Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 68

How to be Ordinary

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.

In the field of self help, you see a lot of spectacular claims: not only will this book or system help you with your ordinary, embarrassing and maybe embarrassingly boring problems, but it will make you superhuman. Some of them even have the word “superhuman” in the title. I’m a nice guy, so I won’t name any names -- I know how delicate we self help gurus can be beneath our superhuman facades -- but google around a bit and you’ll see what I’m talking about if it isn’t immediately apparent to you already. They promise you not just modest improvement but total transformation into an almost divine being.

The problem I see in this is not that obviously all of these systems are going to fall spectacularly short of these claims in almost all cases or we’d be living in a marvel universe of glowing hot bods with blindingly positive personalities and levitating with wellness. That’s a problem, that it doesn’t work, but it’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is a weakness that it points to in our psyche, a weakness that falling for these promises over and over again exacerbates and exploits: namely, the fact that we even want to be superhuman, that being human doesn’t feel like enough, and that, to the extent that we are OK with our mere humanity, these systems make us feel inadequate about it.

Being normal, being ordinary as every movie, commercial, or other cultural artifact produced these days re-echos in one way or another, is bad, is stupid, is boring. Normalcy is the force of evil. Innovation is the force of good. We have to be special, new, different.

I used to be a software engineer.

In software engineering -- at least way back then, 5+ years ago, the dark ages -- there was this concept of the “ten exer,” the idea was that some engineers were so skillful that they were literally 10 times as productive as ordinary engineers. I sometimes wondered why ordinary engineers were tolerated at all, but you know, there is infinite work, and some crumbs would inevitably be left by the 10 Xers and have to be cleaned up. And the ordinary engineers could always serve as stunt doubles at meetings so the 10xers could get real work done.

It reminded me a little of something I’d read about fighter aces In World War II. Any pilot who had shot down 5 or more enemy planes was considered an “ace.” They were rare. But their impact was tremendous.

A quote from: Dirty Little Secrets of WWII, by James Dunnigan:

"There were only two kinds of pilots, aces (who shot down five or more aircraft) and targets (pilots who got shot down).... Only 5 percent of pilots shot down five or more aircraft. The rest, for the most part, served mainly to provide victims for the aces in air-to-air combat."

So If you weren’t an ace, you were cannon fodder for an ace. I would sometimes, in flights of truly extravagant self-pity, imagine myself as one of those cannon fodder pilots, hurtling towards earth in a shot up Mustang, or whatever, my last thoughts not being of the righteous cause or the girl back home or even hatred of the enemy but consumed by the knowledge that it was my own incompetence that was bringing me down, that it was not just death rushing towards me, but a kind of judgement: not a judgment of “you are especially bad,” but simply dismissal, which in a way was worse. It was like “you are not especially anything. You are not special at all. And the just and sufficient punishment for your cannon-fodder level ordinariness is nothing more or less than the full awareness of it, rushing at you now at terminal velocity.”

Wow. How’s that for catastrophizing? I mention it not because I recommend it as an edifying visualization exercise, but just as an example of what my anxious, churning mind would shove at me. I think part of the reason we catastrophize is the sheer drama of it. If we can’t be special and successful in a direct way (plan A), at least we can be special in the righteous extravagance of our self-imposed imaginary doom.

I am no longer a software engineer. I’m not sure if it was simply because I wasn’t all that good at it, or because I couldn’t handle the anxiety of not being a 10xer – or even a 1xer, as then I’d immediately fear, because once the doubt started, it was hard to stop.

But the thing is, I couldn’t escape it so easily. It turns out this anxiety about not being remarkable, which then immediately jumps to anxiety about not even being of ordinary worth, though it might be extreme in fields like software engineering (and imaginary combat aviation), is not, as I can now attest from personal experience, confined to them. I have discovered that it’s possible to have a kind of imposter syndrome, even about being an ordinary person in an ordinary job. It seems terribly unfair, but apparently it’s hard to be ordinary.

Another term I used to hear is “rockstar programmer.” It’s a funny term, your typical schlubby rockstar programmer presents a striking visual contrast to an actual rockstar. But maybe this dissonance is part of its evocative power.

It’s the same basic idea as the 10exer or the ace. Except in a way, it’s better for the point I’m trying to make. “10xer” and “ace” are very field-specific. But you can be a rockstar anything nowadays. I’ve heard “rockstar librarian,” “rockstar HR coordinator.”

It seems like it should be great, right? To have this accolade available to anyone, potentially, like we can all be so fantastic at some mundane job, that we are catapulted to celebrity status. What an empowering idea, you might think.

The trouble is when you start to worry, to know 100% that you are not a rockstar, not a 10exer, not an ace, not remarkable or special, and maybe, not even average. We can’t all be rockstars, right? We can’t even all be average. What do we do when that doubt starts to nag, and won’t let go, maybe even becomes 100% clear to us? When we know that we are not part of that special elect of talent, that we are below average in some important regard?

I think Americans have a particularly hard time with this. It’s very un-American not to be special. Rockstars, celebrities, visionary business leaders -- these are very American things. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are saints in our cult of success. Even Mr. Rogers is telling us we’re special. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are easy to dismiss because they are -- how shall I put this? -- assholes, but Mr. Rogers? That’s a tough one… I love that guy. I like to think maybe he was using the word in a different sense: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…”

The typical sense, today is: thou shalt be special. Thou shalt succeed. Believe in yourself, you can be anything, follow your dreams. A thousand TV shows and movies have this as their moral. They feature some hero of self confidence who against all odds and naysaying goes on to prove to the world that they are indeed special.

There’s always this moment in these cinematic productions when the hero is about to despair of their specialness, and some wise counselor steps in to assure them earnestly “you have talent. You are different from the rest of us. I have no talent but you, despite how selfish and ungrateful and whiney we’ve seen you be in previous scenes, you have talent and that’s all that matters” and the camera zooms in so we can see the hero absorbing it and the light goes on inside them “I have talent! I am special!” and boom, they’re essentially saved from that moment forward. Salvation by faith in oneself and one’s special talent. Besides talent of course they’re also absurdly good looking but that’s just Hollywood's way of putting a halo around what really matters.

Thou shalt succeed.

I am the Self thy Self. Thou shalt have no other Selves before me.

“Believe in thyself” -- or else.

The “or else” is usually just implicit. We don’t consciously dwell on it.

But it’s there.

We (some of us, at least) worry that other people can see it, our unbelief. Our objective lack of success, that’s one thing. But the fact that we’ve stopped believing in its possibility, in The Self Thyself, in our specialness, that is the truly shameful part that cannot be admitted. Because with that faith objective success might be just around the corner. We might be the hero in that movie, en route to fabulous success, defying all odds. But that would require belief in our special talent. If we don’t even have that…

Or maybe we worry that people do see it, our desire to be special, and that it makes us ridiculous. We are obviously so far from attaining it that it’s absurd we should still harbor it and allow it to cause us pain.

It reminds me a little of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Do they still make kids read that in school? I hope so. My kids haven’t read it yet.

As you may remember, Hester Prynne has to wear a scarlet A for Adultery, stitched to her puritan frock, or whatever it is they wore, as a sign of public disapproval. And Arthur Dimmesdale, her secret lover, this big shot minister who got away with it and was never publicly held to account -- Hester doesn’t snitch -- is racked by guilt, and carves a bloody A in his chest as a private, invisible attempt at atonement.

These days adultery isn’t met with quite that level of disapprobation or even interest. There aren’t a whole lot of people walking around with visible or invisible A’s on their chest. But I sometimes think that maybe there are a fair number of people with a scarlet F, for failure, tormented by the sense that they didn’t make it somehow, that they owe their secret special selves some debt they can never pay. Maybe that’s the scarlet letter of our time.

For some people, it may even be visible, in a way. There are the traditional status indicators like dress or possessions but now also ripped (or not ripped) bodies and social media profiles. There’s a Black Mirror episode where they won’t even let you on an airplane unless you have a 4.2 star rating in this imaginary dystopian social media platform. It doesn’t feel that far off.

For many more people, I imagine, it’s invisible, but all the more painful -- they’re the Arthur Dimmesdales of the cult of success. Their Linked-In and FaceBook profiles are amazing (or at least, relentlessly positive), the envy of all their “friends,” connections, and followers, but they, the curators of their false selves, know how empty and insufficient the underlying reality is.

So how do we break out of this mindset? How do we learn to be content with being ordinary? Maybe even excited about it? It should be easy, one might think, after having aimed too high, to aim at a more realistic target: plan B, our “safety,” the consolation prize. But it’s not. Maybe we’ve simply lost the taste for the ordinary, having gorged ourselves on imaginary glory for so long.

It’s hard to believe given how full circle our attitudes have swung, but being ordinary used to be a virtue. It was almost the virtue.

Consider the word virtue itself. It comes from the latin word vir, man. In some sense it’s the quality of being human. Being a Mensch. The most ordinary thing there is.

“That which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in” says the disguised Kent to King Lear in his job interview, and apparently it was enough.

For thousands of years, as attested over and over again in world literature, wanting to be “more than a man” was the cardinal not a good idea. Just ask Macbeth ( “I dare do all that may become a man, who dares do more is none.”) or Faust, or Adam and Eve (“Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”).

And although there weren’t, for most of that period, as far as I know, self help gurus trying to convince them otherwise (or I don’t know, maybe the serpent was the original self help guru?), our ancestors felt this to be a great enough temptation and danger that they were continually warning against it.

“Innovation” is another related word that has undergone a radical change of connotation, but in the other direction. These days innovation is always good, almost the best thing there is. I used to have a job title with the word innovation in it. In the bible, in Shakespeare, “innovation,” “invention,” was a sin.

According to an Atlantic article I recently came across, “In the 17th century, "innovators" didn't get accolades. They got their ears cut off.”

Or in the rolling thunder of the King James Bible, “Thus were they defiled with their own works, and went a whoring with their own inventions.”

I love that. I imagine Jeff Bezos or whoever going a whoring after his own inventions. I’m not quite sure what it means but it sounds magnificently awful – and somehow appropriate.

I’m not saying our ancestors didn’t overdo it, with their horror of novelty and specialness. But with us I think the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. We always overlearn the last lesson. Now everything and everyone must be new under the sun!

I should have titled this episode “why to be ordinary” because I’m not going to have time today to get into the “how” at all. Frankly it’s something I’ve very much not gotten to the bottom of yet myself, personally. I’m still tormented by my lack of specialness and the ridiculousness of my hunger for it. And my despair of achieving it, at age 49 (almost), hasn’t managed to cure me of this absurd hunger.

One reason it’s tricky is precisely because, these days, there’s nothing more ordinary, or at least common, than wanting to be special. We’ve heard it so often from so many sources that we are or should be special that it’s hard to let it go. I don’t know if we can even simply root out that desire, silly and destructive as it may be.

But I do have some ideas, a few leads, on how to approach this delicate problem, for further development in future episodes – as I make some progress with them myself, I hope.

And I think – I hope – that seeing the “why” is a start at least.

That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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