Reflection 86: Having Confidence You’re Average

The author of this Reflection is my son, Jeremy Garson. Jeremy is an associate with the Washington, D.C. law firm, Woodley & McGillivary LLP, a union side labor law firm, currently on assignment with the International Association of Fire Fighters. He is an occasional contributor to the Reflection series. See, also, Reflection 71, Dad As An Exception, and Reflection 83, Listening to the “Bad” Guys.

You can direct comments and reactions to Jeremy at jeremy. garson@gmail.com.

Being “average” has very negative connotations in our society. It is, at worst, synonymous with failure and, at best, viewed as a safety net of sorts that allows us to be complacent about our abilities. Google confirms these connotations by offering, primarily, links on how to either (1) rise above averageness or (2) not put so much pressure on your self. A short time ago, I realized that I have a different, hopefully more helpful, perspective on averageness, which I describe in this Reflection.

My experience in attempting to pass my drivers license test, as a 16 year old, offers a context for my definition of averageness. In Pennsylvania, you can take the test three times in a row but, then, you have to wait six months to take it again. Thus, the pressure to pass increases greatly if you fail.

And fail I did. The first time I took the test, I ran a red light. More specifically, I was making a left turn and waited until the cars coming from the other direction were gone before I went. Unfortunately, those cars had an extended green; something I didn’t realize until the test was over.

Damn! Suddenly I only had two more opportunities to pass – or else be stuck taking the bus for the rest of the school year. I had to pass the next time.

Getting ready for test 2, I injected myself with confidence using this simple idea: I’m probably at least average and, therefore, can pass. Put differently, I thought about the millions of U.S. citizens who have taken the driver’s test and passed. These citizens included people of all ability levels, including many who are not very good drivers. If those people could pass the test, surely I could as well. I must be as good as at least a decent chunk of those people, so this is a hurdle I can overcome.

This same bit of self-talk has helped me to overcome many other challenges in the years since. Whether it’s finishing a major paper, preparing for an interview, or taking the bar exam, I make myself remember the millions that have done it before me and the millions that will do it after me. If they did it, so can I!

What I have come to realize is that this way of thinking replaces the mainstream culture’s negative connotation around “average” with one that is positive, empowering and, actually, far more realistic. Because we humans are so extraordinary as a species, being average can mean achieving our goals without overwhelming pressure. We are highly intelligent creatures who can plan out our paths and figure out what we need to do to get where we want to go. Most of the obstacles along these paths are ones that have been met and overcome by countless people before us. They may vary in the details but, for the most part, our struggles are not unique.

To give another example, when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I knew that I had to do well on the LSAT, apply to different law schools, take classes, pass various tests, and pass the bar exam. Since almost every lawyer in the U.S. has taken on these same obstacles and gotten past them, I knew I could as well. Some of my friends had extra obstacles (like finances which are, obviously, a huge obstacle). But the same overarching message applied to them as well. Others did it, so they could as well.

As I write this Reflection I realize that I risk falling into a major trap of our society: the idea that, since success is reasonably within our grasp, there is no excuse for falling short and that, if we do, we have “failed.” In the capitalist society in which we live, we are either “winners” in the rat race – or “losers” to be looked down upon. This is decidedly indecent.

Fully understood, the approach to averageness I am describing differs dramatically from this winner/loser, succeed or fail mindset. Indeed, from this perspective, experiencing a setback is fine! In fact, it may be for the best since it may lead to an even better outcome than the one we originally aimed for. (I can easily think of several situations in which I came up short of my original goal, only to experience a better outcome in the end). It is all part of the average human experience.

At this point, I want to discuss the fear of failure. This fear is a large impediment that stops many of us in our tracks. If I attempt to accomplish a goal where many others have succeeded, but I fail, what does that say about me? Something very negative, correct?

This is the flipside of my tool. Because so many people have succeeded, we are afraid of failure; a fear that can bring debilitating, even paralyzing anxiety in its wake.

People who struggle with this fear – me included – need to keep two things in mind. First, since we live in a world of probabilities, setbacks are inevitable. As my Father likes to say, the best baseball players in history fail 2/3rds of the time. To expand on this idea, the best free throw shooters in NBA history make 90% their shots. So when they go to the foul line, all they need to do is repeat a motion that they have done countless times before. Even so, they miss 10% of the time – at a task that is literally the same every single time.

Second, and more importantly, setbacks do not occur in a vacuum. As mentioned above, a setback can result in a better outcome down the road.

And even if a “better outcome” is not achieved, the setback will itself have its positives. As average human beings, we learn from our experiences, good and bad. When things go badly for us, we have – as highly evolved creatures – the ability to reflect on what happened and what we might do differently in the future. This amazing ability equips us to improve our future outcomes, and those future outcomes equip us to improve upon outcomes in the even more distant future. It’s all part of the average human experience.

Thus, viewed from my perspective on “averageness,” equating setbacks with failure is a false construct.

In closing, I offer this final thought: Success is very normal in your life. You have succeeded at learning to read, to drive a car, to navigate an email system, etc. We don’t tend to think of these achievements as successes because most everyone accomplishes them, but that’s precisely my point. Most people succeed at most of the things they do. And because you are like most people, you are likely to succeed at your next challenge, whether you realize it is a challenge or not.

The key is to bring this mindset to life’s more intimidating challenges, and to use it as a confidence booster. If you can do that, you are more likely to overcome the fear of failure (which many people have done) and to overcome the challenges presented by the task in front of you (which many people have also done).

These successes are very average — and that is pretty great.