What image comes to mind when you hear the word success? A blue-suited CEO? Internet billionaire Mark Zuckerberg? Perhaps Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela? But if you’re like me, you probably didn’t think of a person living an unglamorous, day-to-day, ordinary life.
I’m in my mid-30s. Although I have a decent job, great friends and enough money to pay my bills and still take the occasional overseas holiday, I keep feeling that in some way I’m a disappointment. For a longtime, the sense that I wasn’t living up to my potential shadowed me. But when I decided to talk about this with some friends, I discovered I’m not alone.
In our individualistic, fame-obsessed culture, “ordinary” has become a synonym for “mediocre”: we must live up to our Facebook profile, be in command or have changed the world by the time we’re 30 or we’re underachieving. Average is no longer normal, it is failure.
But the intense and unrelenting pressure to excel and be extraordinary comes with a big price tag: we’re not happy. In fact, we’re more depressed than ever. We sacrifice sleep and relationships, only to discover that we can never meet our own expectations. No matter how hard we play the game, the goalposts keep moving.
I do want my life to count and to be meaningful. But I have the suspicion that fulfilment comes from being and not doing. So I propose that we work to rediscover the power and meaning of an ordinary life, lived with dignity.
Bored and brilliant
We dread living an ordinary life because it sounds boring! Our society is terrified of boredom. Consider what happens when there’s a pause in a conversation, no matter how fleeting: smartphones are unsheathed and screens light up. In fact, the average person spends about two hours a day on his or her mobile phone—checking it about 60 times. On top of that, there’s the two years of our lives spent on Facebook.1
Boredom has become our greatest enemy because we’ve bought into the lie that our lives need continual stimulation, digital inputs, information flow and entertainment in order to be meaningful. Ironically, by systematically eliminating boredom, we may be robbing ourselves of creativity and meaning. A recent study showed that a “bored” brain can, in fact, be a creative brain. Boredom ignites a network in our brains called “default mode”. Our brains are very active during these times of mind-wandering, creating new connections that boost our creativity.
But there’s more: “Boredom fulfils an important function,” says Dr Wijnand van Tilburg, a psychologist from the University of Southampton. “Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.” Embracing the uncomfortable feeling of boredom can help us re-evaluate our priorities and find a clearer sense of purpose. Yes, ordinary life has dull moments, but these may be the key to a more creative and meaningful existence.
Doing the dishes
“Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes,”says Christian peace activist Shane Claiborne, brilliantly encapsulating how we think about success. We think extraordinary people shouldn’t do the menial, because menial tasks don’t make a “difference”. Indeed, we look at them as a waste of time.
Rather, “People tend to believe that the pathway to significance is paved with the big, the showy and the grand,” writes Michael Kelley, author of Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. “But what if we are wrong? What if bigness is not an accurate measure of significance? . . . What if a life of great importance is not found by escaping the details but embracing them?”2
Think about it. It would be absurd for a professional athlete to refuse to train daily and expect to keep fit. Every push-up and every drop of sweat counts. Little things add up. If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know what two seemingly innocuous slices of pizza can do, especially if you eat them every day! Small things have a quiet, often underestimated, power. But, in fact, faithful attention to the little things in life enables us to tackle the bigger ones (see Luke 16:10). So don’t live life in permanent hiatus, waiting to change the world, avoiding the small opportunities you have every day, where God has placed you, to serve others.
Want a revolution? Begin by taking charge of the dishes tonight.
Ordinary, not mediocre
Can we embrace our ordinariness and still strive for excellence? Absolutely. But true excellence is often the result of love, not ambition. In the words of theologian and author Michael Horton, you excel when you “find yourself desiring something or someone whose inherent truth, beauty and goodness draw you in. You love a particular object enough to endure whatever setbacks and challenges stand in your way.”
Mediocrity is about disengaging, about not caring. Excellence, on the other hand, demands enough care to invest time, effort and skill. Excellence requires a commitment beyond seeing immediate results and, sometimes, beyond seeing results at all. Consider scientists whose work was rejected while they lived, like Nicolaus Copernicus, or artists unappreciated during their lifetime, like Vincent van Gogh. It was their passion that kept them going, fuelling their excellence, not a quest for superiority itself.
Because excellence is about passion not popularity, it can permeate our everyday lives. Even the simplest tasks can be performed with excellence. I believe it might have been this that the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). I can’t think of something more ordinary than eating, yet it can be done as an act of worship or devotion.
Freedom to be ordinary
At a deeper level, what prevents us from allowing ourselves to be ordinary is the fear that we are not enough. We are ashamed of our ordinariness because we think it makes us unlovable. US scholar Brene Brown, makes this profound remark: “When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”3
Learning to see ourselves as both ordinary and lovable is a fundamental step towards maturity. It sets us free from seeking external approval or permission to rest or to love ourselves. And there is nothing weak or mediocre about being ordinary! In fact, finding contentment in our ordinariness requires courage and vulnerability; the courage to believe that a small life is still meaningful and the vulnerability to love ourselves unconditionally.
The Bible teaches that God’s measure of success is faithfulness—consistently choosing His path in making those hundreds of small, daily decisions. It’s His job to be extraordinary, not ours. “God showers His extraordinary gifts through ordinary means of grace, loves us through ordinary fellow image bearers, and sends us into the world to love and serve others in ordinary callings,” writes Horton.4
Success, in God’s eyes, is an ordinary life well-lived (see Matthew 25:23). There’s a quiet strength and dignity in fulfilling our everyday duties that transforms us. While the faithfulness and constancy needed to make a marriage last a lifetime may not make the news, it’s this kind of sustained and collective success that keeps society together. Somehow, between changing nappies, paying bills and shopping for groceries, our characters grow. We become less self-absorbed and more generous. We learn to depend on Jesus for our sense of self-worth and develop the stamina for going unnoticed.
Jesus, the most extraordinary Gift from heaven, was utterly ordinary in many ways. He was born to a poor couple, lived in a quiet village and worked as a tradesman. Even though He was God in the flesh, Jesus never shied from ordinary work or menial tasks. During the Last Supper, He washed the gnarled, grubby feet of fishermen (see John 13:1–17). This was arguably the greatest example of how God can transform a small act of service into something of huge worth and impact. “In some cases, the way a person does a task makes that work sanctified and holy forever,” writes inspirational Christian author Oswald Chambers. “It may be a very common, everyday task, but after we have seen it done, it becomes different. When the Lord does something through us, He always transforms it.”5 This is the extraordinary ordinariness of God’s upside-down kingdom.
Because we are loved unconditionally by an extraordinary God, we can embrace our ordinariness and, even if we’re never famous, remain confident that our life will make a difference.
1. Manoush Zomorodi (2017): “How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas,” TED Talks, https://www.ted.com
2. Michael Kelley (2013): Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life, B&H Books.
3. Brené Brown (2015): Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Avery.
4. Michael S. Horton (2014): Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, Zondervan.
5. Oswald Chambers (2017): My Utmost for His Highest, Discovery House.