I wrote earlier about how others tend to define us by what we do for a living — it’s the first thing others ask us at a party. Based on that response alone, they instantly make judgments about our whole lives and whether or not we are good enough to be involved in their circle. In order to fit in, we might feel a compulsion to be exceptional in our lives because, let’s face it, anything less might simply not be good enough for others.
I once found myself at a table of “over-achievers” at a party, where the underlying message was if you hadn’t accomplished squat in life, you didn’t belong at this table and you better consider it a privilege. Needless to say, I felt less than great as I left the party. No disrespect to those at the table, but they weren’t the kind of people I wanted to be with — people who judged you based on what you accomplished in life.
Speaking of which, we are raised to believe we can do anything and be anyone in our lives. We are taught how we can all be visionaries of the world (the Musks, Jobs, Gates, etc.) with the underlying implication being that anything less would mean we’re leading a rather dull, uninspired life. To that effect, we might even be considered losers by many.
We are conditioned by the world to seek status by way of getting top grades and to compete with others (never mind the learning), having a private education, a fancy job (where we pride ourselves on working 60-plus-hour work weeks), and accumulating stuff in our lives. From childhood, we are taught to seek status through these things in order to feel loved because it seems we are not good enough by virtue of who we simply are. As a result, we find ourselves always preparing to live, but never actually living.
The modern-day philosopher, Alain De Botton, reminds us that we don’t live in a materialistic world, rather we live in a world where we seek love and honor through material accumulation. We may buy fancy cars and houses among other things to feel loved by others only to realize it’s a futile effort. But we never learn. We continue to believe in this fallacy hoping it might lead us somewhere, but it eventually leads to a feeling of failure or inadequacy.
We tend to have the wrong notion about success. We mostly succumb to the world’s definition of success and blindly take it as our own. We pursue stuff in life only to find out sooner or later that it won’t bring any happiness or lasting fulfillment. The mad irony is we look for things outside when we need to look within. Who we are within is incomparable to what we seek outside of us.
There was a time when I used to think there was nothing worse in life than being “ordinary” (whatever that meant). Either you were someone or you were no one. Distinct or extinct, as Tom Peters would say. Now, I cringe even thinking that, much less writing it.
It’s crazy to think the only way to be good enough is to be extraordinary. This is a form of self-torture. The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of ambition as we aren’t in any danger of being unambitious. Some ambition is healthy and needed. The problem occurs when we put too much pressure on ourselves. For instance, it’s not uncommon for many to give up their lives when they are unable to keep up with lofty expectations either from themselves or the expectations others have of them. They succumb to the unrelenting pressure and surrender their lives because it’s too overbearing for them to deal with. If this isn’t the most tragic thing ever, I don’t know what is.
An ordinary life is no less heroic or devoid of greatness as it’s made out to be. In fact, it might just be the opposite. For instance, it takes work to raise a child who can use their own resourcefulness and initiative to think independently for themselves. Remember, we can’t prepare the road for the child, but we can prepare the child for the road. That means getting out of their way, so they naturally feel empowered to do their own thinking, and subsequently their own actions, whilst being fully aware of the choices and the consequences. In fact, if the child has no ambition to be famous, something has likely gone right in their past. Another example could be to listen to our loved ones in a way that makes them feel understood without having the need to agree or disagree with them. Or it could be to maintain a healthy relationship with a partner over many years despite the challenges that come along the way. All that said, not everything ordinary has to be heroic, but there are a good number of things in our lives where we can simply be.
Here are some ideas for living an ordinary life.
I wrote earlier why there is nothing to achieve in life. We don’t have to get caught up with material things in order to get attention by way of seeking love and honor. We can stop playing the status game and remove ourselves from the social hierarchy altogether. We can let go of ambition and simply show up every day to be and to do our best and if that’s not enough, then so be it. There is no point in putting unnecessary pressure and stressing ourselves out to achieve X or Y. We can remain detached from the outcome in every aspect of our lives. That can only come with self-acceptance and knowing it’s okay to fail. How we serve others through our work should remain untethered to our sense of identity.
We live way better lives now than John D. Rockefeller ever did in terms of the conveniences that modern life affords us — more than any previous generation in the history of mankind, and yet we are not happy. For instance, we don’t need to have the “best” house/car, we can have a good-enough house/car. In any case, beyond a certain point, these things don’t give us lasting happiness as is commonly purported.
There was a time where I wanted everything to be the best. For instance, I would have my aunt get me tea from London, which was part of my daily breakfast. At some point, I realized I didn’t need the “best” tea, rather I can be happy with a mass-market brand that is good enough. I wouldn’t mind having the English tea, but even if I didn’t get it, it’s ok. So you’re not chasing pleasure, whilst at the same time, you’re not eschewing it either.
Above all, take solace in the fact that life is truly meant to be lived in service of others. Only that will provide lasting happiness and fulfillment. Nothing else will ever come close. The sooner we accept this idea, the better off we will be (and the better off others will be).
There is true nobility in living an ordinary life. Those who run after status are the ones who are truly losing out on life. By the time they realize, it’s too late. It’s the ones who are leading ordinary lives that are the true captains of heart. They are truly content with themselves without feeling the need to gain something because they know they are peaceful and divine souls and nothing outside of them will truly satiate them.