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There’s Nothing Wrong With Being Ordinary

As long as you’re free to be more

Walden Pond (

I am blessedly not on any social media. I have this Medium blog and a Pintrest and that’s it. But, as a single 30-something male, I have spent a fair amount of time on dating apps.

When on a dating app, one is obliged to make oneself as interesting and unique and extraordinary as possible. You must love adventure and be a world traveler (“Don’t swipe right if you can’t keep up.” Ok, calm down, Anthony Bourdain). The more tattoos you have the more interesting you are. And even if the most interesting thing about you is that you “love tacos”, you must say it with the utmost conviction that this proclivity is completely unique and interesting to you — your own special quirk — as if no one who has ever had a taco doesn’t enjoy eating tacos.

I understand the impulse. In a sea of faces you have to do everything you can to stand out. But I’ve noticed that the more people try to seem unique, the more they seem tediously, nauseatingly the same.

American culture is a culture of big personality, of extremes, of gimmicks. You can be anything in America, except ordinary. We admire ambition, praise egocentricity, and extol single-minded hard work. We are not only encouraged, but compelled to follow our dreams at all costs.

This is all very nice, but the other side of the coin is that we can be contemptuous of “ordinary” people with “ordinary” lives who do “ordinary” work. How many articles have you read by people who quit their jobs to travel the world? Have you noticed that most of them have jobs in tech or finance and, though they don’t mention it in the articles, were probably able to pay off their student loans and save quite a bit of money pretty quickly? But we don’t all have six-figure-paying jobs that we can quit in order to fuck off and live in Costa Rica for a year or go on a spontaneous weekend trip to Bali. We won’t all start a billion-dollar startup. We won’t all publish a best-selling book. Someone has to clean toilets, wash dishes, ride in the back of a dump truck.

I’m not saying you should give up on your dreams. I’m telling you that there is nothing wrong with cleaning toilets or working in an office answering phone calls from cranky customers. I’m saying that if you don’t have your dream job it doesn’t make you a failure. There is no one single thing or list of things that each of us must accomplish to be our ideal self, because there is no ideal self.

Five years ago I graduated with my MFA in creative writing and completed an editorial internship at a small but well-respected literary press. I was so sure that I was about to embark on a world of awards and recognition as a young, up-and-coming poet. I’d give readings and workshops all over the country, maybe even the world, and people would hang on my every word. I’d also edit literary magazines and bring other, new up-and-coming writers to a wider audience. None of this happened. I ended up having to move back home to the cultural and intellectual void of my hometown and got a job at Target. Even after I was able to save enough money to move to Seattle, I still felt like a complete failure. Spoiler alert: I am still not an award-winning poet nor an influential editor. I have a job that I mostly like working with people I mostly like. It’s relatively stress-free and, although I may not be “making a difference” in the world, I find value in what I do and I feel valued for what I do. And yet the media and social media tells me that’s not enough.

Americans work more than any other developed country, only those in India and China work more. 85% of men and 66% of women work more than forty hours a week. If you’re spending a third of your life at work, obviously it helps if it;s your dream job, or if you at least find it meaningful and significant, or at the absolute very least you aren’t miserable. No one should spend forty to eighty hours a week feeling miserable.

Henry David Thoreau famously declared that the masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation. He was correct, and it is this sentiment that is the seed of our contemporary impetus of following our dreams and aversion to ordinariness. This desperation Thoreau talks about is a feeling of being stuck in a life not of your choosing, of being stifled and caged. Yet Thoreau was exceptionally ordinary, at least outwardly. He wore simple, even shabby clothes; he lived for a year in a small cottage by a pond, grew his own food, and walked everywhere. And he never traveled more than ten miles from where he was born.

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse…I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I knocked the “world-traveler” earlier in this article, but the truth is I’m envious of them. What appeals to me most about the “digital nomad” lifestyle is the freedom, or the sense of freedom, of not having to go to the same place day after day and get paid just to be there for eight hours. But the penultimate freedom is the freedom of our inward state from outward circumstances. The aversion to ordinariness is a misdirected aversion to not being in control of one’s life, being a slave to circumstance, having one’s potential stifled and possibilities snuffed out. Freedom is freedom from fear, insecurity, and constraints on creativity.

There’s that great scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy gets out of solitary confinement — “the hole”, as it’s called — after broadcasting classical music over the prison PA. He’s at the table with his convict clique and they ask him how it was. Andy replies that it was “the easiest time I ever did.” Bullshit, one of them says. “I had Mr Mozart to keep me company…in here,” he says, pointing to his head, then his chest. Andy is serving a life sentence in Shawshank prison, yet his mind always remains uncaged, free.

In our constant striving for greater outward accomplishments and achievements, we often neglect our inward journey and development; we eschew our own peace of mind and mental and spiritual well-being in favor of performance and appearance. As I’ve said elsewhere, Life isn’t about how much we do or how much we get done, what we produce or even achieve. It is about how deeply we experience being in the world. Or, as Joseph Campbell put it, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” This experience of being alive is available to everyone, even — especially — the most “ordinary”.

I found this video after I started writing this article. If none of what I’ve said has convinced you, maybe it will coming from Alain De Botton:



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