Opinions, Column, Featured Column

The Virtue of Being Average

It’s either working out or not working out—there’s little to nothing in between. I started the new year with a plan: get fit or die trying, as if anything’s that easy. Like many at Boston College, I am a recovering high school athlete, and while I can say my time in varsity cross country was unequivocally a good thing for me, it’s not so easy living as a moderate to slow runner when you were trained to run fast (or perhaps more accurately, trained to believe yourself to do such).

Exercise is not winner-take-all sport. It’s not even a sport. It’s just a thing we have a vague sense we should be doing regularly as we indefinitely lunge toward the abyss of adult living. “Ever to excel” need not apply to my life as a runner, since the reality is—in a pure health sense—running moderate distances at moderate speeds is said to be far better for your heart in the long-term than more extreme variations on the activity.

And yet, there’s something distinctly offensive in considering life as a moderate runner—or life as a moderate any-other-thing.

The righteous backlash regarding participation trophies isn’t entirely unfounded, but if I were to write a field guide on millennials, I’d argue that our generation was given participation trophies not because we’d been conditioned for mediocrity, but rather because we live with such a strong expectation for excellence in everything—an expectation repeatedly enforced by parents, coaches, and educators. If you aren’t leading three to four organizations by senior year of high school, you’re probably not getting into that college. If you can’t make varsity by sophomore year, there’s little point in doing the sport.

The myth of the well-rounded high school senior works out to be little more than a standard by which we expect high-achieving students to feign accomplishment in all aspects of their lives. In the college application process, there’s little celebrating the discerning 18-year-old, who quietly accepts the reality that he is just okay at the majority of what he does. And thus elite institutions become self-selected supernovas, thrusting class upon class of hyper-involved high school seniors into an environment where they’re bound to fail far more than they’ve been conditioned to expect.

When we talk about mental health issues on college campuses, the core of the problem is often identified by educators as the unrealistic expectations of students and parents. You’d have a tough time finding anyone who identifies herself as average around here. If you don’t fall in the top half of the class, you are more likely to consider yourself a dormant genius than simply falling into your rightful place.

Having high standards is not a problem in itself, but it can be at odds with the moderation demanded of a healthy lifestyle. It can drive us to forfeit things we might thoroughly enjoy out of fear of failure, or worse, mediocrity—and we’re not just talking about academics or extracurriculars here. It applies to a lot of avenues of life we’re afraid of underperforming in—to name a few, dating, spirituality, the job search, even going out on weekends. Hyper-competitiveness is the thief of happiness, driving us to chase illusory standards at the expense of the enjoyable opportunities we do have.

Twenty pounds past the prime of my running career, it’s still difficult to get back into it without tricking myself into thinking that I’m training for a marathon. And while I try to strike a balance in my workout schedule, I find the reality is that I teeter between extremes. One week, 30 miles, and the next, five.

Of course, it is absolutely worthwhile to do a few things completely, thoroughly, pushing toward the extreme. I don’t think many people go on to regret running a proverbial marathon. The challenge is getting there, identifying what exactly that “marathon” is for you, and efficiently directing your activities toward that goal. Committing to one extreme, and actually accomplishing something in that area, requires moderation in other things. It demands that you come to terms with the participation trophies you’ll be earning elsewhere.

Not enough is said on the virtue of being average, or the statistical reality that most of us are going to be average at most that we do. Despite this being the inevitable state of all things, such assessments of the world tend to be dismissed as overly pessimistic or defeatist. It’s actually the best possible state of things, because only when most people are average at most things can everyone reasonably expect to be exceptional at a few things. If you resist average, if you exempt yourself from the curve, you’re essentially ensuring the success of all people who stood by their average performances.

In time, the moderate runner is the one who beats heart disease, the person who is fine with simply doing enough is doing better than most, and the person who maximizes his opportunities (at the hazard of being average at some of what they do) is positioned to perform exceptionally well in more things than most. The only thing keeping us from being  extraordinary is our fear of being average.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Staff

March 2, 2016