I am ordinary, average. Or maybe I should say that I fear I am average—not unique, not extraordinary. Just ordinary.

In Western society, the pressure to be more than ordinary is pervasive and constant. Everyone wants to be recognized as special.

Honoring the Ordinary

Yet, this past week in the U.S., we honored 20 years since 9/11 and marked 18 months of living with the pandemic. We honored the ordinary: people showing up to work, saving lives, caring for others, and even giving their own lives.

Honoring the ordinary requires a “special” appreciation.

Twenty years ago, in New York City, firefighters, and police officers rushed into burning buildings to rescue others. The Red Cross coordinated life-saving efforts. Volunteers worked for six months to clean up Ground Zero.

More recently, nurses, physicians, technicians, grocery clerks, packers, and drivers have all been working to ensure the nation’s health. Ordinary people from ordinary towns and in ordinary ways served and worked, adding extra hours to shifts to ensure that food, supplies, medicines, and masks were delivered.

This inexhaustible human compassion, while ordinary, is often overlooked and underappreciated.

The “Extraordinary” Trap

What if the obsession with striving for extraordinary produces its own trap?

When being extraordinary overrides being human, we find “self-help” gurus and programs for “transformation,” books that emphasize “the self,” and commercials and professions that push extraordinary results. Even the coaching field leans into this puffed-up, performative perception that celebrates “extraordinary.”

The media doesn’t help; it celebrates this extreme version of extraordinary. Manmade spaceships prompting “space tourism” are hyped as remarkable, exceptional, amazing, astonishing, astounding, sensational, stunning, incredible, unbelievable, and phenomenal.

Who wouldn’t crave these adjectives? We seek this elusive feeling while our planet burns, floods ravage our communities, and more species become extinct.

This trap leads to a dead end.

We strive to best other humans in some extraordinary way rather than being fully human in a most ordinary way.

This pursuit of being “extraordinary” leaves us exhausted and empty, feeling inferior and insufficient, striving for abundance that encourages scarcity.

Abundance: More or Enough?

If we accept scarcity as the state of being in short supply, a shortage, dearth, lack, want, undersupply, or insufficiency, we define its opposite—abundance—as existing or available in large quantities: plentiful, copious, ample, profuse, rich, lavish, or generous.

This notion of abundance defines our problem. Internalized, I find myself lacking. Rather than proclaim sufficiency, this view of abundance provokes wants—the need to seek more, to be extraordinary. Being sufficient or ordinary just won’t do.

What about reframing abundant as enough to scarcity’s not enough? This framing as “enough” aligns with our notion of satisfaction. In Latin, satisfaction means “enough” action.

Such a framework appreciates our possibility of being not boundless but seeking limits to achieve full satisfaction. We acknowledge the value of enough action rather than unlimited action.

Think about this: Have you ever heard a CEO declare enough profit, enough work, enough stress, enough productivity, or enough resources? Sacrilege!

In all facets of life, boundaries exist to satisfy. With enough sleep, I feel rested. With enough exercise, I gain energy. With enough food, I feel satiated. To satiate, the root of satisfy, is to gratify—to be grateful for enough. Overdoing these activities makes me feel drained, bloated, exhausted, or depleted.

“Enough” may be the critical discovery for being fully human.

Ironically, without the experience of enough, I cannot know or realize a necessary limit or related experience of satisfaction. Being grateful will elude me. Such a gratitude gap may be the very source of feeling less than and striving for more.

10% More Self-Aware

What if Americans became just 10% more self-aware, more grateful? We’d wreck our economy! We’d consume far less. We’d be less susceptible to ads, fear, and FOMO. We’d find out that contentment is much closer to us than the check-out line. We’d become immune to the market’s messaging of want and greed.

Increasing our self-awareness by just 10% would undermine a consumption-based economy that relies on our dissatisfaction for 70% of its growth.

Being extraordinary is not only big business; it also fuels big business. It is the ideal “identity” for spurring dissatisfaction: becoming special by consuming more and bigger. No one wants to seem irrelevant, small, or trivial.

In his bi-weekly Atlantic column on meaning and happiness, Arthur Brooks stresses, “[A]s society gets richer, people chase the wrong things.” He questions, “Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?”

Brooks quotes Swedish business professor Carl Cederström, who argues in his book The Happiness Fantasy, that:

… corporations and advertisers have promised satisfaction, but have led people instead into a rat race of joyless production and consumption. Though the material comforts of life in the U.S. have increased for many of its citizens, those things don’t give life meaning.

A recent survey by Credit Karma found that the pandemic may have interrupted and thus affected Americans’ compulsive consumerism.

FOMO-related spending is now viewed as less essential. Almost half (44%) of the respondents felt “less pressure to spend money to keep up with appearances.” The top five reexamined areas were dining out (47%), going to a movie theater (37%), live music or entertainment (28%), gym memberships (27%), and clothing (26%).

The “Extraordinary” Identity

So then, being extraordinary becomes the overachieving identity. We lead highly credentialed lives that find us overwhelmed, develop bodies that require chemicals to sustain, increase working hours that create resentment, engage multiple media platforms to fragment attention and increase FOMO, and acquire large McMansions that exploit the planet’s resources.

Our fixation on extraordinary success schedules our children’s lives from age 2 to 24 with pre-pre-school, playdates, extracurricular activities, prep-testing, and testing so that they can seize select colleges, accumulate college debt, and lock in high-pressure jobs to continue the cycle.

The elegy of the Mexican Fisherman and the Harvard MBA offers an apt, even humorous, view of striving to seek out what we already possess.

This identity, while useful for consumption, has proven to be a trap in achieving satisfaction.

In my more than 20 years of working with an array of professionals, two trends have persisted. With all our advancements, people have become 1) more frenzied, frazzled, and behind while 2) being less available, satisfied, and content.

Something is broken with our devotion to this “extraordinary” identity.

An Extra Helping of Ordinary

What if the opposite of our notion of “extraordinary” were true—that extra-ordinary requires possessing an extra helping of ordinary.

We become aware of that which possesses our humanity, rather than possessing more as humans.

To possess our humanity, we appreciate ordinary truth. Buddhist scholar and teacher Chögyam Trungpa suggests:

…it is the ordinary truth that takes place in everyday life … unique in its nontheistic approach and very ordinary. It is simply our living situation – life and experience, life and experience – very simple and direct.

Being ordinary means being in the real world, rather than withdrawing to a “fantasy world” each time the real world becomes uncomfortable.

Being ordinary means realizing the ordinary truth of life—experiencing the ordinary details that reveal our humanity.

This ordinary courage summoned firefighters and first responders to run into blazing buildings and save lives on 9/11 and encouraged nurses and medical professionals to work tirelessly to give breath to COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic.

The average and ordinary truth—which we often dismiss and skate past—reveals in its detail the abundance of life—what is “enough” to be fully human.

The Ordinary Truth

Access to the ordinary is not a mystery or mystical.

Trungpa implores us “to be honest, real, and very earthy … to really appreciate things as they are. They are so beautiful and wonderful already, but in order to appreciate that, it takes time and discipline – so much discipline. … you go slowly through the beautiful process of perception: the sense of being, the sense of doing, and the sense of linking together.”

We can access the “beautiful process of perception” with disciplined awareness, attention, and concentration.

  • Awareness, specifically self-awareness, is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize one’s environment and relate to other individuals.
  • Attention is a ready state of mind focused on one sensory perception and willing to dispense thoughts on that perception.
  • Concentration is the depth of attention (absorption) that stays with a subject to connect deeply with meaning and wholeness.

Attention is like sunshine on a plant; it provides raw energy to sustain growth.

For instance, studies have shown that the amount of time parents spend with their children is not as important as the quality of that time. Are you paying attention to the child and interested in their activity, or are you reading, on the computer, or multitasking?

Your awareness of your child looking up at you now has you paying attention to their activity. In that moment, with full attention placed on your child, a connection happens that only awareness and attention can yield.

With concentration, a warm sensation arises in your body to deepen the love that recalls the birth of your child.

Practicing Ordinary

Rather than managing appearances, practicing ordinary truth discerns our perceptions, beginning with our awareness, attention, and concentration.

The quality of our perceptions can make a difference in coaching, leadership, and life. For instance:

  • What am I aware of during a meeting? The time of day or amount of time I have available, where I am located or the person in front of me; my mood, inner dialogue and breathing; the air conditioner running, random goals, or the reason we are meeting?
  • Where is my attention focused? Am I tending to the nature of this conversation, informed by my body’s sensations, and able to connect with anothers’ concerns?
  • What is absorbing my attention? Can I sense the commitment and emotion that offer context for the conversation—a familiar sadness, hope, or perhaps a concealed request for support?

Experiencing these moments deepens our already-available humanity.

On a global level, we experienced this deeper humanity 20 years ago, when first responders and volunteers healed a city and nation, and again this past year, when so many workers kept us breathing.

In our daily lives, we can experience the sense of being, sense of doing, and sense of linking together as we respond to a client’s email, notice a glitch in the system, cook dinner, or play with our children.

Ordinary truth is omnipresent. Take time to discern and discover it in your moment-to-moment existence. Accessing its experience is satisfying—even “special”—and dissolves all other needs. We experience the joy of “enough,” and the possibility of gratefulness.

Extraordinary!

Reading Time: 11 min. Digest Time: 17.5 min


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tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.