Opinion | Being extraordinary is overrated

By Ebonee Rice, Staff Columnist

Ever since things have gone back to almost-but-not-quite normal, I’ve had this overwhelming feeling that I’m not doing enough.

It’s almost become a mantra in my head, the words repeating over and over, “You’re not doing enough.” I’ve mentioned the feeling to friends and classmates, and the majority of them have related — each and every one of us feel as if we should be doing more.

But what is it we feel we should be doing and why?

I’ve gone back to the feeling, tracing its roots and found the core — throughout my entire life I’ve been told that I am capable of living an extraordinary life. As children, parents tell their kids that they can be anything and anyone. When they get older, the scope of their dreams grows smaller and sometimes they are reluctant to let go of them.

Still, for some there is an assumption that whatever path they’re on will lead to greatness. When young people see they’re not making progress towards this extraordinary life, they often feel like they’ve failed in some way. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these feelings. COVID-19 has shifted the entire timeline of our lives, disrupting internships, graduations and opportunities. It’s also demonstrated that the world is not a place of fairness, and inequalities are likely to abound.

These feelings are something that every age group encounters, but for young adults, there is pressure from all sides to chase this idea of extreme success. I sometimes feel as if I have to set myself up for success now or the rest of my life will be a downward slope.

On top of this, social media transforms everyone’s life into perfect images we think we can consistently replicate. Our culture tells us that aiming high is the only way to get anywhere. Even families pressure their children to reach a picture-perfect standard of life. The end result is young people wasting years trying to reach that perfect point until they realize it doesn’t exist.

Many young adults find their identity engulfed by who they are trying to be. Rainesford Stauffer, author of “An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way In A World That Expects Exceptional,” speaks on this.

“So much of our self-worth hinges on who we could theoretically be in the future. I think it takes us out of the support and resources and interests that we need and have in the moment we’re currently existing in,” writes Stauffer.

This cycle of thinking doesn’t allow young people to embrace an ordinary life. Young people don’t meet themselves where they currently are, but instead try to move onto future versions. As Stauffer states in her book, young people are so wrapped up in trying to be extraordinary that they rely on external markers  — GPAs, jobs, LinkedIn profiles — to track success and abandon the idea of looking inwards for contentment.

One of the issues with this idea of perfect adulthood is that it removes the social context from reality. Right now, young people are in a position that other generations have never been in.

The institutions that have provided past age groups with security and opportunity are collapsing, and they’re happening in real time. Social Security will be long gone by the time that I am even close to 60. The economic ladder has been proven to only be a fantasy for many young people. The police system, the education system and the prison system are all failing and young people are expected to fix them. With all these structural failures surrounding us, of course young people feel like they have to be the best version of themselves just to stay afloat. 

This image of adulthood also allows young people to put up with a lot of things that they should walk away from. The dream life is so tightly wound with the dream job, that young people should align their selfhood with their careers. This perspective allows them to ignore the reality of the labor force and be exploited under the guise of following their “dream job.”

Still, young people tell themselves that if they stick with the job, if they keep putting more and more on their plate, things will align to get them where they want to go. Studies have shown that this isn’t the case. Instead, young people completely abandon the work-life balance and put off present happiness for hypothetical future happiness.

If young adults want to feel more content with their lives, they have to let go of this idea of everything going as planned. Life is messy and random, and often derails our plans. This idea that our culture has implemented in our heads of having a fixed destination where everything falls into place is a complete fantasy.

I’m not saying not to follow your dreams. I’m saying that it’s okay if we don’t reach our dreams or if it takes a little longer to get there. These years aren’t meant to be extraordinary or spectacular — they are meant for us to learn about who we are, even if that person is completely ordinary.

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social, and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].