I’ve been thinking this summer how grateful I am that our parents understood, and communicated to us, that we were ordinary. Unique, yes, but unique in an unexceptional way — because all human beings are unique in, well, their own unique way.
So being unique was unremarkable.
Being a special snowflake, in other words, is only “special” if there aren’t a bajillion other one-of-a-kind snowflakes on the ground alongside you. We grew up with parents confident we were … as awesome as the next person. No more, no less.
As a child, I probably chaffed against this. I was a seeker of adult attention. I was pleased by the fact my height often meant people overestimated my age — by my teens, in the right contexts, I was regularly mistaken for a college student and occasionally a parent rather than a babysitter. I chaffed against the limitations of youth, and to the extent that serious adult attention encouraged me to think of myself as an old soul I’m sure I chaffed against reminders that I was, indeed, pretty much the same as most other six, nine, twelve, fifteen year olds.
I started college, haphazardly, at age seventeen, although at the time I thought I would either do that or possibly pursue a career in bookselling or seek an apprenticeship in wilderness adventure tourism. I wasn’t particularly wedded to the idea of college — and, indeed, remained quasi-allergic to institutional education throughout the decade-plus span of my higher education career. But I started college, nonetheless, and by the second semester was holding my own in upper-level humanities courses with students of twenty, twenty-one. Spring of my first year I won a writing prize for an essay on erotic God language and basked in the praise of faculty impressed by my facility with words and intellectual curiosity. Throughout my college career, faculty pretty much let me run with ideas, nudging me toward graduate school, prizes, publications.
I did school well, in other words, despite my ambivalence, and got major cookies for doing so. For being an exceptional student. While I often resented and sometimes even felt nauseated by the attention, I would be lying if I said I didn’t also bask in the assurance of being able to excel by the standards of the system in which I had wandered into and chosen to remain.
Eventually, though, my gloss wore off. I was aware of it at the time: that the same independent (undeniably privileged) educational path — the one where I took more or less what I pleased and occasionally something that filled in the gaps for a degree — which has led me into college ahead of my peers also led me to graduate several years after. I went from being the youngest student in upper-level humanities courses to the oldest student (bar the rare “nontraditional” middle-aged enrollee) in a sea of first-years struggling through those skipped core requirements.
I’d gone from being read as exceptionally ahead to being worryingly behind, in terms of our cultural expectations. I was malingering in college, failing to graduate on schedule, with no clear career plan. I was not a good neoliberal student.
Even at the time I was aware that the social perception of my abilities was shifting underfoot, and felt some measure of relief. The exceptional person draws notice, expectations accrue, praise — high marks, encouragement — become ways in which admirers invest in certain outcomes. They paint a picture of you as a person which is a fantastical ideal, not a flesh and blood human, and they start speaking and acting as if you are entitled to certain things because of what they believe in you. They become invested in others seeing you through similarly rose-tinted glasses.
Again: Of course this feels good in some ways. How can it not. You really think I have a shot at …? You nominated me for …?! You think I should go for it? This socialized belief that you are exceptional also has material benefits. People who believe you are exceptional reward you with good grades, a job, a higher salary. It’s a privilege to have the story told of your life be one of success, because stories of success invite further success: doors open, invitations arrive, serendipity occurs, a cushion of self-confidence develops.
These stories may also, in part, be true — an approximation of the truth. They are true in certain details without being true in the cumulative result: I am skilled in some areas, not in others. I have strengths (as we all do) and weaknesses (as we all do). I have insightful days and days where my brain and social skills are sluggish. Parts of my body work better than others, on some days more so than on other days.
In other words, I am like every other human being.
I’ve been thinking this summer about how helpful it is to be able to return to this truth over and over again in the hyper-competitiveness of American mainstream culture — particularly around questions of work and economic success. It’s also helpful to return to in the context of adulthood in a youth-obsessed culture. As a thirty-four year old, I may or may not be part of Millennial generation but apart from definitions certainly feel less a part of that cohort than its marginal second cousin. I am not an “emerging” or “young” adult or professional at this point. I’m one of those people over thirty the young folk should always give the skeptical side-eye — and I’m actually really, really okay with that.
Why? Because I think there’s danger in thinking you’re hot shit. In thinking you’re exceptional. In thinking you deserve, that you’ve earned, the life that you’ve pieced together for yourself. We’re all in this together, and when we start imagining somehow we’re destined for greatness — or not worthy of being part of the human family — when we start worrying that we’ve missed the opportunity for some Jean Brodie act of greatness — or believing (as those who love us may be tempted to tell us) that we deserve the good things that come our way — then we will forget to pay attention to the uniqueness of those whom the world is unwilling or uninterested in treating that way, and recognizing that we walk as human beings on the earth, together.
So I’m glad to be ordinary. It’s a good kind of life.