STAND BY FOR PROBABLY THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL bit of New-Year advice you’ll read all January. Ready? Here it is: be more average. Or at least, if – like me – you’ve achieved such an apex of averageness that you’ve turned it into a sofa-based art, then embrace it, fully, and with zero shame. Because while the rest of the world is lapping up think-pieces and advice columns on how to be their hashtag best selves this month, I’m enjoying the gentle undulations of life in the middle lane, happy in the knowledge that I won’t achieve the impossible – because I’m not deluded enough to try.
Wait, waaaaait! It’s not as negative as it sounds, and I’m certainly not suggesting we all just jack it in and go home, or even that we don’t attempt at least a half-assed shot at the stuff we think is important enough to get up from sitting for. In fact, I am actually a disciple of the mind-numbingly basic motivational quote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” My only worry is that our dream-big culture, in all its hyper-memeable glory, might actually be more damaging to our self-esteem than we think.
Why? Well here’s my bit of armchair pop-psychology, based on nothing but some delirious, chocolate-fuelled navel-gazing over Christmas, a skimmed pile of self-help books, and some slapdash, one-handed Google research. The other hand is still shovelling rogue Quality Streets into my mouth. Here goes…
I think that getting lost in a spurious motivational maze is teaching us that exceptional is the new normal. And it isn’t. I think that we’re rewiring our brains to believe that anything less than 100 percent success is a failure. And it’s not. And I think our obsession with self-optimisation has become a hamster wheel with no discernibly satisfying ﬁnish line. And that’s depressing.
In the midst of all of this, we’re told over and over that we can be anything we want to be – if only we work hard enough. “You have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé,” trills the internet, passive aggressively. (By the way, you absolutely don’t have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé.) But OK, world wide web. Does that mean I’m to blame if my dreams still haven’t been realised? And does all of this just add up to one big, fat generational crisis where the thing we’re most afraid of is being – gulp – a bit average?
Journalist Marisa Bate nailed it in a recent article for The Pool, where she described it as “the bogeyman of the internet generation.” And it’s hardly surprising when we’re living through a time of such intense individualism, underscored by rocketing external pressures. Just last week, The American Psychological Association published new research exploring the rise of perfectionism in young people, ﬁnding that compared to past generations, millennials are far harder on themselves, more demanding of others, and report higher levels of social pressure to be perfect. No surprise there. The Cut writes, “Some psychologists believe in healthy perfectionism, the kind of internal drive that can lead to high achievement. Yet there is obvious risk to feeling trapped in a cycle of unreachable expectations and critical self-evaluation.”
Insta-blame aside, there are theories that the economy is also a culprit. Harder times, fewer jobs; ergo the need to be anything but average. Carl Cederström, coauthor of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside The Optimization Movement elucidates further, “Christopher Lasch claimed that in the ’70s, as people lost hope in improving the world politically, they retreated into self-improvement.” Another thing we can blame Trump for, then.
After a year of trying endless Man Camps and questionable workshops in pursuit of perfection, Carl is well-placed to reveal the answers at the dark heart of it all. i.e: Is this quest actually working against us? Even making us unhappy? “The trouble with self-optimisation is that, in all this emphasis to become better, you can lose sight of who you really are. The culture of self-improvement is so powerful these days that we don’t stop to ask why or if I want to become better looking, more successful… we just swap tips about how to do it.”
So there you have it, friends. ‘Better’ doesn’t always equal happier. But I’ll tell you what will bring you joy, every time: the sofa.