This weekend I read a good article about whether it is better to be ordinary or extraordinary, how some people straddle the line between the two, and about the so-called payoffs of being "the same" as those around us. The article was written by Oliver Burkeman and ran in The Guardian newspaper on 23 May (full article at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/may/23/oliver-burkeman-ordinariness).
I like pondering this topic, so I am posting the bulk of the article below:
We live in less flashy times... But the call to be remarkable, albeit in less preposterous ways, remains loud. Books with titles such as '101 Ways To Stand Out At Work' and 'Pop! Stand Out In Any Crowd' argue that being different is the key to thriving, while seemingly infinite numbers of personal development blogs urge readers to "live a remarkable life". In this sober [time] the point has merit. Being distinctive enhances your market value. And who can't appreciate the psychological benefits of making, and being recognised for, a unique contribution in life, rather than following the herd?
What's odd about our preoccupation with remarkableness, though, is how it coexists with its opposite. Most self-help books that aren't about standing out are about fitting in: making friends, finding a like-minded partner or realising that negative experiences - sadness, worry, stress - are really rather normal. And social psychology is awash with evidence of how far we'll go for the payoff of being the same. (In Solomon Asch's celebrated groupthink experiments, 75% of participants were willing to disbelieve their own eyes when others in the room - actors posing as subjects - insisted that lines of wildly different lengths were actually the same.)
The truth - that we need to stand out and to fit in - has been codified, in recent years, as "optimal distinctiveness theory". We crave the sweet spot between being too exceptional or too normal, and we're constantly adjusting our behaviour. When we feel suffocated by sameness, we'll strive to make our mark, but if we feel too lonely in our differentness, we'll rush to conform.
In other words, it's a balance. And yet our attitudes to specialness and ordinariness are anything but even-handed: we celebrate one and disdain the other. ("The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," Thoreau famously wrote, and however right he was, it's hard not to detect a trace of a sneer directed at the conformists.) So it's worth asking whether we should always be striving to be remarkable. Might some of us be better advised to get over our issues with being ordinary?
This will, I suspect, be the only time I enlist that notorious misery-guts Philip Larkin in the service of understanding happiness, but his poem Born Yesterday, dedicated to a newborn baby, might serve as a useful corrective:
"May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
To pull you off your balance...
In fact, may you be dull -
If that is what a skilled,
Catching of happiness is called."
* I didn't write it, but I definitely understand.