Woman standing tilted and on one leg on a beach in San Francisco Bay Area.

How would you rate…?

Therapist: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your average day.

Me: 5

Therapist: Why’s that?

Me: Because that’s how averages work.

This is an important point – that to be happy, to have self-esteem and personal integrity in life and work, we all have to be “above average” but that’s not how “average” works.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since listening to compassion researcher Kristen Neff PhD make this exact point on the Hidden Brain Podcast. She asks the host, our beloved Shankar Vedantam, how he would feel if she said his podcast was average, and he replied, as we all would, “Terribly hurt.”

I have worked most of my life in the arts and academics, which admittedly is filled with extraordinary and exceptionally talented, beautiful and intelligent people. Perhaps, it’s true that many of the people I know are above average by some measures – artistic success, fame, academic contributions, beauty – but overall, even for these people, when life experiences are summed, most of us have more similarities than differences.

I wrote this, but then I thought, the beauty, not the devil, is in the details. And the extraordinary, or at least the interesting story, might be found in our uniqueness – even for those of us whose life stories are a bit smaller. Living ordinary moments as if I am on a great adventure filled with the miraculous is an ongoing practice for me, and definitely increases my happiness rating from 5 to more like an 8 or 9.

Still, I wonder about the suffering I experience when I hold the belief that I, and everything I create, must be exceptional. Daily, I struggle with the contradictions between basic goodness, good enough, and the desire to beat the crowd – forgetting that the bell curve does not allow all of us to occupy the far right tail.

And, who do we imagine the average people are? Let’s be honest about coastal elite bias. And why do we not think that we might not fall somewhere in the middle like the other 68% of the population? After all, surely, most of us with above average educations have taken statistics.