When I asked the community whether we have the duty to live up to our potential, many of you balked at the notion of living up to anybody else's standards but your own. I read every single comment, and the general feeling is that society has unrealistic expectations of what one should do or should be. I agree with the general feedback. Screw society. Do what you want to do and don't let anybody stop you.
The only caveat I see with not living up to your potential is the feeling of regret. I never want to fail due to a lack of effort, and that's exactly what I did when I didn't try out for high school football. I can fail because I'm too stupid, the competition is too good or there was some uncontrollable, exogenous variable that negatively affected my chances. But when I know I'm not doing everything possible to succeed, then regret inevitably creeps in. You don't want to go through life wondering what could have been if you had tried just a little bit harder.
In this post, I'd like to discuss the joys of being average. Since college, I consistently tried to massacre my mind and body by studying and working like no other. In college, it was imperative to graduate at least magna cum laude to give myself the best chance at getting a good job. When I landed my first job, there was no question of getting in by 5:30 a.m. and leaving after 7:30 p.m. every day for the first two years because I knew nothing — and people who know nothing are easily disposable.
But after 13 short years, I was done. I no longer wanted to kill myself at the age of 35. So I left to make no money as a writer. Instead of getting up at 5:30 a.m., I let myself sleep in until 6:30 a.m. or even 7 a.m. — even though 6:30 a.m. is when the stock markets open on the West Coast. I no longer cared about reading everything possible to get an edge in my investments. I wanted to kick back and smell the pink jasmines that grew all around my deck. Now I spend a couple hours a day writing for various online publications and another hour or so over e-mail connecting with folks. It's such a far cry from the 14-hour days on The Street. I'm as average as can be, and it feels wonderful!
Three Benefits of Being Average
1) Lower expectations.
2) More safety.
3) More happiness.
Let's look at some examples to demonstrate what I mean.
Education: Imagine going to Harvard for $180,000 in tuition over four years and landing an average $40,000 a year job that anybody from any college could have gotten. What a disappointment when it comes to money, especially if your parents are not rich and you didn't get any grants. If more people thought about the financial implications of college, there would be less of a student loan crisis. I feared high expectations, so I decided to attend the College of William & Mary for $2,800 a year vs. $25,000 a year for a comparable private school back in the '90s. If I landed back in my old job at McDonald's, I would be disappointed — but at least I could cover all four years of tuition earning minimum wage. Unless you are rich, it's an inevitability you will be starting your career in a financial deficit.
Physical attributes: Imagine growing up as a beautiful and fit kid. All your life people treat you special because people are shallow that way. Then one day you discover the joys of eating. You put on the freshman 15 in college and never lose it. After you get a job, you realize working out is a luxury you don't have. You're now 31 years old and 30 pounds heavier than you once were. The 15-year high school reunion is coming up next year and you are stressed out of your mind! You're worried about your ex-classmates snickering behind your back for letting yourself go.
Instead, if you were average looking with an average body in school, people wouldn't care that you gained 30 pounds as a male or a female. Weight gain is an inevitable part of life in America.
Wealth: If you are wealthy in America, you are either idolized (e.g., the Kardashians for some reason) or assailed (e.g., the top 1 percent). Since it's easier to become wealthy than to become famous and wealthy, let's focus on the former. Politicians will arbitrarily determine an individual making over a certain amount is wealthy regardless of their educational background, occupation, or geographic location in order to engage in class warfare for votes. Even though you do make more than average, you feel excluded, which is an uncomfortable feeling any minority will understand. Unless you are an inventor, people will tend to look at you suspiciously regarding how you accumulated your wealth.
If you are of average wealth, there is no need to hide. You don't have to send your kids to private school, play tennis at a private club, obscure your home address, worry about kidnappers, or fear persecution by the government. The idea of Stealth Wealth makes no sense as you walk freely among the crowd.
Taxes: Paying taxes is fine if you know everybody else is paying a similar amount of taxes. But if you start paying a higher and higher percentage of your income in taxes along with a higher absolute dollar amount in taxes AND you get called greedy and evil, you might feel tremendous frustration. You may start to question why you are such the bad guy if you are paying the majority of this nation's taxes — even more so than your share of income.
Being average, you are able to fly under the government's radar by no longer being a target for tax increases. The frustration you have with government inefficiencies starts to dissipate. You're also more likely to become a beneficiary of tax increases, some of which goes to help fund public education and maintain our national parks. As someone who has spent the past two years out of Corporate America, I admit I feel a heightened appreciation for the government partly because I get to relax in the parks and utilize the library more often now. The return on my tax dollars has increased tremendously.
Sports: In 2012, my 4.5 level league tennis team won the San Francisco City Championship. Glory! We were the favorites to win again in 2013, but we didn't. We lost 2-3 in the final after our No. 1 singles player was up 4-1 in the third set and blew it. Although it is quite an accomplishment for any team to repeat back-to-back finals, we all felt extremely disappointed. If we were in the middle 4-6 teams out of 10, we'd be ecstatic to have just made the playoffs. Many of us decided to give up tennis for months because we were so depressed. A very similar situation happens with golf. As a 23 handicapper, golf is pretty fun due to the occasional money shot from 240 yards away that lands within 10 feet of the hole. As a 9 handicapper, every shot counts and if you don't par a hole you are disappointed. I enjoyed golf much more when I was a hacker.
Work: Most workers are average by definition. Only the bottom 10 percent really are at risk of being let go in any given year if there is no major structural change, e.g., closing down a department or going through a merger. So long as you are in the middle, you can happily go about doing your work and practicing the coveted work-life balance. It's a great feeling to punch out by 5 p.m. every day, enjoy your weekends, and schedule doctors appointments in the middle of the day. You'll get your raises and promotions no faster or slower than otherwise expected.
However, if you are in the top 10 percent, there is an expectation from your managers that you will always keep producing outstanding work. You can't be outstanding forever, and eventually you will revert back to average work. But your average work is much better than the work of your average peers. Unfortunately, in your manager's eyes, you are failing and will likely be punished as a result. I remember being admonished for going from the No. 2-ranked to No. 3-ranked, when just a year ago I was given high-fives for moving up from No. 10 to No. 8.
Intimacy: Let's say you are known for being a modern-day Casanova. Everybody knows you go on a different date once a week because women love you for your charm, physique, humor, and financial stability. You're getting older now and no longer want to play the field. You just want to settle down with one woman. The woman you fancy knows all about your playboy reputation but gives you a chance. You act on your best behavior, but when it comes time to get intimate, you can't perform due to extreme anxiety that you won't be the best she's ever had. You wish you had a blank slate where she had no expectations. The same type of anxiety and insecurity can be said for women, as the marketing industry so deftly manages to exploit.
Save the Ability to Under-Promise
The first thing a mentor told me when I graduated from college was to “under-promise and over-deliver.” If you are outstanding at everything you do, you don't leave yourself much upside to over-deliver. Keep some things back a little and slowly roll them out during appropriate times. Eventually, you will hit a wall where you just can't get better. If expectations are out of whack, you'll come across as a disappointment no matter how awesome your average is.
One of my biggest fears about leaving my job in 2012 was the raised expectation for writing good content on Financial Samurai. Since I would have 12 hours more a day on average to write, surely my articles would double in humor, double in insight, double in knowledge, and double in page views. The only thing I could control was doubling the length of each article from an average of 750 words to 1,500 words. Everything else was left up to the Internet gods.
Again, should we continuously try to live up to our potential? Thanks to the feedback from my previous post, it looks like the answer is “no.” Even though there are literally millions of people around the world who would give up everything to have the same opportunities we have in America, our potential is for us to decide and for us to waste. After all, the key to happiness is to be satisfied with exactly what we have.
So here's to being average! If you find any punctuations or spelling mistakes, please be kind. I'm not F. Scott Fitzgerald and this isn't the New York Times!
Do you enjoy being average? What are your thoughts on ever-increasing expectations? Is it more fun to be average or stellar?
Author: Sam Dogen
Sam spent 13 years working on Wall Street in the equities department at a couple bulge bracket firms before deciding to focus full time on Financial Samurai, a personal finance site that helps you slice through money's mysteries. Sam received his MBA from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business and his Bachelor of Arts in economics from The College of William & Mary. He is a registered representative (Series 7 and Series 63).
Sam is based in San Francisco, California, and enjoys playing league tennis, poker, and anything that deals with the great outdoors. Sam's goal is to live a location-independent lifestyle by generating enough passive income to take care of a family of four.