It’s one piece of parental wisdom I profoundly disagree with: “You can be anything you want to be.”
What a set-up for failure that sentence too often proves to be.
When tender dreams collide with hard reality
When I was a boy, I really wanted to be a professional footballer. And I mean really wanted to be.
I obsessively practised football every available hour I could, often until it was even too dark to see. I was a regular ‘pick’ for both my school first team as well as playing local minor league football on a Sunday.
But there was only one problem when it came to being professional footballer: I simply wasn’t good enough.
If selection to the national side was based on how deeply immersed you were in the sport, then I would have been an automatic ‘shoo-in’ every time. But, rather unfairly I thought, they seemed to go for another criterion called ‘talent’.
I’m just your average guy
Yet the vast majority of us are average. But we seem to live in a world where the admission of being ‘average’ is almost shameful.
Hey, you! Why are you not filling every hour with a steady stream of awesome accomplishments?
- “Can I share with you all on LinkedIn how humbled I have been by my superhuman capacity for hard work? I mean, really humbled.”
- “What a blast! Even though it was late on Friday night, I couldn’t deny myself the buzz of having a Zoom meeting with my amazing work colleagues, checking out the goals we’d smashed this week.”
- “Know what I love to do on a long car journey? I like to set up all my inspirational podcasts and play them to myself to help me re-energise and refocus where my life needs to be right now.”
Oh dear. Because I am average, I tend to say things like…
- “Do you know what I did today? Not a lot, actually.”
- “Guess what I did on Friday? I uncorked a bottle of something and just watched end-to-end re-runs of ‘Friends’.”
- “Drove 150 miles yesterday, listening to eardrum-bursting thrash metal from start to finish.”
Average looks, average taste
Average height, an average waist
Average in everything I do
My temperature is 98.2
The deceit of social media
So, do you know what’s depressing? It’s whenever I go on to LinkedIn, or any other social media site, only to find the same trite phrase – “You can be anything you want to be” – in one form or another, often accompanied by some cliché stock photo of someone with arms triumphantly aloft, standing on the sunlit summit of some rocky mountain.
A sentence such as “You can be anything you want to be” has a false allure. It is the calling card of ‘snake oil salespeople’ who callously create a seductive expectation, one that’s freighted with a cruel consequence for the most vulnerable in our society.
Goodbye mental health?
So, why write of a ‘cruel consequence’? Because, in the human crisis that has unfolded this year, there are countless average people whose mental health has already started to slowly unravel. And what do they see on social media? Endless ‘perfection parades’ that scroll across their cell phone screen, posts that are cunningly positioned to project idealised lives that – in reality – do not exist and never will.
How can their world – ordinarily average and now subject to the forced alienation of a pandemic – possibly coexist alongside the utopian images presented by social media?
What I find even more repulsive about this portrayal of ‘perfect people’ is that, even when they are positioning their own distress, it is done artfully in order to secure more ’likes’ from the social media community. A cynical manipulation of an emotion that is genuinely exhibited by many who might be watching.
When our mental health is frail, we seek acceptance, empathy and inclusion. But I question sometimes if that is what social media is giving us.
Disturbing research about social media
When I was carrying out the research for my new online workshop, ‘Impostor Syndrome – A Survivor’s Guide’, I came across some disturbing findings.
In 2009, a study carried out by the University of California, San Diego, concluded that the average American consumes approximately 34 gigabytes of information and over 100,000 words a day. How different might those statistics be today, 11 years on?
Is this appetite for social media having an effect on people’s mental health? Let me just take one area of well-being: self-esteem. Research conducted by the University of Copenhagen found that many users suffered alarmingly from ‘Facebook envy’.
Interestingly enough, it also reported that those who eventually stopped using the social networking site reported that they felt much more satisfied with themselves and their lives.
“When we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control.”
I want to be good at something
You may be mistaken for thinking that my thrust here is to celebrate our averageness.
Well, yes and no.
First, it is liberating to free oneself from the tentacles of social media’s expectations, to rejoice in one’s mediocrity and to shout out loud, “I’m refreshingly, wonderfully, ecstatically ordinary!”
But there is a second – and incredibly important – point I need to add.
Even though I am average and ordinary, I still want to be good at something. I even want to find the thing that I am very good at. Perhaps not just ‘very good at’, but I may even have a gift for.
How can you help me find my gift?
- If I love my job, then help me to be better at it
- If I manage people, show me how I can improve my levels of leadership
- If I have a partner, help me to become a more loving and committed ‘life companion’ to them
- If my attitudes are a little out of date, show me the way to a more enlightened viewpoint
But don’t patronise me. Please don’t use words like ‘transformational’, ‘empowering’ or ‘spiritual’. Don’t ‘unleash my power within’ or ‘reveal the real me’.
You see, I may be average, but I am also intelligent, unique and reassuringly ‘real’. Real in a world full of ‘celeb’ wannabees, ‘influencers’ and social media fakery.
I am striving to do the very best I can. I have potential and I don’t want to die with it unrealised. If you can help me untap that potential, then you will have done something very profound.
We will be two average, ordinary people – involved in an extraordinary and deeply life-affirming act.