American culture says you have to be extraordinary. The culture encourages and praises high achievers. After all, the American Dream says that anyone can make it. Anyone can be president or a billionaire, rock star, movie star or CEO. Many young people want to be famous and rich and every entrepreneur wants to be Elon Musk or King James.
However, the vast majority won’t be any of those and that’s okay.
The #1 question we all get asked when meeting new people is, “What do you do?” I’ve always found this really curious. The question is very non-specific, but everyone understands what it means. It’s not asking what you do in your spare time or what you do when a bear chases you in the woods. It’s implied that it asks what you do for a living. Why? Because so much of our identities are tied up in what we do for a living. It’s no wonder – we spend 1/3 or more of our time working and most people do if for most of their lives.
The story we’re told is that we can do or be anything is a lie. We can’t. I know that the story is meant to motivate and inspire us, but it does more harm than good because it’s not true.
The fact is, you can do some of the things. You can be something. You are valuable. That’s not to say we shouldn’t aspire to do great things and be great people. We should all have goals and dreams, but realistic ones. The problem is when we set ourselves up for disappointment when we don’t become billionaire rock stars.
The problem with always wanting more and wanting to be rich and famous is it sets us up for failure, disappointment, and discontentment.
Let’s look at a simple equation for happiness:
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
I’m not saying we should lower our expectations or our standards. I’m pointing out the absurdity of needing to be some grand figure driving a Lamborghini to feel like we’ve made it.
Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries on earth. The common reason given in surveys by Danes is that they are content with their lives. The culture has a strong sense of community and safety. They call it “hygge.” A sense of community and commonality. A focus on family and friends and what we’d consider the good life. 1,2
Sure, they work hard and strive to be the best in their careers, but it’s not all-consuming. They actually take vacations and enjoy themselves, while Americans are working more and more. Americans have some of the shortest vacation days available and yet they don’t even use them! That’s crazy. There’s a global trend toward shorter workweeks and Americans are largely missing it.
We’re missing it because we think we need more. More money to buy more stuff.
Money is a way to keep score, but it can’t be a barometer of happiness. If it was then there wouldn’t be unhappy celebrities who turn to drugs and alcohol for their next high. They’d be happy with the lives they have.
A good friend of mine is a filmmaker. He knows all about the history of film and what actors and directors have worked on and what they’re doing now. He once made an astute observation. People often comment when they see a movie that’s a few years old, “Whatever happened to whatshisname? He’s not in movies anymore? He must have burned out and gone broke now that he’s not the hot commodity. That’s how it is in Hollywood.”
For example, do you know what happened to the kid from the Christmas classic, “A Christmas Story”? He was in that famous movie and then seemed to disappear. He’s not famous anymore, so he must not be successful.
Well, as it turns about, he has been a very successful actor and went on to be a director and producer, including being one of the Executive Producers of “Iron Man” and making an appearance in “Elf.” 3,4 He’s just not famous.
He’s living a pretty normal life, mostly behind the cameras and without the fame.
Success is not determined by a bank account, a write up in a magazine or being named to the “100 Best People Under 100” list. Money is important. We need it to pay bills and buy things. Having our work recognized it nice too. But I’m talking about expectations and having a healthy vision of ourselves and what we’re working for.
Here are some thoughts on how we can get more grounded and satisfied with life:
First, determine your values and be comfortable with them no matter what everyone else says. Your values go a long way in determining your goals and habits and knowing where to put your efforts. Solidify your values and you’re a long way down the road to real success.
Second, decide who you want to be. Chances are, you are not going to be an outwardly extraordinary person so find value in being an inwardly extraordinary person. After all, if you’re 1 in a million, there are 1,400 people just like you in China.
Instead of developing wild expectations and chasing unreachable goals, find comfort in “mediocrity.” Find ways to excel in very specific ways, like being the best in your profession or building a team that excels in an underserved area.
Value doesn’t come from anyone but yourself so it doesn’t matter if you are a slamming success in anyone’s eyes but yours. Nothing is ever going to be perfect and we should strive to always do better. Our brains are wired to find flaws. Maybe that is so we as humans can progress. Progress is a good thing, but it should be coupled with a desire to also be satisfied. Otherwise, we’re continually on the hedonic treadmill.
Maybe happiness isn’t what we should be striving for. Maybe we should be searching for how to become well-rounded or focusing on doing one or two things very well.
Third, be ok with what you don’t have. Value deep, meaningful relationships, and have the courage to accept that we may not be perfect and that our life will inevitably have pain and be flawed. There’s a lot to be said that the destination isn’t what fulfills us, it’s the hard work and the pain that we do and feel on the way to that destination.
Achieving something that is hard, not just glamourous, is what gives us satisfaction.
An ordinary life is good enough. In fact, an ordinary life is incredible.
CFO & former Wall Street analyst helping your reach financial independence.
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