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Why being 'just average' is actually rather a good thing

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 01/11/2021 Boudicca Fox-Leonard
We all fall into the narcissist trap of assuming we're special, but it might be time to finally get over ourselves... © Provided by The Telegraph We all fall into the narcissist trap of assuming we're special, but it might be time to finally get over ourselves...

As a teenager I immersed myself in the classics: Austen, Eliot, Waugh. As I thumbed through Brideshead Revisited, immersed in a world of which I had no connection or experience, I naturally assumed that one day I’d write my own novel of grand importance. It didn’t matter that I didn’t, and still don’t, have anything particularly penetrating to say (this article excepting), I just sort of assumed it would happen, because, what else was the point of being alive on this planet if not to set it alight?

It’s a fairly stereotypical folly of youth to assume that one day you will be recognised for your specialness, regardless of talent.

We inherit some unhelpful expectations from our families and teachers as to how special we are and while a little bit of drive and ambition is no bad thing, the most enlightened all too quickly realise their insignificance and knuckle down to enjoy life, cultivating their own garden, free of anxiety about making their mark.

Our writer Boudicca laments that she's not quite reached the lofty heights of literary star Sally Rooney © Provided by The Telegraph Our writer Boudicca laments that she's not quite reached the lofty heights of literary star Sally Rooney

Others remain restless for life; a half-finished novel in a drawer at home, a repository for one’s fragile hopes, dreams and self-esteem. That’s of course unless you really are special.

But at the age of 37 I recognise I am no Zadie Smith, or Jonathan Franzen. Heck, I’m not even Sally Rooney, who is making a career out of holding a ­mirror up to millennials’ obsession with their own uniqueness.

It’s something psychologist and ­former Great British Bake Off finalist Kimberley Wilson has also observed. When she decided to address the issue in an Instagram post called “Why You’re Not Special”, she was motivated by a general sense that: “Everyone is trying really hard. And I’m not really convinced that they know what they’re making the effort for.”

She noticed that people are often apologetic about their own lack of ­success, and that they felt like they were being judged by those around them. When the blunt truth is: “Most people are too obsessed with themselves to notice. And when you realise everyone is just thinking about their own ­worries and concerns, you can just live your life and do your own thing. And that’s fine.”

In Kimberley Wilson’s eyes being average is a blessing - Andrew Crowley © Provided by The Telegraph In Kimberley Wilson’s eyes being average is a blessing - Andrew Crowley

Wilson was amazed by the feedback she received from her followers. “It’s probably been the most engagement I’ve ever had on a post,” she says. Many shared the relief they felt the moment they got on board with the idea that they’re not special because “consciously or unconsciously we all feel the ­pressure that we need to be hustling, making lots of money and impressing everyone”.

At the School of Life in London it’s common for people to come through the door talking about the sense of ­disappointment they feel, that they have not fulfilled their potential – be it at work, parenting or relationships.

“Part of the problem is that we can imagine so much more than we can actually be, so we end up inhabiting the gap between our reality and our expectations and always falling short,” says Raul Aparici, a teacher at the school.

Its How to Fail course is designed as an antidote to that, making a home for failure in our lives but also re-defining success so that staring at clouds or speaking to an elderly aunt is as important as being successful in our careers.

“We are particularly fond of a quote by psychologist William James around letting go of our most unrealistic ­expectations: ‘To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them ­ratified,’” says Aparici.

Gallery: These are the oldest words in the English language (Espresso)

Responsibility for this epidemic of self-obsession and social comparison is often levelled at the so-called snowflake generation, raised to feel they are unique and special. It is certainly, for Wilson, a product of our highly individualistic society, which encourages us to outshine those around us. “You need to be the most talented, you need to do the most extracurriculars, you need to have the most hustle, you need to optimise your time and be as efficient as possible,” she tells me.

But, she cautions, it’s an impossible race to win. “The more you try to assert yourself as different and far above the pedestal, the less freedom you have to just be average.”

In Wilson’s eyes, being average is a blessing, allowing you to get on with your life without worrying about who you’re impressing. “You’re just free to be another human being who eats and poops and will eventually die.”

Social comparison is a natural part of human life, but social media has taken our villages global. We no longer feel the pressure to keep up with the Joneses in our cul-de-sac, but with an entire planet of Joneses.

And there is mounting evidence that it’s harming us. A 2017 study found a link between use of multiple social media platforms and increased depression and anxiety symptoms in people aged 19 to 32.

The self-discrepancy theory, which is the distance between the objective self and the ideal self, is used as a measure for one’s risk ­factor for depression. Social media platforms like Instagram have magnified that gap. In the scramble to stand out, it’s inevitable that some will fare better than others. As American social psychologist W Keith Campbell tells me: “For people who are more narcissistic this is a great opportunity for status and fame. For people who are more prone to anxiety this is a recipe for social comparison, and fear of missing out.”

In 2010 Campbell co-authored The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. It was the height of the Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian era, defined by grandiose and overt narcissism.

“A lot of that started to drop with the great financial crisis,” explains Campbell. Ten years on from his book, today we have more vulnerable narcissism: “Self-centeredness and entitlement but also a lot of anxiety and depression,” he says.

Reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian helped to define the 'overt narcissism' era © Provided by The Telegraph Reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian helped to define the 'overt narcissism' era

People who are good at the social media-isation of life can be very successful and garner fame and attention. But everybody else not only doesn’t get attention but feels disconnected or less special. “It’s really a trade-off,” he says.

How do we row back from this as a society? Campbell feels that all the old things that used to bring people together, such as shared religious services or uniforms, are gone. Instead we have a sense of specialness and uniqueness that serves to separate, rather than unite us. “School uniforms, tradition, similar hairstyles and fashion, all serve to connect people. Nobody stands out so nobody feels special, but everybody feels connected,” says Campbell. He would like to see a return of “high trust connected societies” with value placed on family and community, rather than diffuse social networks.

For Wilson it’s about getting to grips with more existential questions around death: what are we doing, what does it mean and what is it all for?

“We have to take our place in the cycle of life. This idea of being special is in one sense an unconscious fear of death. We are thinking about our ­legacy, we want to be remembered and for people to know we were here. We want to leave a lasting impression on the world because we’re terrified of being forgotten.”

Striving for specialness is on an unconscious level a plea to “please remember me”, to make sure that our life mattered and meant something. “I think what we have to get to grips with is that, for the vast majority of us, our destiny is to be forgotten,” says Wilson.

It doesn’t mean our actions aren’t important. “Only Einstein is remembered, but it doesn’t mean his mother and grandmother didn’t matter. He wouldn’t have been there without the people who were part of that lineage.”

But for every Einstein there are going to be millions of people who were important but whose names won’t be remembered. “For our own sanity we need to accept that we are most likely to be forgotten,” says  Wilson.

There is power in coming to terms with our place in the cosmos. Having observed the equanimity of friends who have reached a place of acceptance with their lack of importance, I can see it’s a good place to be for both mental health and for treading lightly on the world. It stops us seeing everybody else as competition, allowing us to be kinder and truly enjoy other people’s successes.

And while it might sound bleak, once you’ve come to terms with the fact one’s name won’t be on the spine of a classic book, it frees up time and energy for things you really want to do, like growing tomatoes.

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