When Ordinary is Remarkable

By Scott Westerman
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“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” – David McCullough Jr.

Alina Tugend rocked my world this week. She totally helped me redefine “The Remarkable Life”.  “I wonder,” she asks in her piece in the New York Times, “if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.”

“Some people,” she continues,  “may fear that embracing the ordinary means that they are letting themselves and their children off easy. If it’s all right to be average, why try to excel? But the message isn’t to settle for a life on the couch playing Xbox (though, yes, playing Xbox is O.K. sometimes), but rather to make sure you aspire to goals because they are important to you, not because you want to impress your parents, your community or your friends.”

She cites David McCullough Jr.’s viral commencement speech where he told graduates, “We Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement…We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”

We live in a world that celebrates the exceptional, so much so that many of us parents wish that we lived in Garrison Kiellor’s Lake Woebegone, “Where all the children are above average.”

What’s wrong with ordinary?

If ordinary means doing something that fulfills you, creates meaningful friendships and does not infringe on someone else’s pursuit of happiness, ordinary is remarkable.

One of the happiest people I ever met was a hotel porter. He finds joy in his interactions with his guests as he carries their luggage to their rooms. His is a remarkable life.

One of the most amazing people I know, lives in what we Americans would define as poverty and spends her days helping a small group of unemployed women take small steps toward their own independence. She sees every day as filled with magic and opportunity, even as she works in some of the most squalid conditions on the planet. Her’s is a remarkable life.

A remarkable life is about creating a series of special moments. I met the boyfriend of one of our graduating interns this week and asked what it was that attracted him to her. “We have fun doing the simple things,” he said. “I love how she enjoys playing catch in the front yard. I love how we can sit and watch an old Battlestar Galactica episode together. I love helping her cook.”

To some, this existence may seem ordinary, maybe even boring. To the many who long for the joys of an intimate, loving relationship, this is extraordinary.

Katrina Kenison, author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” teaches her children, “kindness, service, compassion, gratitude for life as it is.”  If we all could send our kids into the world with those lessons learned, imagine what the world could become?

A remarkable life is about what Theodore Roosevelt calls doing, “..what you can, with what you have, where you are.” It is yours to define and yours to live. It isn’t about what other’s expect. It’s about what you want.

We celebrate visionaries, but, In fact, the good things we enjoy today are the product of millions of unremembered lives. Ordinary people, who did ordinary things that added up to extraordinary progress.

It’s ok to be ordinary. Just do it well. To paraphrase Lincoln, “Whatever you decide to be, be a good one.”

Feedback is always welcome to scott@spartanology.com.