As the summer days begin to get ever so slightly shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, students are facing the beginning of another academic year. With the start of a new year comes new classes, classmates, and challenges. For some students on their way to their first year of college, the sense of excitement may be accompanied with a sense of terrifying anxiety. For some who spent their entire high school career – and maybe even earlier – getting groomed to be the “perfect” college applicant, they may be in for a feeling they’ve hardly experienced before:
Being valedictorian and swim captain with an embarrassment of A+s may have been what helped these young people to make it to the “best” colleges (according to magazine rankings). The idea of being taught by the “best” professors and learning with the “best” peers was enticing. Then all of a sudden, reality hits. No longer are they the only shining star who never received below an A-, but perhaps are now the lost and confused struggling to recover from the C on their first college midterm. On the surface, they may seem fine, but are in fact suffering from the Duck Syndrome. Serene on the surface; furiously paddling beneath the surface to stay afloat.
Not too long ago, I was speaking to a university freshman dean who shared that the incoming class was wonderfully fun and interesting. They entered the university with shiny transcripts and test scores. They also entered with a fear of being average. The dean shared that they had never seen a freshman class with so many academic violations, the majority of which stemmed from not being able to keep up with the increased rigors and fear of earning less than an A-. Multi-year surveys have shown that over one-third of college students have plagiarized at some point. This desperate need to be more than average – perfect, even – begins well before university, however. In fact, 95% of high school students report that they have cheated in some form. Much of the reason? To stay ahead. To be above average.
High school students overwhelmingly rate themselves to be above average leaders. Young children rate themselves to be above average game players. Over two-thirds of parents are convinced their children are above average. As a result, students are taught from a young age that they cannot be average. As our brains are wired to hang on to the negative, anything that suggest we are less than above average can lead us into catastrophic thinking. Anyone who has done an employee performance review has likely experienced that twinge of shame if they receive an “average” rating on one of their performance metrics, as if average is code for: “you’re-terrible-you’re-going-to-get-fired.” Or for students, it is code for: “you’re-stupid-you’ll-never-get-into-college-your-life-is-over.”
As a result, many young people hesitate to enter into environments where they are not totally in their element or have a chance to be number one. The minute they feel discomfort where they have to struggle to understand or learn, they may want out. Whether it is a class on a topic outside their comfort zone that would not be a guaranteed A to boost the GPA or a club that is filled with people outside of the usual clique, it feels safer to be the big fish in a small, familiar pond than risk being average in a new, bigger one – even if that bigger one is more likely to let us grow into our full potential. (Did you know goldfish can only grow to about 2 inches in a small fishbowl. But in the wild? They can grow up to two feet long!)
To grow, however, we need to be challenged and sit in the discomfort of not being perfect. Of being average. Doing so does not mean we give up trying to excel or achieve. Counterintuitively, being average may allow us to see things as they are (that we’re not perfect), giving us the space and freedom to explore, fail, experiment, fail, and experience some more, such that we continue to grow, achieve, and excel.
So, where to start?
It seems like everyone is doing super-things: founding start-ups, saving rainforests, and serving as valedictorian five times over. Naturally, we feel like we have to be superhuman, rising above the fray and problems of the ‘normal’ human condition. But if we really peel back the layers of the onion, we will see that even the seemingly superpeople have ‘normal’ issues. Just be normal. Be ordinary. That alone is a superhuman feat.
We can cram all the knowledge we want, but we must be able to question and disagree with openness and curiosity. The willingness to take nothing at face value. Staying curious (why do we feel like failures when we aren’t #1?) and exploring the origins of those emotions with an open mind may allow us to view challenging new situations and people not as a threat to our uniqueness, but rather, opportunities to keep learning.
Embrace being uncomfortable. Maybe it’s feeling like everyone is speaking over our heads and we feel totally out of place. Or we are surrounded by new peers who don’t seem to share any of our interests These aren’t great feelings, but rather than trying to run away from them or masking the pain, if we reach out and hug the painful thought or emotion, we may make discomfort our ally. Sitting with discomfort allow us to better understand who we are, what we value, and who we want to become. It can get us to a place of comfort far quicker and smoother than if we pretended that everything was perfect all the time.
While some are convinced that only the special get into the “right” schools, the reality is that only when we fully embrace the ordinary in ourselves can we find the extraordinary.