Seeking the magical, ordinary life

by Kristin on July 17, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Not knowing what I want seems to be a regular state of being for me. One week I want to publish a book more than anything in the world, and the next week I can’t imagine giving up my rewarding, simple life of freelancing and blogging. Sometimes I long for a bigger, nicer house so badly I can close my eyes and imagine I’m cooking away in a shiny new kitchen; then I go through a phase of wanting to pare down and live more simply and efficiently than ever.

This wavering could be a sign that I’m just wishy-washy and fickle inside. But at other times, I wonder if it’s a product of the many voices and expectations crowding me from the outside. Maybe what I really want for my life is locked in a constant struggle with what I think I should want for my life.

A recent article in The New York Times, “Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary,” provided a solid framework for what had been only vague, inconsistent wonderings:

As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and author of the book “The Gifts of Imperfection” (Hazelden, 2010) said, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.”

We need to elevate our ideas about ordinary and broaden our ideas about success, the article says. Because not surprisingly, these cultural ideas about what constitutes “meaning” are closely linked to our ideas about success—“extraordinary is often what the general public views as success,” the article points out. And who doesn’t want an extraordinary life, on some level?

In many ways, I think my own ideas of success are toned down compared to many within my social sphere. I chose, for instance, to be an English major in college, not because I thought it would land me a six-figure job some day, but because I have always loved reading and writing. And yet, these cultural concepts of “success” have a way of recalibrating within the frameworks we choose for our lives. In that way, the desire for success still drives me (or at least it gnaws away at the core of who I am, feeding my fears).

This is going to be one of those posts that leaves you and me both with more questions than answers, but getting to the important questions is always a good place to start.

- How do I determine when fear is holding me back and when fear is falsely driving me forward? Because both scenarios are possible: fear of not successfully publishing a book could keep me from throwing myself into it, while a fear of being seen as an unsuccessful writer if I choose to not to pursue publishing could push me in a direction that isn’t right for me.

- How do social media sites like Facebook feed this cultural drive for a life that looks extraordinary and successful from the outside, regardless of whether it feels good from the inside? I worry about this often, particularly as I imagine what it’s like to be a teenager growing up with their lives posted for everyone to examine and evaluate.

- “How do we go back to the idea that ordinary can be extraordinary? How do we teach our children — and remind ourselves — that life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes, but can be more about our relationships and special moments?” (I’ve pulled that question as a quote from The New York Times article.)

- And what are the ordinary-yet-magical moments I value most in my life? What if a “good day” and a “successful life” could begin feeling more like beautiful strings of those moments and less like a list of accomplishments suitable for a resume? How might my shifting view of success impact my kids?

As always, I’d love to hear what you think!


If this topic interests you, it’s very much related to a column I’ve started writing at RELEVANT, which focuses on discovering who you are supposed to be rather than what you are supposed to do. The first post in the series is here, and the second is here.

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  • katfrench

    I love Brene Brown. Have you seen the video of her TED talk on vulnerability? Excellent stuff.

    Also love this post. Reminds me of a book I read a few years ago, The Contented Soul by Lisa Graham McMinn. I think contentment is an underappreciated quality that is too often equated with “settling” in our culture.

    Ordinary life has a lot of things going for it. It’s ironic that I see so many who seem to think that life is about running as fast as you can from one “mountaintop experience” to the next in the quest for a “meaningful” life. But that’s, IMO, a poor way to cultivate meaning. Where’s the consistency? The depth that develops with time and discipline? I suspect there is a lot of mistaking intensity for importance.

    Anyway, good stuff as always. Hope you’re well. And I’m encouraged that I’m not the only one waffling between “your life is fine just as it is” and “why aren’t you writing books and focusing on being published?” Lots of complicated heart issues in that whole ball of yarn…

  • Caris Adel

    Gosh I struggle with this so much. I want that ‘muchness’. I always wonder, too, where that drive for me to be not ordinary comes from. I remember when I was 12, 13, thinking about life and wondering what the point was, and how I didn’t want to just grow up to raise kids to be decent citizens, who grow up to raise more decent citizens, and on and on. There had to be a bigger point to life, more to aspire to. And now we have this whole generational movement of people who want to do more than just coast through life…and I wonder where that all comes from. I don’t think that thought was culturally pushed on me 18 years ago….so I just find it all interesting. Especially since now a lot of people are pushing those desires into all sorts of organizations and causes and justice issues…where none of that was really around 10, 15 years ago.

    I go back and forth about house size and contentment just being home with the kids and all of that…it’s funny b/c I have wrestled with ‘learning to be content’ for years. And a week or two ago I just had this experience where all of a sudden I was content with the smallness of my life and where I’m at…it was the strangest thing. I haven’t even been able to write about it yet, but it totally changed my outlook on where my life is at right now.

    And good for you for getting your degree in English. All growing up I wanted to be a writer, but I looked into it and realized you don’t make money at it, so I never intentionally pursued it or gave it serious consideration, and no one really pushed me towards it, except to tell me that I was good at it. But being good and making money are 2 different things, lol.

  • Joe Jestus

    Defining success is so important. Learning to balance success in different areas of life is crucial. Succeeding at a financial or occupational goal while failing at having a healthy relationship with your spouse and kids can’t truly be marked down under the success column. At least not in my opinion.

    I’m reminded of the Og Mandino quote, which I’ll try not to butcher, “If at the end of the day you are surrounded by those you love and who love you, then you are truly successful.”

    In today’s world there is nothing ordinary about living a life of sacrifice and love for those closest to you, strangers, and even your enemies. Perhaps the tasks may seem ordinary: taking care of a sick child, loving one person for a lifetime, or returning grace for hate. But more often than not an ordinary life leads to an extraordinary legacy.

    Thanks for the post and the challenge to stop and think about what’s worth pursuing!

  • Kristin T.

    katfrench, I have not seen that TED video—I’ll definitely look it up. She’s a smart one. The book about contentment sounds really interesting, too. What you said is spot-on: “I think contentment is an underappreciated quality that is too often equated with ‘settling’ in our culture.” It creates such a fascinating catch-22, doesn’t it? This is key, too: “I suspect there is a lot of mistaking intensity for importance.” Thanks for giving me much to think about, and for making me feel less alone in all this thinking!

    Caris, I took a philosophy class in college called Death and the Meaning of Life (it was at Calvin College, so there was a strong Christian component). I really wish I still had the reading list and notes from that class, because this issue seems so much more salient now than it ever has! It’s true, a lot of good comes out of this drive for a meaningful life, but it can also be taken too far. The key, I suppose, is finding the line. (I would love to hear more about this new sense of contentment you’re experiencing!)

    Joe, you bring up some really interesting points. The NYT article I quoted talked about a Toronto woman who died. In terms of a “resume” or list of accomplishments (which is what most obituaries look like) she had almost nothing to show, but in terms of relationships—the number of lives she impacted—her life was enormously successful. It’s a great example of how our definitions need to shift, and a great illustration of the point you’re making: “…more often than not an ordinary life leads to an extraordinary legacy.”

  • J. R. Goudeau

    I love the difference between “good” and “successful” that you’re making here. I think we’re so often caught up in the many, many voices in our head that we forget to appreciate what we have. Sometimes, not to be cheesy, I do have to stop and count my blessings. Thanks for the thought-provoking reminder today.

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  • The Modern Gal

    This exact debate was a huge one in my relationship with my ex. He was highly ambitious, and he criticized me for not being so ambitious (honestly, I have ambition, but it was toward things he considered ordinary). It was very clear that his ambition was driven by some sort of fear because it came with sides of anxiety and panic attacks, though I never quite figured out what that fear was rooted in.