When to Be Unremarkably Average
In my early days of blogging, I wrote a post that had a good amount of impact. It was called How to Be Unremarkably Average, and it featured a list of suggestions. For example:
Go to college because someone said you should get a degree, not because you want to learn anything.
Go overseas once or twice in your life, to somewhere safe like England.
Work at a job you don’t like for the majority of your professional life. Sit at a desk 40 hours a week for an average of 10 hours of productive work.
Believe in and actively defend “the way things used to be” even if your memory is hazy about when that actually was.
Never be the voice of dissent. Support your country’s foreign policy when it is popular and reject it when it is unpopular.
Gavin Aung Than, the artist behind Zen Pencils and now a series of children’s books, illustrated a version and sold it in his shop.
Most of the post still holds up, but in the aftermath of the Great Resignation, I’ve been thinking about the opposite idea: are there times when it’s actually good to be unremarkably average?
I’m thinking in particular of the workplace, at least the generic corporate workplace that many people spend the majority of their working lives in.
Why be exceptional all the time? Why give more than the bare minimum? Why strive while others are slacking?
That line of thinking seemed to make sense, and quiet quitting is still popular, after all. But then, as I thought about it some more, I realized a problem with the logic: If you mentally check out of the longest part of your day, it’s not just your employer who’s harmed. You might end up dulling your own senses, which are worth much more than any job.
The Bargain of Corporate Speaking
I know several authors in the business-career space who make a good living by speaking at corporate events attended by company employees.
There’s an implied Faustian bargain in this relationship. From the company’s side: we pay you lots of money (the going rate is $15,000 or more per talk), you speak to our employees and make them feel good about themselves, but just make sure they end up working harder for us.
I have a moral objection to that kind of contract, and I also don’t like to be told what to do, so I don’t get many of those gigs.
But guess what? Maybe the speakers are right to encourage employees to show up more, at least in a way. If you decide to mentally opt-out of your day job, the greatest risk isn’t that you’re somehow cheating your employer. It’s that you’re shortchanging yourself.
I’ve never had a corporate job, but from what I hear, many employees tend to go through the motions, do what needs to get done, but always in a “working for the weekend,” semi-detached sort of way. Some of them even actively rebel, finding ways to stretch out tasks into longer amounts of time and generally disconnecting from any sense of mission.
This seems to be the very definition of unremarkably average. It also seems … unhealthy?
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as though I think every corporate employee should give their best energy to their employer all the time. I actually think it’s more interesting when someone works an extra, secret job while they’re supposed to be on the clock somewhere else. Or when they start their own business, decide to learn a language on company time, or any other meaningful activity.
Merely passing the time, though, watching the clock, watching the metaphorical paint dry—I dunno. It just seems uninteresting and more soul-crushing than any bad job itself.
So if your job sucks, you should quit—quietly or otherwise. If you continue to just put in the bare minimum, you’ll find yourself wasting away.
Ultimately, we want to do something we care about and are motivated by—without an artificial, “be all you can be” pep talk. We don’t want to be unremarkably average. We want to be, in fact, remarkable.