Against Exceptionalism, Or, In Praise of the Ordinary

Our culture exalts the lives of often quite remarkable people. Musicians who have sold millions of albums, Nobel scientists who have developed new genetic editing technology, athletes who have become the fastest, strongest, or most gymnastic; authors who have written best-selling books, or a businessperson who with skill and acumen, has become the richest person in the world. Our society is quite bereft of images that glorify the ordinary.

We also live in a society that thinks and speaks of itself as a meritocracy. The underlying assumption is that there are no barriers to self-fulfilment and realisation. With enough hard work, determination and ambition, anybody can become anything they want. If we try our hardest and (in a properly capitalist circumlocution) ‘invest’ in our ‘human capital’, we too can become exceptional human beings like those we see on TV shows, movies, and magazines.

A society focused on exceptional people, combined with a meritocratic myth, merge to instil in people a belief that they must become exceptional and if they cannot, it is entirely their fault.

We will find articles in the news about the student who achieved the highest year 12 score in the state. The journalist will detail their hard work, determination and ambition as values to be held up for emulation. Of course, that student was incredible and beat immense statistical odds to achieve what they did. But it is no more impressive (or rather, impressive in a different way) than the student who studied just as hard, worked a part time job to support their family, and achieved a reasonably good score that allowed them to enter university to study a course that will land them their dream job.

We will praise the Nobel Prize winning scientist who developed breakthrough technology. But, we will overlook the thousands of men and women who work tirelessly in the background, doing the tedious and tiresome work over months and years laying stepping stones that allowed the new technology to come into existence. Their work was indeed ordinary, but without it, something extraordinary would not have come into existence.

We have deep seated beliefs about ourselves that we must become exceptional. According to the message of our society, it is not enough to work a good job that pays well and is mildly satisfying; we must rise to the top of the ladder and become the boss. It is not enough that we have shelter; we must have a grand house with marble benches, enormous columns and a spiral staircase. It is not enough to have modest savings that will tide us over in tough times and give us the free time to lounge lazily in the sun; we must work tirelessly to the point of sickness to build savings, invest, use equity to develop a portfolio and build massive riches. It is not enough to travel to a local waterfall or a desert and enjoy the serenity of cascading droplets or the solace of an empty plain; we must travel to exotic places, sail on yachts across Croatian lakes, or rent luxury suites in Milan or Paris.

Of course, not everyone can do this. But rather than recognise this ludicrousness of the belief system, we embrace a far easier (and more painful) mindset: shame. We feel inadequate being surrounded by such wealth, luxury, and exceptionalism. ‘It could have been me’ we tell ourselves, ‘if I had just worked harder, made smarter decisions, or knew what I did now’, ignoring the statistical improbabilities one has to defeat in order to be truly exceptional. The fact is, exceptionalism is simply not a possibility for most of us and that certainly is not a bad thing. If we can embrace the ordinariness of our existence, we may come across a certain peace and tranquillity that is achieved only when we stop trying so hard, like a cat lounging on a couch in the sun. It is perfectly ordinary, there is no striving to be anything exceptional, and how at peace and happy does the cat look?

We do not need to be exceptional in order to be satisfied because we do incredible things all the time. We may never enter the Olympics, but, in our own way, we compete in the Olympics of everyday life. Feeding, clothing, and taking care of children and ensuring they grow up to be well-rounded and happy individuals is an incredible feat, as is mustering the energy to get out of bed, brush your teeth, and do some work if you are feeling incredibly depressed and want to lay in bed all day. Keeping the house in reasonably good order while juggling the demands of work and friends is something to be incredibly proud of, even if it doesn’t land you on the front cover of Forbes. Montaigne writes,

Storming a breach, conducting and embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating and living together gently and justly with your household – and with yourself – not getting slack nor belying yourself, is something more remarkable, more rare, and more difficult.

Whatever people may say, such secluded lives sustain in that way duties which are at least as hard and as tense as those of other lives.

Well ironed sheets, a bountiful veggie patch, and attending university while working and taking care of the house are not glorified like first place in the Australian Open or rising to the rank of CEO, but they are no less difficult or deserving of respect.

Vermeer, The Little Street, 1657-1658.

Vermeer is challenging us to think differently. Perhaps success is a small garden on a quiet street. Maybe all we need is shelter, warmth and the company of people who love and care for us. The buildings are empty because life plays out in the lives of people, not things. The Little Street praises the ordinary. There is no splendour, no grandeur, no bombast. There is only a scene of a simple, yet beautiful thing, called ‘life’.

An ordinary life can be properly rich and rewarding if we adjusted our perspectives and saw, not a failure to be exceptional but instead, a life with its own treasures and precious memories. If we can realise that our lives do not lie in the stratospheric heights of the exceptional, we may gain deeper comfort and satisfaction from simpler things: a night in listening to a favourite album, a cup of hot chocolate by the fire, or a simple yet tasty meal prepared with love and tenderness by a kind and charitable housemate.

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