Friday, December 8, 2023

Aiming For Excellence Is Exhausting: ‘Why I’m Okay With Being Average’

Society has attached negative connotations to the term ‘average’, but what if being average is totally fine or even a good thing?

If someone told you that you’ve done an average job on something – for instance, a task at work, an assignment for a course, or a cake for morning tea – how would you feel? Probably not great. Maybe deflated. Maybe uncomfortable. Maybe even embarrassed. (If you’d be unruffled, great, but you’re probably in the minority.)

If you told yourself that you’ve done an average job on something, how would you feel? Again, probably not great, but you’d likely rather hear it from yourself, so to speak, than from someone else (because we want to be approved of and all that).

And how comfortable would you be telling someone else that they’ve done an average job on something? Probably not that comfortable. You might worry about offending them. Why? Because they may interpret their doing an average job on something as their doing a bit of a shit job on it.

Is ‘Average’ The New Word For Shit?

In popular culture and everyday vernacular, we don’t often hear the word ‘average’ in a context that reflects its actual meaning. I’ve always been below average at maths, but in this story I’m using the term ‘average’ in reference to both the median (a middle value separating the greater and lesser halves of a dataset) and the mean (the total sum of values in a sample divided by the number of values).

Either way, it’s about being somewhere in the middle.

It’s statistically necessary for some people to fall in the mid-range of a particular dataset or scale! If being average, below average or above average at something isn’t a measurable thing, many of us still mentally measure our attributes or performances against our perceptions of others’ attributes or performances. I know I used to.

And in a society that extols excelling, I feel we’ve attached negative connotations to the word ‘average’. It seems like average is (or is being used as) the new word for shit. If someone asks how your day was, and you reply ‘pretty average’, you probably don’t mean that half of your days were better than this particular day, and half of your days were worse than this particular day. You probably mean you had a bit of a shit day.

Why Being Average Is Fine…

In this respect, we’re often hardest on ourselves than on others. I grew up being told I needed to excel academically. Being average was bad! At school and university, I was annoyed by getting anything less than an A or its equivalent (except for maths).

Looking back, I wish I’d saved myself so much time and trouble and just done a ‘good enough’ job. Because I don’t think anyone ever combed over my school or university transcripts, frowning over my occasional B+s.

I got over my academic and work-related perfectionism. And I’m fine with being average or below average in areas of my life. For instance, I’ve gone from being an appalling cook to a slightly below-average cook, which I’m proud of because I’m no longer eating broccoli and mushrooms that have been stir-fried until they’re unrecognisable. And I’ve always been well below average at sports and athleticism. But maybe me being in the worst netball team at school meant someone else got a spot in a better team, and maybe that made them happy.  

Or Even Great!

Being average sometimes is part of being human. Yet the media often fuels our fears with ‘motivational’ articles that have titles such as ‘5 Ways to Stop Being Average Now’, ‘Please Don’t Be Average: Five Things You Can Do Now To Raise Yourself Above The Ordinary’, and even ‘It Doesn’t Take Much to Be Better Than Average’ (with the implication being that you’re lazy if you’re average). But what if we realised that being average isn’t just okay, but may actually be of benefit?

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an international expert in psychological profiling, leadership development, and people analytics, has written a story for Psychology Today called ‘The Upsides of Being Average’.

“Telling someone they are ‘average’ is akin to insulting them, and will likely offend a large number of people,” he writes. But should it?

“Contrary to popular belief,” he adds, “there are many advantages to being, and even feeling, average. If you want to avoid most physical and psychological illnesses, being average is one of your best options. Even desirable characteristics – ambition, sociability, confidence and conscientiousness – are problematic when exacerbated or taken to the extreme.”

As in, they could sometimes lead to greed, attention-seeking, arrogance, or even obsessive-compulsive behaviour. “Feeling average,” he writes, “will translate into high self-awareness”. Yup, that’s something to be aware of!

No one’s saying we shouldn’t try to do a good job at something. But if we talk more about being average at certain things, we might get used to the idea that it’s not just statistically necessary, but also totally fine.

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