The Upsides of Being Average
You are probably less special than you think, and that’s okay.
Posted Jun 02, 2017
"I will not choose what many men desire because I will not jump with common spirits and rank me with the barbarous multitudes." —William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.
Most psychological traits are normally distributed, which means that around 65 percent of people will have average intelligence, personality, memory, happiness, leadership potential, creativity, and so on. Unfortunately, this does not mean they are aware of it: Most people rate themselves as "better than average" on any desirable trait — which, of course, is a statistical impossibility.
Perhaps most striking, telling someone they are “average” is akin to insulting them, and will likely offend a large number of people. Indeed, many people would prefer to be unique, but in a bad way, than to be normal in a good way. This need for uniqueness is a common symptom of narcissism, which has been rising steadily during the past century, particularly in the U.S. The narcissism epidemic explains the substantial increase in people’s desire to be famous or special, or to stand out from the crowd. Consider this: In the 1950s, only 12 percent of college students described themselves as “an important person”; by the 1980s, the figure had risen to 80 percent.
Contrary to popular belief, there are many advantages to being, and even feeling, average. If you want to avoid most physical and psychological illnesses, being average is one of your best options; pathology is generally associated with statistical infrequency. Even desirable characteristics — ambition, sociability, confidence, and conscientiousness — are problematic when exacerbated or taken to the extreme. Ambition turns into greed; sociability into exhibitionistic attention-seeking; confidence into arrogance; and conscientiousness into obsessive-compulsive behavior. As Rob Kaiser’s "too-much-of-a-good-thing effect" suggests, very high scores on these and other desirable traits are as inconvenient and counterproductive as very low scores, so you are just better off being average. Further, since you probably are average on most qualities anyway, feeling average will translate into high self-awareness, which is far better than the (much more common) alternative — overconfident delusion.
Of course, on a more granular level — genetics, biology, subjective experience, etc. — we are all unique, just like everyone else is. Self-help tips designed to embrace our uniqueness — i.e., “just be yourself” — are therefore quite comedic. How could we possibly not be ourselves, and what sort of pathetic achievement would that constitute anyway? As Oscar Wilde noted: “Everybody else is already taken.” The glorification of nonconformity and unconventionality — a bastion of our consumerist society — is an effective decoy for making people feel special while they are nudged into doing, thinking, and buying like everyone else.
Needless to say, the world is optimized for average people: Nothing would function if the majority of us were outliers, but it’s nice to think that while everyone else is the same, we are celebrated for being different.
To be clear, the world’s progress depends on those who stand out via their exceptional and innovative contributions, but these individuals are part of the top 1 percent in their field, combining truly unconventional levels of talent, work ethic, and focus. For the remaining 99 percent of us, the acceptance that our talents and motivation are much more conventional, and unlikely to result in world-changing accomplishments, would reflect a healthier, more rational self-concept than illusions of grandiosity or fantasized talent — except when such delusions may help you persuade others that you are great (or that you can make America great again).
Although accurate self-views are generally preferable, and more adaptive, than distorted ones, there is a sound evolutionary explanation for the prevalence of deluded self-views. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to judge other people’s talents with precision, overconfidence enables people to fool others into thinking that they are competent. It is always easier to deceive others when you have already deceived yourself. However, the personal benefits of (self-)deception come at a high price: When people with fantasized rather than real talents rise to positions of power and influence, their career success is offset by the collective failure of others, for nobody benefits when the incompetent people succeed (except the incompetent themselves).
When, on the other hand, we are actually capable of judging how talented and capable other people are — as opposed to being fooled by them — we make them pay a price for their delusion. Most people don’t have a problem with people who are average, except when they are entitled or detached from reality. We are more likely to appreciate people when they are more competent than they claim to be, but there is nothing charming in those who are their own biggest fans. A modest person of average talents is usually more likable than a self-important person of average talents.
Unless you are able to persuade others that you are as special as you think you are, you are better off assuming that you are average. Fake modesty is a much more civilized alternative to genuine vanity, particularly in educated circles. As Dale Carnegie observed:
“The surest way to antagonize an audience is to indicate that you consider yourself to be above them. When you speak, you are in showcase and every facet of your personality is on display. The slightest hint of braggadocio is fatal. On the other hand, modesty inspires confidence and good will. You can be modest without being apologetic. Your audience will like and respect you for suggesting your limitations, as long as you show you are determined to do your best.”