It’s funny, isn’t it, how average is somehow a bad word?
You wouldn’t consider it a compliment if someone called a project you worked on or a meal you made average. You certainly wouldn’t take it very kindly to have our work called average, or our lives, and God help you if you dared to say that to a parent about their kids. Why be average when you can be special, right?
But, as Dash says to his mum in The Incredibles, if everyone is special, then no one is.
The Incredible reality
He’s only just short of wrong. Not in what he says—that much is entirely right. The word, “average,” after all, is simply how we describe the typical range of a dataset. To call something is average is to imply it’s more or less representative of a group. An average job is what most people would do, an average person is basically most people—whatever “most people” means at any place or time.
No, Dash isn’t wrong in what he says. What he’s wrong in is what he doesn’t say, but is definitely implying. The quiet part, as that sort of thing is sometimes described. And the quiet part here is that being special is the point, the ideal. He doesn’t want to be just like everyone else. Because if special is the goal, then to be average is to be a failure.
But the reality is, if average is most people, then obviously most people will be, well, average. To put it differently (and if you’ll pardon the tautology):
Most people are like most people.
From average to average
Sure, the average will change—the realities of the average person today are very different from what they were 50, 500, 5000 years ago. But at any given time, including now, most people will be average, for no other reason than that’s how averages work.
Most people will live average lives, and have average jobs in average careers. Those who get married will mostly have average marriages with average children, who will probably go on to live no-less-average lives.
If that sounds depressing, that indicates an underlying problem: that you see being like “most people” as bad.
Of course, it’s perfectly fine to want more than average. You want more in your life, and so do I. And we should. So, no, I’m not knocking that at all. I am knocking our expectations, though. I’m knocking the tendency to see average as bad, and being average as having failed. Because that expectation sets most of us up for failure and unhappiness for one simple reason.
It’s a moving goalpost.
Wanting to be more than everyone else means that we make a subtle shift with profound consequences: we shift from focusing on what we want to focus on what others have in relation to ourselves. And the implication of that is we will feel unhappy with whatever we end up with as long as someone out there seems better off. And in today’s social media age, it’s easier than ever before to find “someone out there” who does, in fact, seem better off.
That reminds me of a story from the gospels.1
It’s about workers hired early in the morning at what was then considered a standard wage. More workers were then hired at various times throughout the day, until about an hour to close of business. When the last to be hired were given a full day’s pay at the end of the day, the first set thought that meant they’d be getting more. They got upset when they realised they’d only be getting the same as everyone.
It’s a story I didn’t understand for the longest time because I sided with the workers: it really did feel unfair that they got the same as those who came earlier. It took me a while to see what the story was really getting at. Here’s the thing: the workers were happy with the agreed wage, and remained happy with it as they worked throughout the day. What got them upset wasn’t the wage itself, but their envy of the ones who worked only an hour getting the same thing. But rather than admit the envy for what it was, the narrative they were telling themselves was that they were being cheated by the landowner.
If anyone deserved to feel cheated, though, it should have been the one choosing to pay those who worked only an hour as if they’d worked all day. But that was his choice, as becomes clear in his response, which concludes the story:
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
Divesting from the pressure
“Do you begrudge my generosity?”
That question gets at the heart of our problem with the idea of possibly being average. Call it luck, or call it as Jesus does, divine generosity, but some people somehow end up with seemingly better outcomes for what seems like much less effort. Even if you account for injustices and oppression and structural inequalities. A few people will simply be luckier, smarter, more good-looking, more-whatever-else than most people, with whatever advantages come with that.
Again, where (as if often the case) there are structural issues that need to be addressed, attention needs to be drawn to that. But that’s not my focus here. My focus is on how do you and I respond to the possibility of our own averageness in the face of the pressure to be extraordinary, and the reality of actually extraordinary people?
There’s a real temptation to begrudge people like that for having things so easy. The problem with that is it leads us to miss out on the goodness within average. Whatever else you are missing in your life that might make you feel average—or less—consider that simply having the internet access, the computer device and the time to read this already puts you above the global average of humans. Shouldn’t that at least make you question how relative “average” is? It depends very much on who you’re comparing yourself to. And as I suggested in a previous essay, we tend to compare ourselves with those like us who’ve got what we haven’t.
Being average isn’t bad. It’s just being average.
And honestly? There might not be a better time in human history to be average.
My thanks to Víctor Talashuk (Unsplash) for the photo