Just An Ordinary, Average Guy

image courtesy of Pixabay

One glance at my @Medium feed, and you’d think life was a contest of the best vs. the rest. I’m bombarded with titles like, “How I Switched Careers and Got a Developer’s Job in 10 Months,” “How to Achieve Your Most Important Career Goals in a Fraction of the Time,” and “Why Standing Out Is Essential to the Survival of Any Creator, Brand or Business.

I guess sharing these titles from my feed reveals more about me than the content of Medium, obviously their software thinks I want to read these things, which means I must fit their Type A, competition driven profile. Yet, these headlines don’t draw me in, rather they vex some part of me that just wants to scream, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!”

Part of my perfection exhaustion comes from being a perfectionist since I could walk. I’ve always wanted to produce quality work. And if I’m honest, I did want to stand out. When I was 23, my goal was to be a VP in a major tech firm by 40. Instead, I’m a housewife, raising ordinary, average sons. The other day my mother told me she’d been speaking to a friend of hers who worked at Motorola, the same company I worked for when I took time off to raise my kids. The woman told my mother, “If she hadn’t left, she’d be a VP by now.” In those early years at home, such a comment would have brought me to tears. Now I find it amusing. Who knows if I’d be a VP. Does it really matter? Honestly, I’m only 46, I have at least 42 years left in my life. Why should I be a VP now? Why not be one when I’m 60? When the rest of you, who have been slaving away trying to have it all by the time you’re 40 are ready to retire, I can pick up the work. What you say? I’m too old? I’m currently taking advanced Java at the local college, and I just got the third highest score in the class on the midterm, which was about the same as my performance the first time around, when I was 19. Too old to program? Too old to manage a company? Who makes up these stories?

In the end, this race to the top is a story we’ve agreed to as the modern narrative of a successful person: Hustle as a kindergartener, stand out, play five instruments, launch your first startup by 16, found a volunteer organization, have three kids and be a CEO, all by the time you’re 35, because you know, the clock is ticking, ticking for everyone, ticking away…

This need to fulfill our life’s goals by 35 is the driving factor behind the destruction of childhood. Rather than allowing our children to grow slowly, through play, curiosity and love, we put them behind desks at 3, force them to know their times tables by 6, take away recess by 9, standardize test the hell out of them all the way up to college, force them to declare a major at 17, while also producing a resume that puts them out there, at the top of their class. 12+ Advanced Placement tests, 33+ ACT scores, 1450+ SATs, a Gap-year filled with trips to third world countries, several leadership positions… you know where I’m going with this. Our belief that we must reach our career goals before 40, our fight against time, has put our children in a place where being ordinary is failure. Where being average augurs a future of being left behind, with nothing, but an average life to live.

It’s no wonder our kids are anxious.

In their new book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt recommend pulling back and letting our kids play, removing homework in the early grades, and allowing children to take physical risks as antidotes to the mental health crisis we find ourselves in. I have mixed feelings about their advice, because I’m one of those parents who took the road less traveled and let my kids have a childhood, and now find the college admittance process to be terrifying.

I’m told everyone finds it terrifying, whether your kid is extraordinary or not. Perhaps it was an act of defiance, but when others were sending their kids to preschool, I was taking mine out for long walks in the forest preserve with their grandparents and letting them play in the mud. When others were bragging about their kindergartener being able to read all the Magic Treehouse books, I sent my boys to Waldorf schools, where their constant need to move wouldn’t be seen as a pathology fixed only by drugs and therapy. My kids didn’t read until 4th grade, nor did they have homework until that time. But they had recess, climbed redwood trees, and played capture the flag on a regular basis.

Eventually they moved on to a college prep school and did well there. Both had over 4.0 weighted GPA’s, both with 8 AP classes on their resume. However, in part due to my reluctance to push them into the adult world, they’re fairly average on paper because everyone has a 4.0 GPA. As a matter of fact, 49% of high school seniors in 2016 had a 3.9 or higher. Thanks to test prep classes, most kids rock their standardized tests as well. So how does a college differentiate students? Take more APs earlier is one way to boost that GPA. Activities are another. The other day, as my youngest son compiled data about himself, he realized just how ordinary he is.

“Mom,” he said. “I’m nothing. I don’t stand out, yet this is what everyone tells me I must do. Stand out!”

I already mentioned his grades, but in a world where 49% of kids have an A average, obviously the A is no longer special. My husband has long considered himself special, but his achievements of high school would no longer land him the Presidential Scholarship Award he received in high school, unless of course in addition to being a genius and a state champion in swimming he'd also launched a business and rescued kittens from trees on a regular basis. Nor would I get into computer science at Purdue University now with my 3.7 GPA, 30 ACT and transcript void of a single Advanced Placement class. Hell, I didn’t even take calculus my senior year, opting instead for a Pascal programming class for my math credit—but that choice is what led me to major in computer science. Had I taken calculus, I wouldn’t have remembered how much I loved programming, and probably become a lawyer instead 😉

The point here is that I had no need to be extraordinary then, nor do I need it now. I’ve found that if you live long enough, and you continue to learn and try new things, you naturally build a resume with time that is quite interesting. But to do it all by 35? What’s left after that? Lying on a beach in Bermuda? Boring.

I chose the path I did for my boys for two reasons: First, I wanted them to have a childhood filled with scrapes, a bit of danger, and lots of mud. Second, I wanted their love of learning to remain intact. Spend time with a toddler and you’ll see that wanting to learn, wanting to know, is the default setting for humanity. That our kids have lost their curiosity is not nature, it’s nurture, and we’re lying to ourselves if we think our need to excel at every damn thing we do isn’t part of what is hurting our children. Stealing their curiosity for the sake of getting ahead of the competition in grade school is a gamble on their mental health.

Given the conversations I have with my sons, I think they still love to learn. They often come home from high school, and now college, sharing some sort of wonder from the day. Whether it’s how cancer begins in the cells, the foundations of ethics and philosophy, or how light waves work, they’re hooked on knowledge. But proving that to an admissions officer is difficult, because other than their love of knowledge, the resume is short. My youngest has a leadership role, he works part-time at the ice-cream shop, has been driving since 16 (yeah, most of the kids his age don’t drive, go figure?), has performed on stage internationally, has a film credit and is directing a version of “Rumors” for his thespian club. But unfortunately, it’s not quite enough. In this world, such a resume is utterly average. He hasn’t really specialized in anything. Instead, he’s a bit of a renaissance man, which seems romantic but doesn’t stand out on paper.

Yet what if being average is the great act of rebellion called for in these times? Choosing to raise my kids eighteen years ago rather than pursue a career in tech felt rebellious. It certainly wasn’t what was expected of me, but it saved me from the anxiety and depression that perfectionism demanded of me. What’s wrong with being an ordinary, average guy? It’s a vulnerable place to be while everyone else is hustling around you, but the development of the soul is a slow process. It meanders through experience, taking its time learning and gathering lessons. You might get into that dream college, and you might even find the key to the corner office by the time your 35, but you can’t avoid the call of the wild. In the end, your soul will demand attention, and here’s the bitch, it will come knocking when you least expect it. A childhood filled with days on the couch reading stories, hikes with grandparents and lots of mud is one that prepares you to answer the call of the soul, rather than deny it until you can barely breathe due to anxiety, nor fall asleep at night, due to the worry and pressure that’s eating away at your mind.

I know that my son will be accepted to the right school for him, just as his elder brother found his place (he's at Reed College in Portland). The admissions process is but one of the many things that’s been turned upside down in our ever-anxious world, yet it still manages to pair students with institutions of higher learning. Just like the publishing process, which is a grueling experience for any aspiring author to go through, for the most part produces beautiful literature, even if the path requires 50+ rejections combined with a bit of luck. I know he will be okay, as long as he loves learning and is able to meet life as it comes.

When my eldest graduated from high school, I serenaded him with the song, “Simple Man.” There are many things I could want for my sons, but most of my dreams for them are cages for their souls. Who am I to determine their path? I found the classic song contained the message that, while perhaps contrary to the speed of our times, is the secret of a life well lived, even if it means being average.

“Boy, don't you worry, you'll find yourself
Follow your heart and nothing else
And you can do this, oh baby, if you try
All that I want for you, my son, is to be satisfied"