Sometimes I wonder why my life hasn’t turned out more gloriously so far. When I was younger planning my glorious future, I saw myself defying my suburban upbringing and moving to the forest to be a park ranger. Or I thought perhaps I would move to a foreign country, at least for a while, and become fluent in other languages and cultures. I would do the things other people were afraid to do, and I would relish their interest and awe when I told those people what I’d been up to lately. Following my passions, my life would be full of adventure, my life would be interesting.
Now in my late twenties, I live in the same city where I went to school, just a few hours from where I grew up. I ended up getting married and becoming a yoga instructor in a city that claims to have the most yoga instructors per capita in the United States. I’ve had modest success in my career, and it’s a very nice and stable life.
Even so, occasionally the thoughts that secretly terrify Generation Y bubble up within me (if you’re not familiar with the plight of Generation Y, this is a humorous and a-little-too-close-to-home essay about it): What if I’m not always passionate about my job? What if I never live in a cool place? What if I work hard all my life, but I’m never the best in my field? What if I’m never even the best in my particular workplace? What if my life becomes an endless cycle of working 8 to 5 on workdays and mowing my lawn on weekends? What if my impact on the world is small and unremarkable? What if I’m…ordinary?
For today’s young adult, “ordinary” is almost a bad word. We’re told:
Be anything but ordinary, we’re told.
I got married right out of college. I got two part time jobs, one babysitting and one at a small gym for women, while my husband finished school. The jobs were small and not at all glamorous, and I couldn’t wait to get out and do something much grander when my husband graduated. Upon expressing this sentiment to one of the clients at the gym, a mother of two teenage boys, she responded by telling me frankly, “If you’re trying to avoid ordinary, then you’re going to be very disappointed. There’s a lot of life that’s just ordinary.”
I was taken aback by her remark, but it helped begin a shift in my perspective.
I tend to think that if a person is extraordinary, it should be immediately obvious. An extraordinary person would seem different from other people and probably has something to show for it like lots of money, awards, or reputation. It turns out that the people I look up to most are not necessarily those who are the most entertaining or the most successful or the most interesting or the most intelligent or the most anything. Rather, they tend to be those who do the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well.
Another woman I met at the gym was named Mary, and when I started working there, she was 87 years old. Mary was a popular woman, but it wasn’t because she was well-traveled or told the best stories or wore the most fashionable clothes. In fact, she was none of those things and was quite plain in most ways. She was a widow who used to work as a school teacher, she had lived in the same house since the 1960s, and she babysat her great-grandchildren every week. Mary was a popular woman because she lived a life of thankfulness. She was truly thankful for each day, and she was especially thankful for her family. I knew this because she was in the habit of saying so. She was so thankful to God for the blessings of life that she could not contain it within herself, and it made her a joyful, hopeful person. You could not help but feel more joyful and hopeful when you were around her.
The kind of extraordinary I want to be is more than having an interesting job, living in an exotic place, or being “the most” something or other. It’s more real than the image others have of me. The kind of extraordinary I want to be doesn’t come from trying to make myself extraordinary or special; the kind of extraordinary I want to to be actually requires thinking of myself less.
I want to be in the habit of doing the small, ordinary things extraordinarily well. For me, that means smiling more and complaining less. It means remembering my blessings and thanking God for them daily. It means spending more energy reaching out to others and less energy protecting my own comfort. It means giving others the benefit of the doubt. It means thinking of what my husband would like more and thinking of what I would like from my husband less. It means being patient and giving up my need to be right .
But I can’t simply decide to be thankful, patient, and selfless and expect that all will follow naturally.
Some months ago I met a godly woman named Janis. Janis was an intelligent woman, had had considerable success in her career, and enjoyed the respect of her colleagues. Yet, none of these were the things I found striking about her. She had been asked to speak to me and a group of women about her four-year battle with cancer, a battle she knew she was going to lose. She said that she was frequently asked how she remained so at peace and how her relationship with the Lord was so strong throughout the ordeal. She responded that a lifetime of prayer and scripture reading had prepared her for her present struggles. Had she not been so faithful in those disciplines during the small struggles and good times, she would not have known the scripture that would comfort her in great difficulty, and she would not have had the strong foundation in her relationship with the Lord to stand on.
In his research paper, The Mundanity of Excellence, Daniel F. Chambliss concludes that excellence (we might substitute “the quality of being extraordinary”) “is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time.”
If I want to be a person who smiles a lot, I have to practice smiling even when I don’t really feel like it. If I want to be a wife who is thoughtful of her husband, I have to practice prioritizing him even when I’m tired. It will feel difficult and unnatural for a while, but I have to be faithful in these little things each day in order for them to become habit.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring? There may be great opportunities or dire circumstances, and how I will respond is largely affected by what I’m doing now. But if I sit around saying I want to be extraordinary and wait for it to happen, or if I desperately seek the things that society says make a person extraordinary for the sake of thinking of myself as extraordinary, I may find myself living a life characterized by stress and disappointment.
Goals and aspirations are good things, but if you find that “you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” (Napoleon Hill)