My sons and I were eating dinner a few weeks ago, and my youngest son told me he’d gotten into an argument with his teacher and a few of his classmates. One of the kids had said nothing was impossible. Owen disagreed. The teacher confirmed what the other kid had said, but Owen insisted he wasn’t wrong.
My parental operating system knew this conversation could go one of two directions. Was it my job to convey empty inspiration or to confirm that some endeavors, indeed, are impossible?
I decided the best option was to tell the truth, so I told him he was right. I agreed that some things aren’t possible, and it’s our job to figure out the difference between what’s impossible because no one’s thought of a solution yet and what’s impossible because it’s never gonna happen.
- Going to Mars: possible.
- Going faster than the speed of light: highly unlikely.
- Reducing entropy in an isolated system: impossible.
- Losing ten pounds: well, maybe. Hey look! Someone brought donuts!
My son’s teacher meant to suggest nothing was impossible as a way of encouraging the kids to think big. His classmate was repeating sound bites she’d seen or heard from parents, grandparents, cartoon characters, ads, and posters.
The doctrine of potential exceptionality is everywhere. It’s in our art and throughout our religions. It flows by on Facebook memes, plastered in front of muted nature backgrounds. If you ask me, the expectation of exceptionalism is an extension of marketing propaganda and the doctrine of American superiority. It stokes consumerism and nationalism. And there’s not much truth to any of it.
Very few humans throughout history qualify as “great.” Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt come to mind, just in terms of recent history. There are also those who fit the “Person in History You’d Have Dinner With” category, like Shakespeare, Jesus, or Buddha.
Of course, you can think of many other great people throughout history, especially outside the limitations of my Western perspective. Yet how many great people have actually emerged among the billions of Homo sapiens who’ve lived and died on Planet Earth? People who achieved true greatness, not people who tell themselves every year that this year, finally, is gonna be their year?
One thousand? Ten thousand? Let’s be optimistic and go with ten thousand.
Even if ten thousand humans have achieved true exceptionalism, that’s less than 0.0000001 percent of the estimated 107 billion humans who’ve floated along on Earth’s tectonic plates. I like my friends and family. I adore my children. But I probably don’t personally know anyone who will achieve true greatness in this life.
Neither do you.
I think every human is worthy and imbued with dignity and value. I also think it’s important to strive for excellence, both in morality and in carrying out one’s work. I’m just not sure it’s wise, useful, or honest to give ourselves daily and disingenuous pep talks about how amazing we are.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that the mental energy people expend trying to convince themselves of their own greatness could be better spent savoring moments — all moments, good, bad, and unremarkable — in the the temporary, typical, and unexceptional life that is pretty much all we have.
Toward an Honest Appraisal
Let’s face it: most of us lack the intellect, the emotional resilience, the ruthlessness, and the drive required to reach the top of humanity’s heap. Even things that aren’t impossible from a cosmic perspective are logistically impossible for most of us.
I hate to say it, but my kids probably aren’t destined for greatness. Neither am I, and neither are you. Like me, you probably do some things pretty well. You also do other things not so well.
You’re no notable sinner. You’re no venerable saint, either. I bet you’re decent to your fellow humans most of the time, though not to the point of ascetic self-denial or 100-percent lovingkindness. You let people in front of you in traffic sometimes, but when you’re in a hurry, well, that’s too bad for them.
Parents instill wisdom that astounds at times, but at other times, they yell at their kids like they’re unhinged. Teachers radiate inspiration in some moments before crushing little Johnny’s self-esteem five minutes later. Leaders have crowds cheering crazily on some days, but on other days, the sheeple grumble about how they could do it so much better. Most people don’t get that big lucky break from the universe. Most of us don’t have what it takes to achieve our most expansive dreams.
Sometimes, things are just impossible.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t expect nice things from life. You’ll see some great sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations, and auroras. You’ll laugh at good jokes, drink good wine, and eat great meals. You’ll see hallowed truths spoken, acted out, and written down.
Once in a while, you’ll nail that amazing lick you’ve been practicing for months. Your cool idea will be helpful to a dozen or so people. You’ll earn a bonus for crushing it at work, and your kids will so something that makes you feel like your heart will burst forth from your rib cage. Your partner will stop being repetitive and unexciting and make you remember why you decided to share a lifetime with them.
But are you a participant in a historically great love? Is your special destiny lurking around the next bend? Will you have that rock-hard bod without significant Photoshopping?
Probably “no” on all counts, but I encourage you to get comfortable with your averageness. In fact, I beseech you to embrace it, even to love it.
Let It Go
I absolve you from any obligation to be amazing, great, or eternally significant. Because you’re probably not, and that’s okay.
Go do some good. Change your mind when you learn something new. Love well when you have the chance. Accept love from other average, decent, caring people.
Reach for excellence, even if slightly above average is about the best you can do on a good day. Punch a clock. Throw a ball. Vote your conscience. Yell at an idiot.
History won’t remember that you did any of these things because they’re not exceptional on their own, but they do bring those fleeting moments of happiness that make drawing breath worthwhile.
Even if you aren’t exceptional in the expanse of human history, you’re exceptional to someone, and that’s enough. These achievements are good enough, my friend, and so are you — Average Joe or Joann that you are.