The world tells us from a very young age that it’s not ok to be average. It’s not ok to be satisfied where you are. It’s not ok to be content. In order to be considered successful, we need to keep moving on to the next big thing. We need to do more, be more, have more – be healthier, be richer, be more ambitious, be more passionate. Shine brighter, dream bigger, go further.
What do we tell elementary schoolers in motivational posters? “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” Staying on Earth is an option reserved only for losers who are afraid of space. And it doesn’t stop after we grow up.
As adults, we see the equivalent of these posters everywhere – from social media to magazines to the walls of our workplaces. “You only regret the chances you don’t take.” “You weren’t born just to pay bills and die.” “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.” “You are what you settle for.” “You did not wake up today to be mediocre.”
Moving into adulthood, I found that the constant pressure to do and be ‘more’ became exhausting. I wanted a job; the world told me I wanted to climb the corporate ladder. I wanted to write; the world told me I wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize. I wanted to live more simply; the world told me I wanted to travel the globe with all my possessions in a single backpack. I wanted to raise a happy family; the world told me I wanted to run the PTA, sit on the City Council, volunteer at the church soup kitchen, and homeschool three kids who stare at me adoringly like a scene from “Little Women.”
It made me feel inadequate, because my goals and accomplishments didn’t look like the picture of success I’d seen out in the world. I felt bad for not chasing things that I didn’t even want, just because it felt like that’s what I ‘should’ be doing.
We may tell ourselves that success can look different for different people, and that is true, but when we live most of our lives defining success and happiness in just one way, it can be hard to imagine it differently. And we all know that when someone says “if your dreams don’t scare you they aren’t big enough,” they’re not talking to the Taylor Swifts of the world. They’re pointing at the Rest of Us – all of us ordinary folks living regular lives, dreaming of trips to Ocean City and free evenings when we get to curl up with a favorite book.
Traditional ideas of success tend to favor people who never rest, never stop moving up, never settle for enough. People with big, bright, shiny ambitions. Rarely do we see depictions of heroes who work in cubicles, burn the chicken, leave the laundry until tomorrow, or struggle to get their children in the bathtub. Because the world tells us that ‘heroes’ don’t work in cubicles. ‘Happy’ people don’t look forward to Friday night pizza as the highlight of the week. ‘Successful’ people don’t sit on the porch just enjoying the silence. But I bet a heck of a lot of the Rest of Us do all of those things. And when did that become so terrible?
When did being normal become synonymous with failure? When did contentment become a sign of laziness? When did appreciating everyday joys become settling for less?
I’m not arguing against ambition, self improvement or success, and I’m not advocating for inertia or giving up. But I wonder if some of us are measuring our lives and our success by the wrong barometer – one that we did not even set for ourselves.
If society suddenly began measuring success in everyday terms – reading to your kids before bed, getting the family together for Thanksgiving, planting a garden, watching a sunset, listening to a Beatles album – how many of the Rest of Us would finally feel like we could consider ourselves happy? How many of us could stop comparing ourselves to the 27-year-old CEOs, the doctors without borders, and the do-it-all parents, because our success is just as valid as theirs? How many of us would finally look around and appreciate how far we’ve come, all of the things we’ve accomplished, and all the ways in which we are already happy?
What if average became the aspiration?
How would my life change if I began to measure success not by promotions or followers or material possessions but by small, ordinary things? Things that have not been chosen for me but that I have chosen for myself. Perhaps I’d be content and satisfied where I am instead of always searching for something better. Perhaps I’d be happy now instead of always putting it off as a destination attached to a goal I have yet to achieve.
Perhaps if I stopped trying to fit a mold, then I might realize that I’m happy where I am. And that’s ok. I might realize it’s ok to be happy with a normal life.
It’s ok to work in a cubicle and sometimes count down the hours until 5pm. It’s ok to get joy out of Friday night take-out. It’s ok to opt out of climbing a corporate ladder. It’s ok to create things that the world will never see. It’s ok to linger over coffee and pancakes in the morning instead of rushing off to that to-do list.
It’s ok to celebrate small victories, like a soufflé that didn’t fall or a child who said ‘please’ without being reminded. It’s ok to prefer staying home. It’s ok to get excited about day-trips to the park or ice cream or a new book. It’s ok.
About the Author: Rachel Barry is a writer and essayist who tells authentic stories about life, family, growing up, and all the things that make us human. Her favorite subject is the mundane and all the victories and defeats of everyday life. Find more from her here.