Elizabeth I has been commemorated as the infallible Virgin Queen for posterity. Revered, she had the power of exceptionalism, to which only a few were privy to. Smash cut to her namesake Elizabeth II, and that je ne sais quoi is gone. She’s the smiling matronly figure wearing a bright hat. A precipitous fall from inspiring ostentatious deference. Our indifference is not to royalty alone but the larger notion of personal exceptionalism. Today, exceptionalism has become the expected outcome of life. The mundanity we experience is supposed to give way to a singular invention that would cure cancer or a novel business idea that takes the stock markets by storm. We see 20-something social-media influencers become freshly minted millionaires by the hour, or gawk at the inventions of tech entrepreneurs who haven’t even completed college. All of which reinforces this notion much to our detriment.
If you're Average you’re not Alone
We must look at this degradation of exceptionalism with askance. There is a fatal flaw in this logic, that is if everyone is great, then sadly no one is truly great. The real source of greatness of our idols and heroes of the past are their virtues of extraordinarity -i.e. it is predicated on the ordinarity of others. When everyone is expected to be a top performer the real top performers stop inspiring awe and rather instil a passion to be better than them. One clearly won't argue that the idea of a prophesied perfect human has disappeared, it's still very much alive. Much like the Creation of Adam or the valorous knights of yore we now have the superheroes. However, this image has been democratised to a degree that we now construe this ideal to realizable. We make them based in reality, gritty grounded versions of well ... men flying in their tights and underwear. There’s a reason why Batman outsells all the other comics... He's a regular old charming business magnate Bruce Wayne, who could just as well be you someday. Thanks to the modern ‘Internet Age’ we are only exposed to the very best days of people (or the very worst - it never hurts to feed our new-found need for superiority in this crowded marketplace).
There is no room for mediocrity anymore. This type of mental conditioning now, for decades has opened a nasty Pandora's box akin to a reign of psychological tyranny. “I will either be great or nothing” seems to be the rallying cry of the 21st century but unfortunately, statistically, most of us will end up average. Hence, the stereotype Average Joe, it was meant to be relatable. With a sample size large enough all distributions are Normal Distributions and with 7 billion people on earth our skillset surely observes this bell curve as well. The distribution is cold visual proof that about 99.7% of us are not extraordinary in the positive or negative sense. Most of us are just perfectly average and that's fine. One should not pursue a life of mediocrity but if you ever end up feeling average don’t worry we are right there with you for support.
The Pursuit of Nothing
Now that the idea of a happy medium has been successfully eradicated there is immense pressure on you to be a part of the top 0.15% of the population. Otherwise, you are warned to be relegated to a life of despondency. This is especially felt by anyone who dares to dabble in creativity or a field that actively loathes monotony - a hopeful entrepreneur if you will. The expectation or the rather punitive standards for being emboldened is - to make it big and make it quick. This has transformed the way we approach business. People are less driven by catering to a genuine consumer need — which will exist for a long time, [the way Basecamp does or for example SAP ERP] but are more interested in catching lightning in a bottle... and then quickly selling that bottle to raise the funds for catching the next lightning strike. This creates a maddeningly unsustainable business culture. The oddity is mistaking stability for stagnation. What was once the goal now seems like a failure. Enthusiastic business graduates launch a startup, grow it a bit and then suddenly feel the urge to create a new startup, come up with a new idea or I don't know to revolutionise the way we think of water -input artisan water meme- without ever realising the 1st idea to its full potential. My friend’s mother built a successful Analytics company in Poland for over a decade only to sell it to Deloitte, now she has a consulting firm, and 3 years in she is already shopping for buyers. This type of work culture cannot possibly be conducive to generate good performance. Moreover, she started off with a proprietary analytics software whereas now she is performing consulting in a crowded field ... The chances of higher diminishing returns per startup may just be too high for her. It is a culture of society-endorsed ADHD. The blind pursuit of exceptionalism is setting yourself up for a lifetime of discontent. The pursuit should be of your passion, to hone your skills, to be the best version of yourself. Not be the best version of Elon Musk or to be a Mark Zuckerberg with a hint of charisma.
But I want to be an “All-Rounder”
Any person who has tried to sit through an Intro to Business course knows the AFI Framework (Analyse, Formulate, Implement Framework) which is done through a group of people that resembles the 5 level pyramid shown below. For a business, the pyramid represents the hierarchy which you ascend sequentially with experience and for an entrepreneur, it represents their own sequential self-actualisation. They are distinct roles that are catered to by fundamentally different mindsets. While this framework is public knowledge and pretty much expresses our innate intuition into formal words yet we have decided to disregard it. The expected norm is for everyone to be everything simultaneously, regardless of the fact that there is a learning curve - whether you’re an intern or the upper management. Individuals are not blameless here either. A gradual ascension in one’s career is ironically considered far too static to be desirable. Instead we all want to jump from a “highly capable individual” ( arguably without ever becoming highly capable) straight to an Executive. Hopefully, psychologists won’t be aghast if I call this an act of mental cruelty. This frenzied attitude to work has led to higher employee turnovers, an ever-increasing number of failed startups and reduced productivity in work-groups.
Hence, we need to be realistic about our capabilities. People have natural inclinations towards certain skill sets. This is not to imply any divine predestination or that everything is out of your locus of control but more about your aptitude. The sad reality is that we all have different aptitudes, we can't be everything to everyone- even Oprah can’t do it, we all remember the O Magazine right? So if you feel inadequate for failing to be the mythical ‘All-Rounder’ just remember that your high school jock at an Ivy League on a football scholarship probably won’t be able to write a line of code. The theatre kid is probably a manic mess craving validation from you and the robot nerds might just be the most socially awkward group of people. Once we accept that, we can move on to focusing on ourselves instead of on the ‘competition’.
Success is contingent upon a Healthy Mind.
If we choose to stop chastising each other for being less than perfect, for being average and accept that self-actualisation is a gradual process, we would live in a healthier society. The Mental Health Crisis is real and often lost in the cacophony of our chaotic lives. Higher occurrences of Depression in young adults, School shootings, Opioid addictions are just the potentially fatal symptoms of this larger epidemic. If you wish, really wish to be creative or start a business, you have got to get your metaphorical house in order. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It gradually expanded over centuries through learning and perfecting their tactics to build the greatest empire there ever was. A cursory glance at the catastrophic collapse of Alexander's or Gengis Khan’s empires in contrast highlights the need for sustainability. You wouldn't want to be the chief architect of a WeWork debacle, would you? Because that’s the cautionary tale of entrepreneurs who seek to grow at unsustainable rates and fail to recognise their own competencies.
For entrepreneurs, all we seek is success. But success - once removed from its hyperbolic glossy reputation - is a painfully slow process. If you seek it then focus on it long term, instead of fostering a reforming zeal that would put Martin Luther to shame. Focus on the skills you have. Focusing will help you ask the right questions. If you know a process well, you'll know where it can be improved. Don’t always chase innovation. Innovation is costly and time-consuming, not to mention, develops at a glacial pace. Progress can be made swifter by improving the existing apparatus. Hence don’t chase shiny objects like external funding or buyouts, because they will only enable the dilution of your vision and ideas. Instead, pick yourself up by the bootstraps and force yourself to work with restrictions, as it is the best harbinger of creativity. Once you figure out what you are actually good at, then you can effectively surround yourself with supportive people. A team which possesses complementary skill sets. As a team, you may finally become the touted ‘All-Rounder’. If you orient yourself to customer needs and on how to improve their lives, you will finally have found yourself a sustainable business model. One that’s not pretentious, unreasonable or moronically ambitious.
Today, the only way to be exceptional is by embracing your averageness. While the rest of the world chases personal glory to satiate their vanity, you, the Average Joe are the real catalyst for change. Accept that you are not destined to incite revolutions or to make ground-breaking inventions; but rather to improve what you can to the best of your ability. The minority of those who claim to be exceptional people are the freaks, stars that burn bright and fade into history with very little to show for posterity. Moreover, lest we forget that even those who we consider to be exceptional and put on a pedestal; are deeply flawed humans. They excel in one aspect of their life after years of dedication and fail in other aspects. No one is infallible If we look inward instead of the external environment success will follow organically.