The Fear of Being Ordinary

Marianne Williamson once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Actually, I don’t think either of those are true. There are many things that make me feel inadequate – my lack of dancing skills, for example, or my complete inability to understand the rules of football. But I still happily go to ballet class faithfully every Friday night and watch football games with my friends and family. Being really terrible at some things is both acceptable and kind of fun, because I don’t expect very much of myself, so I can never be disappointed.

And on the other side of the spectrum, there are some things that I’m pretty damn great at. Like cooking. I can throw a bunch of random ingredients in a saucepan and end up with something delicious. Crossword puzzles, too. I do at least ten crossword puzzles every day. Being really awesome at things is just as low-stress as being awful at them, because I never have to wonder how they’ll turn out. I know I’ll always succeed.

I struggle with all the stuff in the middle. Not what I’m hopelessly bad at. Not what I’m consistently great at. What really gets me are the things I’m okay at. Good, but not great. Decent, but nothing special.

I love to sing. I’m pretty good at it, too. Good, but not great. I’m part of an amazing group of talented performers and I am constantly in awe of them. But I listen to the beautiful voices all around me and I think, well, I’m decent. Nothing special. I’ll never pick up a recording contract or star on Broadway. I’m just, well, okay. Ordinary.

There’s something about the prospect of ordinariness that terrifies me. I can’t laugh about my embarrassing lack of skills or retain a calm confidence in my abilities. I’m forever trying to prove to myself, and to everyone around me, that I’m good enough. No, not just good enough. I’m forever trying to prove that I’m great. Because if I can’t be great, what’s the point?

So now, I’m trying to be a writer. Or maybe I am a writer – I’m not sure what the definition of “writer” really is. And I know I’m good at it. I’m not going to sit here and deny that. But I’m scared that I’ll never be something really, truly special. That I’ll be confined to the pages of this blog for the next fifty years, never able to move on to something bigger. Destined to be ordinary.

Life is shorter than any of us like to admit. And I don’t want to be forgotten. I’m afraid that if I’m ordinary, nobody will remember me. My words, my actions, my thoughts, they’ll all be forever lost in the ether. When the last person that knows me passes on, everything I’ve ever done will disappear. I’ll just be a shadow on the pages of history, good enough to get through a lifetime, but not great enough to make a lasting impression. Nothing special.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is not that we are powerful beyond measure. Our deepest fear is that we are ordinary.

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37 comments

  1. so true! everyone wants to be a “somebody” in this world. and the fear of remaining just an ordinary joe is in fact the fear of all fears. Couldn’t have agreed more! another awesome post! 🙂

  2. Wow, this is so true. I hadn’t really thought about it this way, but you’re absolutely right — it’s the same for me. Especially with writing, as well. I know I’m good at it, but I don’t know if I’m great and it, and if I could go on to do “bigger things”, whatever they might be.

    I’ve only been following your blog since last week, but I really like the stuff you post. It gets me thinking, and you have a great way of putting things — I love your writing. Just wanted to have said that 🙂

    1. Thank you very much! I’m glad you like it. Writing is one of those things that’s super subjective, too. Like, who decides if you’re good or great or bad or terrible?

  3. Some people will remember you because you’re ordinary.

    As for your writing, I think you’re very talented and if you put your mind to it you can make a decent career out of it. I’ve only been following a short time, but I’ve been very impressed by your prose to date.

  4. “So now, I’m trying to be a writer. Or maybe I am a writer – I’m not sure what the definition of “writer” really is.”

    When we’re on the edge of finding our happiness, we’re not afraid of trying something new.:)

  5. Writers write. Period. Guess what, Gwen? You’re a writer. 🙂

    I actually love that quote because it speaks to me, personally. But I totally get what you’re saying and your post is very profound and true. Sometimes I feel very apathetic for that same reason. Why bother with something if I’m not going to be “great” enough at it to excel/standout/be remembered? I like what your other commenter said, that sometimes you’re remembered for being ordinary. For being human.
    I think this all falls under the “hyper critical” category, for me anyway. Always criticizing even the things I’m halfway good at cuz they aren’t as good as so-n-so or aren’t “great”. I hate comparison – my nemesis! ARG!

  6. I like this line in the second paragraph: “Being really terrible at some things is both acceptable and kind of fun.” So, you know what to do in a GOD-YOU’RE-SUCH-A-FREAK scenario then.

  7. The one thing I have learned in 34 years of life is that no one is ordinary. Just because the world may not know your name, doesn’t mean you aren’t special. Your post reminds me of my Grandmother. She wasn’t anything “special” but she touched a lot of lives in little ways. When she died, her funeral packed our Catholic Church, which wasn’t small. People (non family) tell me regularly how much they miss her and how she treated everyone like family. You make an impact on the world in a million little ways and YOU my dear are very special and not ordinary at all.

    1. That’s a really great way of thinking about it, Michelle. I think I tend to put way too much pressure on myself to be the brightest and best all the time. But ordinariness is special, too. Because we’re all ordinary in our own way!

  8. I totally agree with this. I think the brave thing is when you do the things you’re just “okay” at anyway. I have trouble with that a lot — I ask myself, why should I even bother to do it if I’m just okay at it? But I think that if it gives me joy, then I should do it, no matter how “okay” my skills are. (And then there is the wonderful surprise of one day, just out of the blue, realizing I’ve actually improved!)

  9. I think that if you write, you are a writer. That being said, I don’t think you are in any way ordinary when it comes to writing. The pieces that I have read of yours over the past couple months have been extraordinary.

    I have trouble with the middle too. It’s so much easier for me to either be good or bad at something.

    1. Thank you, that means a lot. The middle is, in general, a really hard place to be. I think I’ve probably written about that before too. I like things to be in categories. Good, bad. Right, wrong. This whole “okay” business is LAME. 🙂

  10. You should pick up the book “Stephen King On Writing: a memoir of the craft” I think you would be inspired to take steps to expand your writing to more then just this blog. Although I’ve grown quite fond of your posts so I hope any future fame wont deprive me of laughing out loud on the daily.

  11. 🙂 I love this perspective. When I was a teen, I strove for ordinary. I was tired of somehow ending up as the small piece of pie in any pie chart, no matter what. Seriously– give me 5 random words, and I bet you I’ll the one no one else picks… it’s like a curse. But, I’ve grown to see that all our biggest flaws are also our biggest positives. It’s all about making piece with whatever piece of pie we pick, you know? 🙂 Great writing as usual!

  12. I struggle a lot with my own “ordinary” abilities. We all obviously have them or else we’d be superheros. As for writing – I *can* tell you this: it’s always and forever an evolutionary process. It took me a long time to honor myself with the label of “poet” – despite the many journal publications it wasn’t until I had 2 chapbooks published by presses under my belt that I finally adopted the term for myself and allowed myself to acknowledge that part of me in front of other people. But I’m still here…writing to get better, to be a better writer. Because now I need the memoir that I’ve been planning to write for years or a full length collection of poetry. I’m not sure *when* a writer is ever satisfied with their “greatness” as a writer, it’s one of those things, as I think all artist endure, that never quits. It’s always there, pushing you to be better.

    1. I agree. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t keep you from appreciating all the things you’ve already accomplished. I don’t want to be so forward-focused that I miss the great stuff as it happens.

  13. This was simply wonderful. Well done — beautiful phrasing. I love the last few lines — such universal truths. Great post! You are so young yet, and I believe you will go somewhere with this kind of talented writing. If you want to write fiction or essays, read some Lauren Groff. I think she might inspire and challenge you to be a really great (which you already are — but I mean published and popularlly acknowledged) writer. But, whatever you do, keep being true to you.

  14. Um, yeah. I relate a lot. My fear of being ordinary kept me from writing for many years, because being good at writing meant so much to me. But then I decided living in fear was worse than being ordinary…
    And as I rounded the bend at thirty, I finally became okay with being just okay at a few things. Piano, painting, singing; I’m just okay. But I love doing them enough to just enjoy them without the need to be great.
    Writing though…that one’s still tough.
    You’re still young. Keep practicing, hope for the best – it’s all you can do. 🙂

    1. Oh, I totally agree with Natalie. Things get a LOT easier after 30. My advice is try not to take your 20s so seriously. Try lots of things and have fun.

  15. Wow. So insightful!!!
    I really relate to this. I never thought about it this way–that it’s the things in the middle that I have the most anxiety about. The “almosts.” These are the things we know we have to work out to excel in, because we are neither excellent or hopeless in them.

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