I’m 44 and have many unrealized ambitions. I am not alone. Those of us who grew up in the era of “be all you can be,” believed we had unique things to offer to the world through our lives and work. Eventually, if you’ve not realized hoped-for ambitions, you must come to terms with Chuck Palahniuk’s quote: “We are not special. We are not crap or trash either. We just are.”
Anyone reading this born before 1945 will be scratching their heads that this is even a topic of conversation, as being “special,” or a “gift to the world,” are fairly ridiculous concepts for anyone missing the baby boomer cutoff. Even us Gen Xers can feel puzzled hearing a 20-something talk about goals like: “I plan to start a social justice non-profit” or “I am working on my first book.”
Do these new mores make us creative innovators and change agents, or do they encourage naivete and narcissism? Like most things it’s probably not either/or, but my friends and I are interested in what it’s doing to us personally. We’ve reached consensus. The “you are clever and amazing and are going to kill it out there” narrative — especially when paired with general over-achieving or perfectionist tendencies — can be a recipe for existential misery.
It has spawned a self help industry that refuses to consider life’s complexities. It has sold a generation (or two or three) on the wrong formula for well being. The one where cleverness and success comes before / leads to happiness (and too often that success is an ever-moving goal post).
This can push you through your 20s and 30s fairly easily, but as you run out of life and social collateral it can leave you jealous of the young and disappointed in yourself.
We might ask: “Why am I not as clever, smart or accomplished as I once hoped?” When the better question is… “Why am I constantly compelled to be better and on guard against complacency and contentment?”
That’s the question Krista O’Reilly-Davi-Digui asked on her blog A Life in Progress which went viral last Spring. She asked: What if all I want is a mediocre life? Of course, the life she has and describes is hardly “mediocre,” but she’s reacting to all this noise to be exceptional and instead looking at what it means to be at peace and know you are enough.
What this wise woman is saying is what many other wise leaders, like the Dalai Lama, remind us of each day — that all this living in our heads, tethered to our ambitions, should be balanced with living in our hearts.
He says, “A source of trouble is our unruly minds. We can counter that by developing a warm heart. We need to effect an inner transformation, to understand that love and affection are a real source of joy. As human beings we are social animals, dependent on each other. It’s important to be warmhearted rather than selfish.”
And let’s face it, this wild ambition, this calling to be clever and better and special and important is some wildly selfish business. Goals and dreams are wonderful ways to get us out of bed and guide purposeful living. They help us be more fulfilled, and more fulfilled people have more to give. But we could all benefit from a little less obsession with legacy and achievement and a lot more acknowledgement that this will all return to dust.
Out of 9 billion people, 2 die and 4 are born each second. We really don’t need to spend very many of our own seconds wringing our hands about legacy, influence and achievement. We need to consciously keep our subjective expectations about a meaningful life in check.
The risk we fear, of course, is that if we drop our guard on our personal goal and self improvement trajectories, we will take our realized insignificance to the couch for a life of binge watching TV.
It’s more likely that confronting our insignificance will just crystallize the strange dichotomy of life. The one where it’s inspiring to be the one and only you — unique in your personal journey and influence — and yet, not really special.
Ani Defranco gets it: “My life may not be something special, but it’s never been lived before.”
And I would add that it will never be lived again. So get out there and live your one precious, unique and amazing life, no matter what you once expected and no matter what it ultimately holds.