Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary

Credit...Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

I’VE been thinking a lot about the ordinary and extraordinary lately. All year, my sons’ school newsletters were filled with stories about students winning prizes for university-level scientific research, stellar musical accomplishments and statewide athletic laurels.

I wonder if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.

We hold so dearly onto the idea that we should all aspire to being remarkable that when David McCullough Jr., an English teacher, told graduating seniors at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts recently, “You are not special. You are not exceptional,” the speech went viral.

“In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement,” he told the students and parents. “We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”

I understand that Mr. McCullough, son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, is telling these high school seniors that the world might not embrace them as unconditionally as their parents have. That just because they’ve been told they’re amazing doesn’t mean that they are. That they have to do something to prove themselves, not just accept compliments and trophies.

So where did this intense need to be exceptional come from?

Madeline Levine, a psychologist, said that for baby boomers, “the notion of being special is in our blood.” She added: “How could our children be anything but? And future generations kept building on that.”

More recently, parents seem to be increasingly anxious that there just isn’t going to be enough — enough room at good colleges or graduate schools or the top companies — for even the straight-A, piano-playing quarterback, and we end up convinced that being average will doom our children to a life that will fall far short of what we want for them. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and author of the book “The Gifts of Imperfection” (Hazelden, 2010) said, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.”

And that’s a problem. Because “extraordinary is often what the general public views as success,” said Jeff Snipes, co-founder of PDI Ninth House, a corporate leadership consulting firm. “You make a lot of money or have athletic success. That’s a very, very narrow definition. What about being compassionate or living a life of integrity?”

Ordinary and normal smack too much of average. It seems that we all want to live in Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average.

Ms. Levine said she was once scheduled to give a talk on parenting the average child at a school in Marin County, Calif. Although she usually packs in the audiences, not one person showed up.

“Apparently no one in the county has an average child,” said Ms. Levine, the author of the forthcoming book, “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success” (HarperCollins).

While there are some extraordinary children out there, the myth is that all children in high school will be like that, she said. And that, Ms. Levine said, is putting enormous stress on students.

Most people, she said, have talent in some areas, are average performers in many areas and are subpar in some areas.

The problem is that we have such a limited view of what we consider an accomplished life that we devalue many qualities that are critically important.

“We would do kids a great service if we opened the tent a little more,” Ms. Levine said.

The Toronto Star did that in March 2012 when it printed a column about Shelagh Gordon, who recently died of a brain aneurysm, with the headline, “Shelagh was here — an ordinary, magical life.” At the same time, The Star ran online interviews with more than 100 people whose life had been touched by the 55-year-old Ms. Gordon.

“We had come up with the idea of grooming the obituaries and re-creating a life from the people at the funeral,” said Catherine Porter, who wrote the column about Ms. Gordon. “We thought it might be a fun journey.” Ms. Gordon’s obituary stood out, Ms. Porter said, because “a lot of obits read like a résumé — an accumulation of concrete action. Her legacy was in her relationships to people.”

She didn’t have a great job, she wasn’t married and never had children, so she wasn’t successful in either the traditional male or female sense, Ms. Porter said. But people would keep telling stories about her kindness.

“She had a lot of magic in her life, and that’s reassuring,” Ms. Porter said. “That you can live a full, interesting, ordinary life.”

How do we go back to the idea that ordinary can be extraordinary? How do we teach our children — and remind ourselves — that life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes, but can be more about our relationships and special moments?

“It’s a value I have to choose again and again, as is true with all of us,” said Katrina Kenison, author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” (Grand Central Publishing, 2009). “My job as a mother is not to get my son in the top college, but to enjoy ordinary life. To swim in a pond on a hot day or walk with a friend or make dinner from scratch.”

As Ms. Kenison said, one of the most important conversations we can have with our children is what we mean by success.

“Ordinary has a bad rap, and so does settling — there is the idea is that we should always want more,” she said. “But there’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have.”

And that’s not easy, she acknowledged, especially in affluent areas where success — or the perception of success — is like a drug that we can never get enough of.

“I know I began writing in an attempt to heal the disconnect between what I observed around me — the pressure to excel, to be special, to succeed — and what I felt were the real values I wanted to pass on to my children: kindness, service, compassion, gratitude for life as it is,” she said.

People are hungry for such reassurance. Ms. Kenison’s book trailer has received 1.6 million views, which is far from ordinary.

Some people may fear that embracing the ordinary means that they are letting themselves and their children off easy. If it’s all right to be average, why try to excel? But the message isn’t to settle for a life on the couch playing Xbox (though, yes, playing Xbox is O.K. sometimes), but rather to to make sure you aspire to goals because they are important to you, not because you want to impress your parents, your community or your friends.

As Mr. McCullough said in his graduation speech: “Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

When I told a friend that I was writing this column, she reminded me of the last paragraph of George Eliot’s great novel “Middlemarch” and its celebration of the ordinary: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”