We live in record-breaking times, and doesn’t everybody want to tell you that. Record-breaking low temperatures caused by polar vortex, most powerful storm in 100 years, largest drop in stock market value since year whatever, smallest GDP since some other date, longest shutdown … it goes on and on and on.
For me the biggest problem with the swirl of hyperbole is this — I feel like I have to compete. I feel like I need to have more, be more, be the best, be the brightest, and succeed the most. And you know what? I’m tired. I’ve made quests for greatness and grandeur and fallen short. Other people have made more money, sold more books, sent their kids to Ivy League schools, won more awards, kept cleaner houses, grown perfectly manicured gardens, have solid marriages, followed all the advice for living a long, healthy life with a well-funded retirement. Just look at their Facebook page and you’ll see how wonderful their lives are. Where did I fall short? Where and when did I fail to follow the rules for a successful life? If I’m not the best or brightest or most of something, isn’t that failure? And of all the things I wanted to be in life, “a failure” was never one of them.
But here’s the statistical reality to which I’m holding on by a thread as I write this — nobody is the best, we just pretend they are. It’s like pretending that the only worthwhile goal in life is being the top of a human pyramid, completely discounting the value of all of the people forming the framework underneath, as though those below the top are without value and are no more than unsuccessful at becoming the top-of-the-pyramid winners.
Some years ago when I was fresh out of college, all ready to take on the world and become a great success, I met a guy, Mark, who worked at the agricultural check station on one of the freeways coming into California. His job was to talk to drivers and ask if they were bringing in any fruits or vegetables. I’m sure he had a few more tasks than that, but that was all I knew about. I couldn’t understand why he would love a job like that. It wasn’t world conquering. It didn’t create change in the world. And he didn’t even look at it as something temporary, a means to an end of a grander job. Who knows, he may still be working there.
But now, as I’m in my 50s looking towards retirement down the road, and looking back at what I’ve accomplished thus far, I’m re-evaluating somewhat. While I’ve been gallivanting about life, Don Quixote style, trying to change the world, Mark has probably been working hard as part of the general effort to protect California’s agricultural industry, earning a decent wage, paying his taxes, spending money at local businesses, saving for retirement, and being able to spend his off hours enjoying times on hobbies or with friends and family. Sounds like a pretty decent life, sounds like something to be admired, not something incomprehensible as I once thought. Not only that, but it seems like something we as a society should embrace.
If you are born a Type-A personality and pick a “Fight Club” type of profession, it’s especially hard to find perspective. I chose the legal profession which is competitive and cutthroat from the beginning and never ends. You have to be a top performer on the LSAT to get into a top tier law school. Once in law school you need to be the top 10% in grades to be able to get into the highest prestige, highest paying jobs. At each step along the way, the competition and pressure to be better than everyone else gets increasingly intense.
Success isn’t that great in the long term, though. I can’t think of anybody who has spent time flying high in the top-of-the-pyramid way who didn’t eventually crash in one way or another. They end up drug addicts, alcoholics, divorced, bankrupt, or in jail. Being the most or best at anything is transient at best. There’s always someone ready to replace you when you waver or fall; sometimes they even push you off. Maybe trying to be “on top” isn’t a good plan anyway.
So how does this work, then? Why does our society put so much emphasis on being the “most” or “best” of everything? Is there really any value in having the most followers on Instagram, the most retweets on Twitter? If there isn’t, then we should spend a bit more time learning to live successfully as non-superlative, non-hyperbolic people. Only one person can have “the most” of any category anyway and they are already getting far too much attention. Maybe we can stop valuing the “one” over the “many.”
The problem for me is that if I stop questing for the top of whatever I’m doing, a plethora of negative words start pelting me like those rubber bullets they shoot at protesters. “You are mediocre. You just didn’t try hard enough. You weren’t focused enough. You are a failure. You’re lazy! You just didn’t want it enough. You don’t have what it takes.” Those words sting. You know that old saying about “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? It’s a crock of something malodorous and we need to recognize the stench.
We need to change our perspective, change the lens through which we see the world. What would our country be like if we didn’t celebrate hyperbole, perhaps didn’t even look for it? I mean, does it really matter that the stock market is up the most points in a day since, well the last time it was up a bunch of points? Does it matter that an egg got more Instagram likes than a celebrity baby picture? Each day’s headlines are about the most, or the biggest, or the worst, whatever. What if getting up each day and putting in an honest day’s work with taking care of our families, jobs, and communities were celebrated? “Today 97% of the population reported to work as expected and got a lot done before going home for the day.”
Even more than that, what if we started appreciating janitors and clerks and assistants and the other invisible workers for their hard work in supporting the whole societal pyramid? Think of all of those 800,000 government workers who sat on pins and needles for 35 days wondering how they were going to pay their bills and many still having to put in a hard day’s work. Maybe, even once, let’s throw a gala dinner in their honor.
Maybe the first place to start is this — on a personal level I just need to accept that I’m enough, and you are too. I don’t need a first place finish in my career, in my writing, in my housekeeping, to be a positive contribution to this world. I’ve made a difference in people’s lives — I know because they have told me. I’m a great mom — my daughter has told me so many times, and being a teenager, she’s knows everything. Maybe it’s time to accept and embrace being enough.