Can't We All Be Above Average?

That's what a student with red-rimmed eyes asked me last week. She stood before me, distressed about her average (perfectly acceptable) grade on a paper assignment, visibly willing her tears away. I said her paper was just fine, it's simply that I reserve the top 10% of grades for students who do a standout job, going beyond the requirements or looking at the topic in a novel way. "But that's not fair," she said. "Can't we all be above average?"

I felt like I was watching the "WHY?!" Nancy Kerrigan video play out before me (if you were, like, a year old when this event happened, start the video at 1:55 for a refresher; man, you make me feel old). I alternately wanted to shake my student and say, "Snap out of your self-pity!" and then to hug her while cooing, "I know. It sucks. I get it. This hurts."

The thing is, I do get it. I've felt it. I sometimes still feel it. I mean, why can't we all be above average? Well, because, obviously, we can't.

So the real question is, why did we get it in our heads in the first place that we could be?

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Partly it's due to the self-esteem movement - you know, the campaign that had you winning "Participant Ribbons" rather than real trophies in grammar school - but even more importantly, it's due to our natural cognitive development.

During adolescence, we all think we're special. No one has to tell us we are, we simply believe it. Nobody has ever had these thoughts before, we tell ourselves. Journal, dear journal, you are witnessing the dawn of a magnificent mind afire. With thoughts like these, I'm destined to take the world by storm.

Don't believe me? Then you haven't been reading many blogs.

The thing is, it's healthy and normal to think this way. For a while. It's called the personal fable and it's part of normative adolescent egocentrism. Psychologists debate its origins, but it may arise as a way of coping with individuation - the process of becoming your self, a being who is separate from those around you.

Sound familiar?

I think it should, because that's what you guys are grappling with every. single. day. I watch it in my office. I read it in your blogs. I see it in our class discussions. Figuring out who you are - and doing so independently of the subtle, all-encompassing, often-overlooked influence of your parents - is what today's twenties are all about.

So here's what I believe:  the personal fable and egocentrism aren't just an adolescent thing. They're here and they're now.

And they're screwing you over. Two times over.

They're paralyzing your quest for a fulfilling life and career, coming and going:

  1. When the personal fable is in full effect, you're afraid of making a misstep that would prove you aren't actually special. I remember thinking just this in my early 20s:  what if I leave my Ivy League "I can prove I'm smart by just saying where I go to school" grad school and simply become a person with a job? Who am I then? And what will have happened to the "mind afire?" I'm too special, too unique, too destined for greatness for such an end. I know I'm not satisfied with my current life, but if I make the leap, take the chance, reach out for the life I really want...<pause for a freak out>...I might end up realizing that everything I've believed about myself has been a complete and utter lie.
  2. Then, as the personal fable wanes, you give up the will to strive for a better life. Wait, I'm not actually special? you begin to think. Everyone else thinks like this, too? Crap. Then who am I to believe I can do anything wonderful with my life? Who am I to bother to fight for fulfillment and to try to "do what I love"? That's impractical. That's unreasonable. Best to just suck it up and take a cubicle job and sell my soul down a river of memos and meetings and incessant cesspools of insipid, pithy emails.

The thing is, both ways of thinking are flawed. We're not all above average. Statistically, that simply doesn't work.  But we do all have the right to a life that gives us a sense of purpose and passion and meaning. There's no quota on that; no requirement that only 10% of us get to engage in that search.

In other words, when my student was standing before me last week, ineffectually blinking back her tears, the urgency welling within her wasn't about a paper. It wasn't about her performance. It wasn't, even, about being "average." It was about being blocked from a life worth living.

And so I said, "No, we can't all be above average. But we can all live extraordinary lives. If we choose to."

She stared at me for a long moment, the tears ceasing to flow. I could see the epiphany creeping into her. Inch by inch. Cell by cell. Atom by atom. These are the teaching  moments we live for, through many a botched lecture, through many an awkward class discussions, through many a hand-cramped session of grading.

Finally, she spoke.

"Uh. So what about my grade?"

Lapsley, D. K (1993). Toward an integrated theory of adolescent ego development: The "new look" at adolescent egocentrism. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 63, 562-571.
Vartanian, L. R. (2000). Revisiting the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs of adolescent egocentrism:  A conceptual review. Adolescence, 35, 639-661.

There simply aren't enough ribbons to go around. (Photo credit: ideath)