Eyeballs for Elbows: How Being Extraordinary Is Overrated

Only the extraordinary is valuable. It’s not worth doing something unless you are in the top .1%. The only interesting thing about you is how you are different from everyone else.

These are the lies that bounce around inside our brains and rob us of our creativity.

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We fight to the death with anything that would render us “the same.” We want to be the one-off, the unique, the only of its kind. We want to be the one in a million on American Idol or the .8% of high school players that eventually get drafted into the NFL. We want to be the Nobel Prize winner or the President of the United States (wait – does anyone still actually want that job?).

We want to be great.

Is there anything wrong with wanting to be unique? The best? The most renowned in our field? Is there anything wrong with wanting to climb to the pinnacle and shout some primal scream out over the expanse?

Probably not. But we also want it now. Therein lies the problem, because often when our desire to be extraordinary is not achieved TODAY, then we quit. We give up. And in quitting, we lose the very thing it takes to reach the mountain top: stick-to-it-iveness, perseverance, and, most importantly, TIME.

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I can only speak for writers. Actually, I can only speak for this writer.

But sometimes my desire to write as well as John Steinbeck can be paralyzing. Or my lack of publishable work at the age of 33, er, almost 34. Or the fact that most days just putting one…word…in front…of the other…is so…difficult.

Most days I don’t feel extraordinary and am confronted by the fact that I’m more likely to walk on Mars or grow eyeballs in the inside creases of my elbows than I am of ever winning the Pulitzer or the Nobel Prize or, let’s be honest, publishing one more book.

This is when my obsession with being unique IS NOT GOOD. Because it makes me want to quit.

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“Only writers, it seems, expect to achieve some level of mastery without practice.” Stein On Writing by Sol Stein

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Some of my favorite novels of all time have been written by folks in their 60s and 70s: legends like Jose Saramago and Umberto Eco and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I think I will write a great novel when I am in my seventies. I’ve always thought I have an old soul, one more suited to melancholic reflection than heroic or spontaneous action. Perhaps, when I am in my 70s, I will be extraordinary.

But the only way that will happen is if I set aside my insistence on being marvelous today and become comfortable with who I am, the work I am producing today.

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I’ve never climbed a mountain, but I can’t imagine you would get far if you constantly peered up at the summit. Most of the time you can’t see it anyway, you know, since it’s all shrouded and everything. I’d imagine that at some point you’d have to stop staring up, and start looking at your feet.

And start taking one…(somewhat boring)…step…at…a…time.

Besides, the extraordinary people who get majestically lifted by fate and flown via helicopter to the top of the mountain, seemingly without effort, normally don’t have the strength to weather the storm at the summit. They usually get blown off.

9 Replies to “Eyeballs for Elbows: How Being Extraordinary Is Overrated”

  1. good stuff Shawn. We are a “Microwave Dinner” culture. We want to take that thing we want, pop it in the microwave for 3-5 min, and have it ready to go. We don’t want to spend time working to create the meal from scratch, but that made from scratch meal is always the best meal you’ve ever had, whereas the microwave dinner always leaves something to be desired…

  2. Another cool post, Shawn. The urge to be extraordinary is killing our society. Everything’s a competition. The ordinary has become unlovable. It has brought a sense of shame to the (most of us) who are ordinary. It is damaging to the fabric of community.

      1. Shawn I like your writing angle. Reminds me of my own. Please be in touch so we can bounce issues.

  3. That helped me today Shawn. I had a discouragingly difficult week, but that helps me wrestle it into perspective. Thanks!

  4. Great post Shawn!! I not only have the need to succeed, but I think it must be in a huge way … ugh that need paralyzes my writing too many times!

    Thanks for making me look at it squarely today and hopefully let it go.

  5. Your discussion on this subject arises within me two things:

    1. The Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne

    2. The way that our rabbi picks those of us who are screw-ups and failures. When he called us we weren’t noble, wise, or extraordinary. This is the awesome aspect of the Kingdom: Jesus chooses the screwballs, not the rockstars.

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