The Benefits of Being Ordinary

by CHARLES HUGH SMITH December 1, 2012

Being extraordinary is a terrific bother, truth be told, so please appreciate the benefits of ordinariness if you are so blessed.

Every hour of every day, we are persuaded that the benefits of being extraordinary in some way are equally extraordinary. This has two propaganda components:

1. If you buy this product or service (touted by An Extraordinary Person), you will feel the vicarious thrill of acting/looking like you're extraordinary.

2. Our society is a meritocracy, blah blah blah; if you are naturally talented/bright and if you make extraordinary efforts, you might rise above mere ordinary and start accruing all those fabulous benefits reserved for the extraordinary.

What if these benefits aren't as wonderful as advertised? That would hurt sales and the drive of those who bought into the meritocracy claim.

Let's start with those glorified twins, fame and fortune. Fame is actually a huge bother. You have to be polite to strangers or risk your sour rejection of fans being spread over the Web in short order. You find that acclaim wears thin very quickly on multiple levels: any comment might be taken out of context and used to undermine your claim to extraordinariness, and your human foibles are trumpeted as weaknesses.

People seek some sort of ethical-spiritual perfection in the famous, as if being extraordinary in some field automatically elevates a person to sainthood.

The demands made on your time and attention cannot possibly be met; all the world's a stage, and you are constantly "on." While the morbidly insecure come to depend on this diet of public adoration, those with any shred of inner security soon find the whole "fame thing" tiresome.

As for fortune: your focus shifts from reveling in wealth to worrying about protecting it. The average person has a "wish list" of stuff they would buy with a fortune: fancy autos, homes, tropical islands, etc. But all of these properties require maintenance, and so you become a manager--unless you hire a manager, which then opens you up to being ripped off or defrauded. (The list of actors, sports celebrities and rock stars whose wealth has vanished in dubious "investments" and outright fraud is long indeed.)

After you've spent whatever can be spent, then you have to concern yourself with capital preservation, and in this volatile world that is a major source of anxiety. No wonder so many lottery winners end up broke a few years after their big windfall: the constant appeals for cash and the hassles of managing wealth become too much, and squandering it is the only way to return to a sane, less anxious life.

Or your $300 million dwindles to $5 million, and the loss deranges you to the point you shoot disruptive neighbors or otherwise snap. Many a dot-com millionaire is haunted by what they didn't do with their brief but glorious wealth.

Now for the benefits of being ordinary. The temptations to stray are few for the ordinary; those of us with ordinary looks, brains, talent and wealth are not beset with the temptations of impossibly beautiful women/handsome men, nor do dealers approach us with offers of cocaine or other costly illegal substances. No one is willing to give themselves to us for access to our power, because we have no power beyond that residing in our bodies and souls.

Lacking power and prestige, we are not tempted to lie to protect our power and prestige.

Since everything we own is also ordinary, there isn't much worth stealing (except if we own older-model Japanese cars that are worth more in parts than as whole vehicles), so ordinary security measures are sufficient.

As ordinary people, nobody expects extraordinary results or behaviors from us. Expectations of us are also ordinary, which means that good work and politeness will go a long way to meet or exceed expectations.

The extraordinary, unfortunately, are constantly beset by expectations that are impossible to consistently meet. For example, if you are a top concert pianist, critics will be listening for any slight weakness in your performance, not just compared to others but to your past performances.

If a money manager generates extraordinary returns one year, he is expected to meet or best that return the following year, and so on, until he quits or expires.

Your very extraordinariness becomes a liability or a weapon used against you.

Trying to do extraordinary things is often dangerous, for example, snowboarding Denali. Mistakes can cost you your life at this level. Even in "safe" endeavors, any failure is potentially sufficient to ruin your career.

Thus academics without tenure must obsess over backstabbing rivals in the department or the "graduate student from Hell" whose parent happens to be a powerful, well-connected dean at a top university.

Those seeking extraordinary standing, position, accomplishment, recognition or returns are exposed to soul-numbing burdens and pressures as those chasing the same rarefied position will stop at nothing to undermine you or increase their chances by lowering yours.

The ordinary have no such worries. We tend to have jobs nobody wants badly enough to plot against us.

The extraordinary must maintain high internal standards that sap the joy from life. Music loses its fun-factor when your internal standards are necessarily performance-level. If nothing less than the corner office and a partnership will do, then life becomes a vacuous treadmill of overwork and anxiety about falling short.

The ordinary have far fewer such worries. Music remains a joy because advancement from a low level is rewarding, and the freedom from impossible job pressures is true freedom.

As you may have noticed, I am ordinary/average in every way, with the one exception being the quantity of words I disgorge on an annual basis. I am not sure this is something to brag about, as it may well be evidence of an unhealthy imbalance somewhere in my jumbled mind.

Otherwise I am blissfully ordinary in all other things: wealth (modest), looks (ditto), power (none), athletic ability (near-zero), musical ability (ditto), talent at learning foreign languages (ditto), stock trading ability (sub-average, constantly beaten by a monkey throwing darts), spiritual attainment (none), author (minimal sales) and so on. Everything I own is also ordinary, and the best thing I own (the Les Paul guitar) is just a production model--nothing custom, rare or fancy.

Being extraordinary is a terrific bother, truth be told, so please appreciate the benefits of ordinariness if you are so blessed.

Charles Hugh Smith is a novelist and economic commentator who writes for Business Insider and blogs at Of Two Minds.


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