In our accomplishment-obsessed culture, the best thing you can be is exceptional. To be ordinary is to be a loser. Think about it. Who do we most revere: the everyday average Joe or glittery movie stars and billionaire CEOs? The fact is we worship “great” men and only study the monumental moments of mankind in our history books.
Like the tragic casualty of the American Dream, Jay Gatsby, we have grand visions for our futures: to write the next Great American Novel, to lead nations, to found multi-million dollar companies, to make revolutionary medical breakthroughs. When we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we gave only the most ambitious answers: to be the first woman president of the United States, to be cowboys, to be astronauts, to be world-famous ballerinas. We never aspired to ordinary jobs. After all, who would want to be a store clerk or mail man when you could be a rock star or a chef at a five star restaurant?
In his illuminating A More Exciting Life, the most recent edition to the School of Life series, Alain de Botton explains that though our culture thinks success consists of “sports cars, tropical islands, fame, an exalted destiny, first-class air travel and being very busy,” true success is often far less exciting. To illustrate his notion of authentic success, he uses the example of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Much like 18th century French painter Jean Baptiste Chardin, who preferred bowls of fruit to grand palaces and English statesmen, Vermeer found beauty in the simplest of scenes and most ordinary places: a quiet street, a girl reading at the window, a maid pouring milk.
By conferring dignity on the commonplace, Vermeer reminds us that even the most “unremarkable” lives are worthwhile. It might, he seems to suggests, be just as noble to make dinner for our lover as it is to sail the seven seas or rule over a kingdom. We don’t have to achieve great things to be lovable. It is enough to merely maintain a loving marriage over many decades; to tenderly play with our children; to keep an orderly home; to laugh often; to savor good wine; to create for its own sake; to connect with other beautiful souls; to generally be good and gracious; to listen sympathetically to a struggling friend; and to give our every task our heartfelt attention.
As de Botton charmingly concludes, once we overcome the pressure to be somebody, we realize “life’s true luxuries might comprise nothing more or less than simplicity, quiet friendship based on vulnerability, creativity without an audience, love without too much hope or despair, hot baths and dried fruits and the odd sliver of very dark chocolate.”