Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Essay: In Praise of Average

What am I thankful for? In addition to having enough food, relative safety, loved ones and health, I am happy to be average.

In a culture obsessed with prestige, status symbols and "being special" (only the VIP line for you!), praising the utterly average might seem odd or perhaps ironic in a snickering way. But I am quite serious.

If you're below-average, i.e. mediocre, as I am, then reaching average feels great.

Studies have shown that most of us over-estimate our superiority in any field of endeavor. I undoubtedly did so when I was younger but the hard flinty wisdom of experience has revealed that I am actually decidedly worse than average in the things I have enjoyed and pursued, i.e. sports, carpentry, writing, music, martial arts and stock trading.

In five years of playing team sports (mostly basketball, but a year of football and track thrown in for flavor) I can count the games in which I was a bit better than mediocre on one hand. This, despite endless hours of free throws and shooting baskets after regular practice and in the off season. Football (featherweight benchwarmer) and track (too slow for sprints, no endurance for long races, hopeless at hurdles) were even more ludicrously obvious proofs of "worst on the team, if not in the entire school."

As for music--despite playing a bit of guitar for 30+ years, any teenager who picks up a guitar for six months can easily blow the doors off my playing. As for writing, it only took 20 years to reach average, by which I mean my first novel was published (after 20 years of unstinting effort to become a better writer) to yawns, as are most first novels by unknowns. To say it is average is actually quite a compliment.

As for trading stocks--I am a catastrophically poor trader, hard-wired with a trader's worst traits--impatience, impulsiveness, and all the rest--to make all the same dumb mistakes again and again.

If I continue my three decades of slow improvement as a carpenter, by the time I'm 90 or so I might be pretty good--if I can still pick up a 2-by-4. Martial arts? Fortunately I have a great tolerance for being repeatedly humiliated.

Though I try to be understanding and generous, the truth is I am at best average in the "saintly human being" category as well. I remain a student in all things, acutely aware of my shortcomings and hoping to improve up to average--which is actually pretty darn high. Many people are whip-smart, kind, reliable, generous--the bar of "average" is high.

So in other words, just clawing your way up to average is something to be thankful for when you're below average.

Here's something else to be thankful for:

All human societies are focused on social standing, for high status and wealth attracts the best potential mates and raise the odds that one's offspring will survive and perhaps prosper.

Nonetheless, it seems American culture has slipped into a state of anxious insecurity in which failure to qualify for an elite university justifies cheating, and failure to reach the highest level of sports justifies, nay, almost requires, cheating via doping and drugs.

Why do I say this is deeply insecure? If an individual is secure in their abilities, they don't fear the consequences of not getting into Yale, etc., or not being hired by Goldman Sachs or not reaching the heights of the NFL. It is the insecure individual who feels lost without an institutional sponsor of their worth, who deep down fears he or she will be nothing without the thick battlements of a revered institution for protection.

Is this deep insecurity a nearly subconscious awareness that the position of non-elite individuals in the nation is increasingly precarious? Perhaps. Perhaps it is also a reflection of a loss of confidence, a pervasive fear that merely being ordinary is to be doomed to a life without wealth and prestige--as if those characteristics are all that give the narrative of our lives meaning.

And so children and already-famous sports stars alike throw away personal integrity-- being interior and not quantified like grades or institutional standing, integrity is obviously worthless in the sprint for prestige and wealth--in order to raise their chances via cheating.

Cheating and stealing have long histories in the animal world, and in primates, so our predilection for cheating and "getting something for nothing" is no surprise; it is to be expected. But should a society accept this behavior with a yawn, or a wink, as if to say, "Just don't get caught?"

I fear that is precisely where American culture has landed--or should I say, run aground.

It's really OK to be average, or even less-than-average, as in dumb, slow, no good, untalented. Why? Because if you manage through discipline and effort to work up to average fitness, or playing a somewhat challenging piece of music or managing your own portfolio with average success, you will have achieved far more than the talent-blessed individual or child of the elite who achieves success or accomplishment without great discipline and effort--and without an appreciation, all too often, for the inner wealth of integrity and compassion.

I look around our prestige-and-wealth obsessed culture, and I don't see a happy people; I see people who can't sleep, people who nervously seek distraction every waking moment via the TV, IM, cellphones or the Web, people who have taken risks and sunk their souls into constructing a facade of "I've made it."

If you have made it (whatever that may be), shouldn't you be able to sleep without wolfing down drugs? Shouldn't you be able to enjoy your success (again, whatever that may be) without an angst that requires more drugs, legal and illegal, just to suppress the demons?

And what are those demons? Of being unwealthy and unprestigious, i.e. just average? Of not having a (fake or real, no difference) Rolex on our wrist? Given the unhappiness rampant among those who have wealth and prestige, we should be wondering if "average" or even "below-average" is the better, happier, integrity-rich place to be. For even if we cannot be guaranteed material security, we can be guaranteed inner security, for we nurture and control that ourselves.

I am also grateful for you, readers, who have taught me so much this year. I hope each of you has a holiday filled with blessings, love and good cheer. (Hey, that rhymes!)

Thank you, Peter K., ($50), for your very generous contribution to this humble site. I am greatly honored by your readership and support. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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