this? To make sure we only read material we find stultifying, boring and dull, just to give us some sort of feeling that we’re not so bad after all? If ever there was a way to remain feeling average, that must be it.
The idea of average only exists in our own minds. In fact our whole self image is nothing more than a construct made from intrinsic feeling and opinion absorbed from others. It isn’t real in any fixed sense. But more than all of this, what if there isn’t a scale of value anyway? What if there is no comparison between me and you? How would it be to remember that it is uniqueness and individuality which is most precious rather than achievement?
We move through life riding two horses. One which drives us on to push ever more relentlessly at the boundaries of what we believe we are capable of, and the other which keeps us in check, insisting that we learn from the past, cut out the unnecessary and constantly refine what we produce. As illustrator Christopher Riemann says, in the fabulous Netflix documentary “Abstract”, “Be a ruthless editor and a careless artist”
If we would spend less time wondering “Am I just average?” and more creating the work or art that we love, to the best of our abilities, I can’t help thinking that the question itself would become much less important.
Illustration © Christopher Niemann