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Redwood Bark

When being average is above average

Her phone’s flash serves as a spotlight in a crowded New York subway; she spins in slow motion, her camera following her every move. So goes the so-called ‘tube girl’ trend. She, and whoever partakes in this trend, is found first on public transit and later on social media. She defies social norms and looks good doing it. Who wouldn’t want to be her? Spinning unabashedly, hair framing her face like a halo, amid a subway car full of people staring at their phones and avoiding the camera’s discerning gaze. Who wouldn’t want to possess that level of self-assurance, that strength of individuality? At the very least, we can tell that she is above average — that she is exceptional.

‘Tube girl’ is only the latest development in the recent phenomenon of “Main Character Syndrome,” which celebrates exceptionality and individuality even on a day-to-day basis. But this isn’t just a recent occurrence. Success and individual achievement have long served as hallmarks of American culture, as exemplified through the notion of the American Dream, with the idea that any good life must be earned. But this striving for success has its consequences. In the misguided pursuit of individuality and exceptionality, we lose sight of the value of mediocrity and the importance of self-acceptance.

Perfectionism, according to a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association, has been on the rise for young people since 1989. Today’s students “perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others and are more demanding of themselves,” according to Thomas Curran, a professor at the University of Bath. Yet this pursuit never seems to be enough, as the ideal self forever grows further and further out of reach. According to Market Research, the American self-improvement market is estimated to become a $14 billion industry by 2025; since its publication, the self-help book, “The Alchemist,” is estimated to have sold over 150 million copies.

Illustration by Lauren Olsen

But the pursuit of an ideal self and an ideal life is often misguided. The ideals we strive to reach are, almost by nature, out of reach; true success can remain ever-elusive. As world-renowned cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, told the Guardian in 2008 after winning Olympic gold, “I just want to prove that I am really good at something. And I haven’t quite done that yet — at least not to myself.” 

It is no wonder that we run to trends such as the ‘tube girl’ as a validation of our identities, or attempt to feel like “main characters” in our own lives. As Curran described in an interview with the Guardian, the current obsession with perfectionism is a modern form of  “‘survivor bias,’” a result of us only hearing the stories of society’s winners. Barbie had her laundry list of careers, becoming a teacher, an astronaut or even a star soccer player when the occasion called for it; Harry was praised for his bravery, Hermione for her intelligence and Ron for his loyalty. Social media has also further shifted our understanding of “average,” and therefore “acceptable,” as our feeds grow ever saturated with the exemplary: a precisely crafted painting, an outfit accessorized to perfection or eleven pirouettes executed flawlessly by a ten-year-old.

This shift has led to what Tim Wu, author of a book on attention and time commitments, has deemed the “loss of a modest competence” and the decline of typical hobbies. Combined with the fierce individualism and competitive nature at the heart of American culture, we can grow intimidated by the possibility and perhaps the threat of failure that comes with trying new things.

To permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment,” Wu said. “In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom.” 

Ambition and success, of course, are not inherently bad. According to research about self-determination theory, ambition can be positive when it fulfills humans’ essential needs — that is, autonomy, competence and connection with others. But when excellence and exceptionality are seen as necessary for a life worth living, that is where we go wrong.

Perhaps, then, true success must come from within. Embracing mediocrity does not have to mean accepting a worse life, but rather embracing with full force the life that is your own. We must not seek to affirm our self-worth by being the twirling girl on a crowded train, the most interesting one in every room we enter. Ours will always be stories worth telling, no matter how exceptional, or not, these stories are. It is in allowing ourselves to relish in our mediocrities — in the simple joy of a recipe not perfectly followed, or a song sung out of tune —  that we can be free from societal expectations of greatness: not excellent, not perfect, but perfectly fine.

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About the Contributor
Tallulah Knill Allen, Copy Editor
Tallulah Knill Allen is a junior at Redwood and a Copy Editor for the Bark. She loves books, ballet, making playlists and spending time with her friends and family.