What’s Wrong With Ordinariness?
Am I enough? Fears and self-doubt are a normal recurrence when I reflect on what I can contribute to any group of classmates or colleagues. ‘What if everyone else is better than me and – worse – what if they recognise my ordinariness?’ is the question I pose myself when embarking upon any new situation.
On my first day at Ākāśa Innovation, I left my flat not feeling at all nervous. What could worry me or make me feel anxious? This was not going to be an ordinary internship; it was going to be a life-changing experience, the perfect next step after my four years at UCL. I had finally found an organisation whose values and vision aligned with mine, allowing me to put into action all the ideas that were until then confined to an essay. I didn’t fear feeling out of place or not settled like I usually would in a new environment. The sense of community and belonging fostered by Ākāśa Innovation would take care of that.
Yet, as I entered through the main door and started walking up the stairs towards Impact Hub Islington, a strange, yet familiar, thought popped into my mind: am I actually worthy enough for this? Will I be good enough at my job? Am I ready and do I possess the skills and knowledge to start working for such an amazing organisation, given that I’ve never had a ‘real’ job? As much as I tried (and often succeeded) to fit in with my team and co-workers and as much as I felt comfortable and included, that strange, fear-inducing thought did not leave me during my entire first week. It worsened. I was surrounded by people my age who were making such a great contribution to society that I felt that I just could not contribute as much; my role was just not valuable. I was neither ready nor perfect enough to enter this ‘real’ world; I was afraid that my ordinariness would be found out. I would need to go back, better prepare myself and re-emerge some time later.
Thankfully, this was not necessary. The Brainy Brunch on authenticity led by Ākāśa Innovation at Impact Hub Islington changed my way of considering my fear. After watching Brené Brown’s TEDTalk on vulnerability, shame and perfectionism, I realised that many people, myself first and foremost, do not lead a flourishing, contented life because they keep waiting to reach perfection rather than taking a risk, being vulnerable and actually doing what they want. This new perspective was not only extremely enlightening – especially given that I am at a point in life where I am still trying to discover who I really am and what I want to do with my life – but also quite saddening. Why do we not speak openly about this concern about being ‘ordinary’ rather than focusing on our great deeds or achievements in order to demonstrate to others that we are actually worthy of doing something or even of ‘being’?
Perfectionism, this striving to be ‘extraordinary’, is a product of our culture of scarcity, of ‘never enough’, according to Brené Brown. The people and images we read about or see on TV impose upon us and constantly remind us that, unless we lead an ‘extraordinary life’, we are not worthy enough, we are not good enough. In short, our ordinary lives are meaningless. We don’t need to be sociologists or psychologists to realise what effect this culture has on people. It shapes our mindset and our relationship towards others. We are constantly comparing ourselves with each other, striving to be better than them, to be ‘extraordinary’, so as to demonstrate our worthiness.
This need for perfection is our way of coping with the fear that others will see us as ‘ordinary’. It leads us both to making impossible demands to ourselves and to feeling disconnected from other people, who in this culturally fostered mindset are seen as obstacles and whose achievements are yardsticks against which we measure our own worthiness. This form of ‘perfection’ has nothing to do with our own development or self-improvement, but rather conceals a desire for approval by others, it is other-focused. “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it”, as Brené Brown puts it. Judging what we do and whether it matters or not in this manner is counter-productive and detrimental: it hinders our professional and social development by disengaging us from each other and discrediting our contribution to society.
How can we lead a contented and flourishing life if we continue having this negative view of ourselves and focusing on evermore unattainable goals and achievements? We can start by ‘daring greatly’ first with ourselves and then within the local community in which we live. By replacing perfectionism, comparison and disengagement with mindfulness, empathy and appreciation (three of Ākāśa Innovation’s core values), we can begin to understand, respect and be grateful towards ourselves and others. Only by starting at the lowest possible level (that of the individual) can we take the first step towards changing cultural and societal expectations and restrictions, and bring back a discourse positively centred around the ‘ordinary’. Challenging culture is of course a risk, given how embedded it is in every aspect of our life.
‘I am enough’. This is the greatest lesson I have learned during the past three weeks at Ākāśa Innovation. I have now taken the first step towards actively engaging with my strengths and weaknesses so as to embrace both without pretending to be perfect or feeling awkward and unworthy when receiving a compliment. Rather than seeing it as a sign of imperfection, I am welcoming my ordinariness and considering my ‘cracks’ in a positive way, as they help me create a better connection with the people around me. I am now kinder towards myself and others as we open up to talk about our vulnerabilities and our fear of ‘being ordinary’.
Michela Palese, Community Engagement Intern