The greatness of our lives does not have to come from being exceptional


Ariella Bucio

Society can lead you to believe that you must always be the most perfect version of yourself, and this image of “perfection” follows you like a shadow wherever you go. But you don’t need to reach these elusive standards in order to be considered successful because being yourself is always enough.

We love to be entertained. Vibrant swirls of color and song, radiant souls with happy endings, and death-defying superheroes seize our attention across screens and books. How could we not love it? These stories are captivating stimulants of emotional response, and it is exciting to believe in this romanticized version of life. Yet the allure of standing out is not limited to fiction. 

Dramatics are woven into our news outlets and the better-and-bigger-than-life idea has become a staple across social media platforms. As written by statistician Hans Rosling in “Factfulness,” “[Journalists, activists, and politicians] will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. They will always focus on the unusual rather than the common, and on the new or temporary rather than slowly changing patterns.” Rosling attributes this occurrence to the fact that a nondramatic picture of the world  “would be correct but just too boring.” These standards of greatness or extremity, no matter how broadcasted, are not the reality of life. 

Between the years 2003 and 2012, the rate of children ages 6-17 diagnosed with either anxiety or depression increased from 5.4% to 8.4%, as reported by the CDC. According to the documentary “The Social Dilemma,” the increase in mental illnesses aligns with the availability of social media on smartphones. As these devices expose the user to platforms filled with extremes and outliers, the relation of our view of ourselves to goals of exceptionalism, or standing out from the norm, is important to consider. 

In the seemingly counterintuitive self-help book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” author Mark Manson analyzes how our society’s obsession with outliers and unrealistic standards has left our self-esteem depleted. Our self-worth is often based on achievement, but with the modern, digitized definition of achievement being exceptionalism and numbers of “likes” and “retweets,” our belief in ourselves is diminished. Instead of reaching for exceptionalism, Manson advises we focus on making small improvements in our lives and ourselves. 

Psychology and Global Capstone teacher Laura Brandt offers similar insight on building a positive relationship between self-worth and achievement: “You have to set these sort of subgoals on the way to that larger goal. Then when you achieve those, those are the things that help your self-worth.”

There is nothing wrong with striving for excellence. Motivation to seek innovation and create change in the world drives our society. However, issues arise when we begin to view our worth as dependent on being extraordinary. There is no room for those who are average or “part of the crowd” in a world where flashy content and flamboyant people grapple for the greatest attention. Yet the reality is that most of us are very much average. 

Exceptionalism is highlighted in our world and those who have worked hard and built their accomplishments should be celebrated. Most of the change that we create in our lifetimes, however, will go unnoticed by the majority of the planet. The change and “exceptionalism” most of us are going to achieve will come from our dedication to our passions, our kindness toward our communities and the relationships we create. There is nothing flashy nor extraordinary about these small works of goodness in the grand scheme of the world. Newspapers will not send reporters flocking to your doorsteps, you will not “blow up” on social media and the world will not know your name. It will be a mundane existence and that’s okay. That life is by no means a failure. If we claim that to be failure, we condemn the vast majority of the world to a definition of failure. 

Fiction is a necessary escape from reality, but it should not become reality. The world is not always cheerful nor filled with those who society deems beautiful, but it is also not a crumbling prison corrupted by evil. It is somewhere in the middle and just as average as we are. When we accept our mundane existence, we will possess the humility and freedom to embrace our true passions. The simple beauty of life will be appreciated and we will not be burdened by the pressure of this exceptional ideal. In this sense, we achieve our own greatness.