I can remember countless times growing up always fantasising about becoming exceptional in the sport I was playing at the time… I thought I might become a professional footballer at one stage, and then I thought I was going to be a world-class boxer at another stage. The truth is that I became ok, but I never reached the upper echelons of performance (or anywhere close). For years I remember feeling like a failure, like I was always trailing behind ‘achievement’, whatever that meant at the time. I just didn’t have what it took to become exceptional… and now many years later I’m completely ok with that. If anything, I’m proud to be average because it has given me time to invest in other things, my relationships, travel, other hobbies – and be average at all of those too!
Western ideals around work are often predicated on ‘performance’ and ‘being productive’ – it’s very common to feel good on the days that we achieve a lot, and feel antsy and irritable on those days where we don’t manage to get much done. As Dr Ben Walker says, ‘productivity is a big deal in [western] culture’. Prior to lockdown I’m sure many of us were beavering away trying to achieve as much as we could at our work… constantly pushing ourselves to be better, to do better. Lockdown hit, and all of a sudden we had to switch gears, our normal way of working was out of the window and many of us found ourselves either with a reduction of time due to family responsibilities, or found ourselves with an abundance of time… either way there was a performance-based pressure to either ‘tread vocational water’ or to guilt ourselves about not being productive enough to achieve all of those things we wanted to do with this seemingly ‘extra time’.
I wanted to tie this productivity culture (which admittedly isn’t all bad, and does in many cases contribute to a positive self-concept) to a fear of being average, particularly in an individualistic culture and society. In his article ‘The upsides of being average’ Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains that contrary to popular belief there are many benefits to being or feeling average. To avoid many mental and physical illnesses, average is where we want to be. Even many ‘positive’ characteristics and traits such as ambition, conscientiousness and confidence are problematic when experienced at the extreme end of the spectrum. Extreme ambition can lead to greed and ruthlessness, conscientiousness can lead to obsessive-compulsive type behaviours, and confidence can turn into arrogance.
To borrow from Chamorro-Premuzic… ‘the world is optimized for average people: Nothing would function if the majority of us were outliers.’
It’s ok to be average.
To bring this back to education; our jobs are to encourage and help students to be the best they can be as a student, but more importantly as a person.
When schools pride themselves on achievements, whilst being impressive, I worry about the cost to the students themselves.
Schools are becoming increasingly performance-based. School league tables boast academic excellence, award ceremonies reward and recognise their highest-achieving students, schools publish and market their A*-A results. Average students are not visible on school websites or newsletters. They are not Head Boy or Head Girl. They are not Student Council President or MUN award winners. But what they are is the majority of any school. Most of the people we know. Most of the things that we are.
Hard work is no bad thing but in creating cultures of excellence, are we tying too much importance to performance, and encouraging students to do the same? In this space there is no room to be average even though our world, our wellbeing and relationships, may depend on it.