What use am I if I am always to be average or mediocre?
August 11, 2013 5:31 PM   Subscribe

Perfectionism has been something I have dealt with since I was a child. I am 22 years old and what I think about a lot is what use am I if I have no extraordinary abilities, talents, or accomplishments.

Of course I have many interests and hobbies, however I don't think I am really that talented or knowledgeable in anything, and there are countless individuals that could put to shame any knowledge or talents that I might have.

To use a few examples…

I like to do macro insect photography in the summer where I live. I use a Canon DSLR with a 100 mm USM Macro lens and a set of extension tubes. Some photos I have taken have come out well, and one photo of a wasp I took came in 2nd place in an Internet competition, but with a few exceptions, most of the photos I take are amateurish and terrible compared to many other users on Flickr.

Or I love politics and to read about Middle Eastern and Central Asian studies. Again, although I do have a small library of books on the subjects and write foreign policy articles for a small, nonprofit newspaper, I am not at all an expert, and there are far more knowledgeable people on economics, politics, international relations, and the Middle East and Central Asia than me.

The point I am trying to make is that if I am to always be mediocre or maybe slightly above average, what use am I to the world and what purpose do I serve? I have dreamed of being someone special and talented, someone that people look at and think, "Wow, that's amazing," or that people will remember forever, such as Bruce Lee, Albert Einstein, etc.

Even my close friends and my GF all have accomplished so much in their lives and are experts in their own fields. Some of my friends have Ph.Ds, are lawyers, professors, and my GF has a Master’s Degree in history from an Ivy League school.

Do you know what I am? A truck driver. (In fact, no, I take my CDL test next week, so I am a student still.) I dropped out of university a few years ago because of financial issues and because I was doing terribly there.

I feel useless. What good am I if nothing about me is really that special or worthwhile?
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Human Relations (59 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
A suggestion for when you're stuck thinking in these terms: try reversing this one and doing it to someone else. There are at least 3.5 billion human beings who are by definition below average. Are they all useless?

(This is by the way a classic cognitive distortion; lots of therapists specialize in helping folks wade out of it.)
posted by SMPA at 5:36 PM on August 11, 2013 [13 favorites]

To other people, who knows. To yourself and people that know you, all the good in the world.
posted by Teakettle at 5:37 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can be an ordinary person who lives a perfectly ordinary life and still be far from useless.
All the ordinary people on the earth make the world go 'round.
Of what use do you wish to be? Do that.
Nothing wrong in driving truck for a living, either.
posted by bebrave! at 5:42 PM on August 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Be kind.

Be the best you you can be, especially to other people. And people will look at you in awe and cherish your specialness.
posted by carsonb at 5:46 PM on August 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

My son's father is a truck driver. He picks up food and delivers it to a food depository for homeless people.

Before that, he was head of a Chamber of Commerce and organized festivals and before that he drove a truck for years and picked up toxic waste, and before that he sold magazines. Out of all the jobs he's ever had, delivering food gives him the most satisfaction. He is helping people get fed in his community and getting paid for it. The other jobs gave him so much stress that he had a few nervous breakdowns, including hospital time and other nefarious things that come along with severe nervous breakdowns.

I also have family members who have degrees and some who have 1 year trade school degree in CNC and they love it.

One of the biggest bullshit things that society pushes on people today is that if you don't have a degree you are worthless. That is crap. I can read about stuff all day long now with a library card and the internet and learn anything. Does that help me earn money? No. Does it make me happy? Yes. I love reading and learning. But no one is judging me for what I read and learn.

Unless you have a burning desire to have a career that requires degrees and certification, who cares? Driving a truck is no less a noble profession than any other. If no one drove trucks, we would be starving or out of gas fairly soon. You will be providing a valuable service. If there is something else you want to do with your life, then pursue it, but taking a truck driving gig doesn't make you worthless. It earns you a living. Go for it.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:47 PM on August 11, 2013 [21 favorites]

This part jumps out at me:

but with a few exceptions, most of the photos I take are amateurish and terrible compared to many other users on Flickr.

Because guess what? Most people only post their very best pictures on flickr. You're comparing your very worst work to their very best. Professional photographers shooting for say, a magazine, take hundreds or thousands of shots and use five or six in the end product. Any type of artist has to make a lot of "mistakes" in order to create something awesome.

And people above are right: "average" people can be perfectly happy and fulfilled. But I'll add that pretty much every single person who becomes outstanding at something starts out being bad at it. And they doubt themselves. The ones who succeed are the ones who push through their doubts and keep working until they become great.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:47 PM on August 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

Learn to enjoy the journey, not fret about the destination.

Sounds like you're moving into a career that's perfect for learning that lesson!
posted by jaguar at 5:53 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think there's nothing wrong with wanting to create success, but it can't come before the horse, so to speak. In the Christian tradition, Jesus was a carpenter and an itinerant preacher.

I bring this up because there's a long history in some traditions of judging the value of individuals not by what they do in terms of a profession, but how they build into the lives of other people that have lasting value. This can come through conversations, long walks together, and investing in the lives of others in ways that contribute to their success, also. I think something like this is very right, and can inform our over-worked and performance driven Lone Ranger culture.

As SMPA notes, if we value people by their accomplishments, we have billions of people who are are less than worthy. But obviously we know this isn't the case, because they have inherent value.

Let yourself have inherent value. One thing that was freeing for me was affirming the idea that at the end of the day, I'm valuable before I contribute. I want to communicate these kinds of things to people that I know and love, as well. What's pretty cool about this is a knowledge of inherent value not only becomes a lens for viewing the seemingly mundane as more valuable, but it also becomes a very real motivation for actually doing more, in terms of accomplishments (which on some level can be an important thing, just not the important thing).
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:55 PM on August 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Perfectionism is the enemy not only of perfection, it is the enemy of accomplishment. If you won't settle for anything less than the very best, youre very likely to give up before you can ever develop the skills to create something you're truly proud of.

I say this from experience! Letting yourself do mediocre work, sometimes very publicly, will allow you to invite constructive criticism and advice from people who might actually be better than you at what you're hoping to (like those people on Flickr). Learning from those people makes you better.

Likewise, trying and recognizing your failures, why they happened, and how to fix them next time, makes you better at whatever you're trying to do.

Accepting only perfection essentially makes doing anything impossible because the desire to abandon your work when it doesn't turn out EXACTLY how you imagine it to. But failing will actually help you eventually create something you're proud of. You have to fail a lot to get good at something.

Now go out there and start failing! (I'm serious).
posted by to sir with millipedes at 5:59 PM on August 11, 2013 [19 favorites]

I personally think the benchmark should be - do I like what I'm doing? Everything else is irrelevant. Of course we do things we don't like doing, but they often provide us with the means to do the things we do like.

But, if you derive enjoyment from some of what you do, you're doing better than most people.

Keep in mind that with prestige and achievement come extraordinary pressure and stress to constantly achieve at that level (and higher).

Do you like taking photos? Does it make you feel happy? Does it make your heart sing? Then keep doing it.
posted by heyjude at 5:59 PM on August 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Even though it may not look like it at first glance, this is the trap of seeking external validation. You aren't satisfied with your interests and your hobbies as things to make your life fulfilling and happy; instead you seek to evaluate yourself in terms of others and in terms of what others think.
This is a very hard habit to break. It is, however, just a habit of thought. It can be resisted and quit, like any other habit. (And you can relapse, just as with any other habit.)
Love what you love because you love it. You love your girlfriend because of who she is and what she means to you, right? Not because you want to be known far and wide as the world's best partner, or because she's such a catch and you are so admired for having caught her. You like her. She is a joy to you because she's her. You are a joy to others because you are you, not because you take The Best Pictures or you're Nelson Mandela.

To elaborate on SMPA's point, there are 7 billion people on the planet. Even if you buy into the idea that you would be able to identify the person who was objectively and absolutely the best at something, there's at least 3.5 billion people who are above average and still aren't the best. And there are about 3.5 billion who are below average and aren't the worst. Lots of people have cats they love, but there's no such thing as The Best Cat, even though there's 600 million pet cats on earth, because there's no objective standard to being a good cat and there's no ranking system and they don't care. (Breed standards don't count - that's being a good representative of a breed.) But lots of people love their cats, and their cats are incredibly valuable to them and their happiness. The cat is making a contribution without even trying or caring, just by being there.

There's no winning the game of external validation. It's a fucking trap. There exists the barest possibility that someday, you might find yourself up on a stage, in a roomful of adoring people who are cheering you and you alone, receiving an award for Being You So Well. But what the hell would you do the next day? That is a much crappier dream than "I could help a person today." The tiniest things you do can change a life and you might never know. Nelson Mandela didn't get to be adored by focusing on how he could be admired - he concerned himself with what he could do for the people who meant everything to him. Focus on what you love, and quit the habit of seeking admiration.
posted by gingerest at 5:59 PM on August 11, 2013 [60 favorites]

there are countless individuals that could put to shame any knowledge or talents that I might have.

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:05 PM on August 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

Every time I apply for a job, I tell myself, "I may not be the most qualified person in the world for this job, but I am probably the most qualified person nearby who is available right now." That applies to a lot of corcumstances. Yes, there are a lot of pictures of insect macro photography on twitter. Those pictures didn't get entered into the contest. Yours was. And in any case, ever prize winning photo is the best of dozens if not hundreds of mediocre ones that a photographer took until he got the best one.

I could name half a dozen people off the top of my head who are smarter than I am. Some have better credentials than I have. But I do what I have done because I decided to do something, apply for something, write something that someone else didn't. That's how things work. You can spend all your free time being intimidated by everyone else, or you can use that time to do more useful stuff.
posted by deanc at 6:06 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm awful at all my hobbies. I'm a slow cyclist and runner. I have come in last place in events with hundreds of people at least three times. I don't catch many fish. When I talk to people about hobbies that are quantifiable like that, they almost always ask how I did. I just laugh confidently and talk about if I had fun.

It took me a long time to get over the fact that I'd never be the best at anything. Once I did, my life became much more enjoyable.
posted by advicepig at 6:07 PM on August 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

Dude you buried this all the way at the end of your long question:

I dropped out of university a few years ago because of financial issues and because I was doing terribly there.

Please forgive my presumptuousness in making this statement since I don't know you. But I think this perfectionism and fixation on being "the best" at something is your way of avoidance. Avoidance and letting yourself off the hook about going back to school and getting your degree.

After all, it would take some doing to go back to school. You would have to figure out how to solve those financial issues. You would have to figure out why you were doing terribly (ADHD, dyslexia, depression are some possibilities for why some students do poorly at first). Or maybe you know why you were doing terribly and what would fix it (maybe more academic or personal or financial support etc. etc.) but then you would need to figure out how to GET whatever it is that would fix it.

The idea of needing to figure out and deal with all these things can be intimidating. So sometimes brains fixate on something else as a way of avoiding that.

You are 22, you are super super young and you have plenty of time. It's not too late for this. Trust me. Just get back on the ball with the university stuff. Why are you not doing that?
posted by cairdeas at 6:07 PM on August 11, 2013 [16 favorites]

You're only 22. You sound pretty accomplished for your age.
posted by bq at 6:08 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

The trick is to focus on 'getting better' not 'being good' at something. Focus on comparing yourself only to you. Are you better at your photography than you were when you started? Do you know more about your areas of interests now than last year? By focusing on the 'getting better' aspect you will always be improving and gaining. If you focus on how other people think about your awesomeness, you will always be lacking.

Being good at something does not make a person any more worthwhile than anyone else.
posted by Kerasia at 6:13 PM on August 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.
posted by matty at 6:14 PM on August 11, 2013 [27 favorites]

I know many reasonably successful artists who are quite honestly mediocre or worse and I know many talented would-be artists who are amazing but never produce anything. One of the most talented artists I know does amazing realistic work. Like she could support herself, have gallery shows, be "an artist" and make a lot of money not someone that does art and has a day job. Her natural work is incredible...but she wants to work in an anime/manga style and her work there is, frankly, awful. Since she can't do nearly as good work in an anime/manga style, she's decided she just won't do art at all, as if to punish the muses for giving her the wrong gift. So here's someone with an amazing amount of talent that could be a bright light but chooses not to be.

I have been and will continue to be a writer of no particular merit. Like you probably haven't heard of anything I've written but I've supported myself full-time as a writer and continue to freelance and do part-time work writing things nobody particularly cares about. There are far more talented writers that I know personally that haven't made a dime, much less an income...but the difference is I'm willing to sit down and do the work, grind it out day after day after day, and let editors do their work rather than throwing hissyfits about my artistic genius and stomping off. In baseball terms, I'm the #4 or #5 guy in the rotation, not your ace but the guy who is there reliably and you can count on. It's taken me pretty far, farther than a lot of talented people I know that spend more time joining writer's groups and futzing around and never actually writing.

Because here's the secret: Unless you're in a physical sport where something like fast twitch muscle or height matters (and even then, there are plenty of 7 footers that can't play basketball worth a damn), 90% of what you're seeing as inborn talent that you will never have is day after day grind it out effort. All those people you're admiring on Flickr had to take hundreds, if not thousands of shots to get where they are. All those experts you're admiring had to spend hours and hours reading and discussing and taking classes and writing papers. You're comparing yourself to the end result.

Like I started the Couch to 5K program earlier this year. I couldn't run a lick. Like I had to ramp up to even get to the point where I could start the actual program. But I did it. Now I'm doing a 5K a month or thereabouts and training longer races. People act like I accomplished some mystical act of voodoo, like I suddenly discovered I was a talented and accomplished runner and flipped the switch on and it's something they could never do. I want to shake them and show them the program I used because it's all right there. It's not some mystical inborn fucking thing, you know?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:25 PM on August 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

"I have dreamed of being someone special and talented, someone that people look at and think, "Wow, that's amazing," or that people will remember forever, such as Bruce Lee, Albert Einstein, etc."

You sound a lot like my husband. He does not see himself as I do (brilliant, funny, handsome).

He likes to compare himself to people, too.

Do you know who I like to spend time admiring? Who occupies most of my headspace?

...it isn't Bruce Lee, or Albert Einstein. It's my husband. An "average" man.

I'm sure you've got people who love you just as much. Delight in that, if you can.
posted by nohaybanda at 6:25 PM on August 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

You're 22. You're average because you simply haven't had the hours to put in yet. On anything, really, unless you were one of those kids who got stuck in music or gymnastics at age 3 and had to spend your ten thousand hours working whether you wanted to or not.

Here's another great quote on the subject:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Slog through. It's the only way. The only way.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:29 PM on August 11, 2013 [22 favorites]

Stop it and get a life. Seriously.
We don't live on bell curves or actuarial tables; this is your life, do with it what you want, but if you are truly destined to do something, you need to follow that destiny and not create a million comparisons and "but I'm only this when they were that at this point." It's all b.s. in your mind.

Some of the most successful people I know, and I know a lot of successful people, when you hear what they were doing in their early twenties, part of you goes "you've got to be kidding me." The one thing they all had in common is they believed in what they were doing and kept at it.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:39 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I had the same fear of mediocrity when I was about your age (I'm 32). I agree that it's easy to psych yourself out when you haven't even had a chance to do anything worthwhile yet. Unfortunately, you can't A/B test your way through life: you're always going to have missed opportunities or a general feeling that you didn't accomplish all you could have. Perfection in whatever field you choose is elusive, and achieving it often owes more to luck than to effort.

When I was 21, I read Middlemarch for the first time, and I would highly recommend that book to you if you want to get some perspective on what living a worthwhile life entails. It may not be uplifting, necessarily, but its truth will prove to be enormously helpful:

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

posted by Cash4Lead at 6:45 PM on August 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

I have the same insecurities as the OP. But I have found this quote by Scott Adams liberating:

It's unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it's easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The "Dilbert" comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person.

Original article here.
posted by jcatus at 6:58 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

You sound intriguing: a 22-year-old truck driver who takes macro insect photos and writes foreign policy articles for an alt-weekly. That is your current "brand," if you will. You're a lot younger than I am, and you sound pretty accomplished for your age, as was mentioned upthread. Also, you've got plenty of time to hone your skills in these and other areas, to get degrees, etc. Don't worry. You're doing fine.
posted by xenophile at 7:06 PM on August 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm just like you, 8LeggedFriend, except I'm a 26-year-old art student. I start next week. I am terrified that I won't be nearly as good as a lot of (younger) people in the program.

When I was 22 I thought I was brilliant but I didn't do anything. It wasn't until the next year that I started submitting my work. I got rejected over and over and over again. It took me several years of paying extra close attention to other people's work to understand what skills they have that I don't. In order to appreciate what was good about other people's work, I had to admit to myself that mine is not the best.

Every time I get rejected I am forced to look at my work to figure out how I can make it better. The effronteries to my ego are worth the pride I get from taking my work seriously. And I'm beginning to have a modicum of success.

I'm still hoping with every atom of my soul that I'll be famous someday. But I think the first step to success is to change yourself so you're of the right mindset to work for it.
posted by tuberose at 7:21 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I hear you - I still struggle with this a bit. I'm 31, have a degree (but not an Ivy - though I'm capable in theory) etc. etc.

Don't go chasing after externally validated things until you've made peace with yourself. If you're not content with yourself, a "degree" or whatever won't fix that. Try "Things Fall Apart" by Pema Chodron and "ShopClass as SoulCraft" by Matthew Crawford (there's a NYTimes article version too).

Know that there is more to life than fame, wealth, or superficial happiness.
Try Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and Flow by Mihaly C.

My husband's job is nothing special (heck, neither is mine!) but he's an amazing person. I'd MUCH rather be married to a curious, interesting, relaxed, confident, playful, kind guy who happens to be a truck driver (or social worker, in my case) than an Ivy League PhD who works 80 hrs a week, has no outside interests, is hung up on external validation, etc. Not saying there's not crossover there... but I'll also say that all those high-achieving types have their OWN "issues" for sure, often have loads of debt (no thanks!), and are not necessarily happy/well-adjusted/kind/etc. They also are not necessarily making the world a better place. I'd much rather date a truck driver than Monsanto's corporate lawyer (right?). As my Dad said... he wouldn't trade places with Eric Clapton for anything - read the Wikipedia entry and you'll see why. Everyone has issues, there's always someone 'better than you', and no one's life is perfect.

Have you seen Northern Exposure? Every female I know has a massive crush on "Chris in the Morning"... the philosophical artist-radio host who's an ex-con and lives in an airstream; I don't know anyone who has a crush on Joel (the doctor). Just saying. You need to decide for yourself what "success" is for YOU - outside of all that external crap.

Your girlfriend is with YOU for a reason. Relax. You're doing great!
You may also like this article from The American Scholar.

You may also like the blog Mr. Money Mustache... he's fond of truck driving as career option. You save those $$, and you may have more options down the road than you realize.

Feel free to memail me anytime you want.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:47 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

You're 22. When I was 22, I was lazy as shit. Having a skilled trade like truck driving would have not even been in my realm of possibility at that time.

Since then, I have experienced so many amazing things, changed careers twice, traveled, been in relationships, and completely transformed the way I live.

I was in an extremely competitive graduate program, and left because the competitive aspects got in the way of actual work.

I took up running, enjoyed it, and eventually had to quit because it was destroying my knees.

I took up cycling, which I loved. One of the things I learned from cycling is that there is always someone on the road who is slower than you, and there is always someone on the road who is faster than you. There is no absolute standard.

Furthermore, on any given day, there will be different people who are slower or faster, depending on conditions that day, the distance they have ridden previously, injuries, how they feel, etc. Even Chris Froome will have people who are faster than him, depending on the day; and the person who wins a grand tour may not ever win a sprint.

Bruce Lee was amazing. But he also died too young. There may be other things that you will do in your life that will not be amazing in the sense that they will be captured on film and watched by millions, but they will still be important. You have concrete interests in an area- pursue them. If you have interests in the Middle East and Central Asia, then try studying a language from that region. You never know where it will take you. If it turns out that you don't enjoy it, or it's just not for you, it's OK to stop. It's still an experience.

As you proceed, you will also figure out the difference between leaving something because it isn't for you, or leaving something because it is difficult. Both are actually valid choices, particularly in light of whatever situation you are in at the time you make the choice, but being able to identify the motives behind making a decision of this nature will help you with future choices. Any time you evaluate a choice you have made, you must evaluate it in the context in which it was made. That includes where your head is, at that particular time.

To draw on another experience of mine that involves cycling, I only really got into the sport recently (within the last five years). I am now pretty knowledgeable about professional road cycling, and seemingly without much effort. In reality, it was probably no more or less effort than I had put towards other things, but because I found it particularly engaging, it didn't seem like it.

I'm still kind of a shit cyclist, but I know a heck of a lot about the history of cycling and cycling technology, and mid-century professional cyclists. In the mean time, I did other things to keep mind and body together, and some of the opportunities I've had were in part the result of things I had done before, which (at the time) I thought would have no bearing on my later life.

My life certainly hasn't worked out the way I thought it would when I was 22, but it's been pretty good.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:08 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you ever read the book Outliers?
posted by oceano at 8:14 PM on August 11, 2013

There will always be someone better than you at something. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be allowed to exist. Not all of us will receive Nobel or Pullizers or whatever prizes, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying to enrich the lives of people around us.
Be kind. Be understanding. Be helpful. Including to yourself.
posted by Neekee at 8:25 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Truck drivers are generally entrusted with a $hundred-thousand plus vehicle and it's not uncommon for the load to cost more than the vehicle. To say nothing of all the people's lives at stake if a driver is a knucklehead, which few are. There were a lot of BS movies and country songs that set some people's image of truck drivers; it has nothing to do with reality or their image among people in industries where they actually work. My job is considered a managerial or executive position and some drivers make more than I do.

More importantly, my grand-dad was a truck driver, and he was the best guy in the damn world. So please stop selling yourself short.

More generally - geez you're 22. You have time to be anything you want to be.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:42 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

What use is anybody? In four billion years the sun is going to engulf the Earth, and it's really not going to matter who the best pole vaulter (or whatever) was. Be kind to people and enjoy yourself.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:47 PM on August 11, 2013 [13 favorites]

It's natural to try to be "the best" at something that you love. Trying to perform any task perfectly can be a useful motivating factor to keep you improving, but it can also be a limiting factor. If you can't accept anything short of perfection, then you won't feel any sense of accomplishment when you improve incrementally, so you will have no motivation to slog through the hours or practice and failure that are required to get good at something.
posted by deathpanels at 8:48 PM on August 11, 2013

Do you know what I am? A truck driver.

So what? Everyone in this country cannot be a doctor, lawyer, history major or scientist. Every job has an importance and every job is respectable. If everyone was a doctor, who would take out our trash? Just because a bunch of people don't envy the expensive piece of paper you got from an ivy league school, doesn't make you worthless. Your life is for you, and live it how you want. I will say that it's pretty common to put stock into what people think about you when you're in your early twenties but there will come a time when you will stop giving a shit. And you'll regret putting so much stock into something that is truly worthless.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 9:26 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might appreciate this person's musings on trying to find a purpose in life:

How to Be Happy

Many people will say that you need to find your own meaning, make your own purpose. But I think those who succeed always come down to the same one: The meaning of life is making other people's lives better. (AKA compassion, generosity, kindness.)

Because that's how we're wired. Because that's how we evolved, as social animals. Making other people's lives better releases the happy chemicals in our brains. More reliably and sustainably than anything else.

posted by danceswithlight at 9:32 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

As part of my graduate program (which I am pursuing in my 40's), I am currently reading Man's Search for Meaning. I highly recommend it.
posted by ainsley at 9:40 PM on August 11, 2013

Seconding oceano's recommendation of the book "Outliers". Seriously.
posted by forthright at 10:04 PM on August 11, 2013

As a truck driver, you probably have more job stability than your girlfriend with the fancy degree.

Until we figure out how to teleport things, said things still need to be moved from one place to another. This job cannot be done outside the country and its licensing requirements are such that not just anyone can be a truck driver. Every piece of fruit I buy at the grocery store, every bag of cat litter that comes to my doorstep and every birthday card in my mailbox was made possible by a trucker.
posted by thank you silence at 10:20 PM on August 11, 2013

a person's worth is not about their usefulness, or utility. it is about their being. it is ontological. you are valuable for being human not for what you do. we are all valuable and no one is any better than anyone else. keep reading that last sentence until you believe it. of course that isn't what our culture teaches us. some people are more accomplished but that absolutely does not make them more valuable or worthy, just more accomplished. it is not possible to earn what is freely given to us but we do need to realize our inherent worth at times. also, relationships are far more important in the long run that any work or hobby one can accomplish. when on one's death bed people don't tend to regret spending more time at their jobs earning their six figures but more time with their loved ones.
posted by wildflower at 10:50 PM on August 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

I repeat myself a lot but whenever I get like this I remind myself of one thing:

There is no "wrong" way to live. As long as you're alive; it is never too late.
posted by Dimes at 11:30 PM on August 11, 2013

I drove semi-trucks cross country for a few years. I started out hauling produce from the west coast to markets mostly in the Manhatten area--Hunt's Point, Oak Point. Sometimes to other markets in the general area. For backloads we hauled everything from North Carolina furniture to nameless masses of dry goods got off the ships at Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. We made four trips each month, about 65 hours each way, driving as a team, I and the woman who taught me to drive, by keeping the truck moving for twenty hours a day. I had as many as 72 hours off duty at a time, but only a couple times each month.

I did this at a time when my life was in flux, and I had to make some decisions. The rigor and discipline of living on the road is balanced by a sort of philosophical warping of time and space. You get to set part of your mind free to absorb the span of our country, east to west, and the roads that link it in a way that reminds me more of capillaries than it does, say, traffic arteries. The seasons move in waves, south to north, north to south. The cities are synapses of activities, all with a sameness, but each with its own visage. Your universe comes to you via the radio, or telephone communications, your life is linked by truck stops; your world is populated with dispatchers, lumpers, traffic cops, dangerous drivers, and outrages on the road. Scenery is a wondrous, moving theory of places you'll never step out of the cab of your tractor to see. You live on truck time, set to the time zone where your log originates. You translate everything into the cabin of your truck. The rest is theory.

You last six months and you'll finally be a decent driver. You last a year and you'll be a good driver. Right now the word good doesn't mean anything to you--you don't yet know what a good driver actually is. In a year you will, but first you shall have to earn the experience required for all this to make sense. This will be one of the first of firsts. Looks like some of your other firsts have been squandered, but that's what young folks do, and that's why oldfarts like me make those funny faces when trying to talk about it. So here's the core advice suggested by my life's experience with trucks: If you can't take pride in being a good driver by then (in a year), you will have squandered the Zen vision being offered you now. You can't think it. You have to do it. (See, it might not be trucks that rings that bell, but I don't want to muddy the water any more than necessary,)

All this, but you seem to be a lot smarter than I was when I was your age. Thing is, you are still a youngster. You'll know excellence in your life, but you have to earn it one day at a time.

Go for it.

(One day I just decided to get off the road, so I pulled my tractor into the dispatch yard in City of Industry, and walked away from it. I went back to my first love: horses and mules, and figured that was what I was all about)
posted by mule98J at 11:40 PM on August 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice here. But what it comes down to is what is important to you, what gives your life meaning for you, what your values are. You're not accountable to anyone else for your life, you have to be true to yourself.

If usefulness for you means being the person who's always there to help friends move, or loan them $20 when they're short, or give people computer advice, or simply explain the complexity of the situation in the Middle East so that non-scholars can understand, or whatever it is that you are good at, then maybe you are already there. And you can keep being there. It doesn't mean you should stop trying to find ways to be useful, or challenge yourself to do different things, aim higher, achieve more—but there are all kinds of usefulness and what seems like a little one to you may seem like a big one to someone else.

Some people aren't happy like that, though. They have a passion, an ambition, a dream, something that drives them to big things. So if that's who you are, think about it. What do you want? What do you hunger for? What are you too scared to take the leap and plunge into? Don't do it because you want other people to acclaim you as "the best", because you want prizes and awards and people patting you on the back for how wonderful you are. Do it because you have no other choice for your own well-being.

If you're not sure, take some time. Sit with yourself, challenge yourself, listen to yourself. Stop doing things because of how some nebulous other person will see them. Do things because they feel like the right thing to do, and be prepared to suck at it at first. Anything worth pursuing will take time to develop skill, as others have already commented.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:07 AM on August 12, 2013

I went back and read through your previous questions and wanted to point out a comment that I think was really important:

What I am saying is that, I think you know you are capable of doing better than you have so far, and you will therefore have a certain amount of dissatisfaction about that until you start to get a handle on things and your ability to achieve.

I know this kind of dissatisfaction too, and I understand -- you are going to feel this way until you have achieved something you feel proud of. It's a divine dissatisfaction. And no amount of people saying it's fine to be average and degrees aren't important and blah blah is going to make any difference.

So I think you should pursue what you really, really want. And then you won't feel average. You'll feel awesome.
posted by 3491again at 12:19 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've got two clichés that might help you out here: The first is: don't compare your insides to somebody else's outsides.

The second one is especially relevant with regards to your photography:
From Ira Glass:
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Just keep on truckin' I'd say. You got people that love you, you got people to love, that's a hell of a place to start.
posted by Marcc at 4:35 AM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have dreamed of being someone special and talented, someone that people look at and think, "Wow, that's amazing," or that people will remember forever, such as Bruce Lee, Albert Einstein, etc.

Keep in mind that being special or talented can cause other people to look at you not only with admiration, but with envy and resentment. There is nothing wrong with being successful, of course, but just keep in mind that it does not earn you universal love and positive regard. Behind every great artist, actor, writer, photographer, CEO, Olympic athlete, extraordinarily beautiful person, etc. you'll find not only a cheering crowd, but look in the shadows and you'll also find people seething with envy, resentment and anger at the special person's good fortune.

Some people feel that the success or good fortune of others makes them less successful by comparison. They often don't see the hours of practice you put in, or the hard work it took to achieve; and if they do, they may resent that you were "gifted" with the energy and drive to put in the effort.

Part of being successful is learning to deal with the haters. It is not a lot of fun to realize that your happiness is causing someone else to feel crappy about themselves, and to think crappy things about you.

Keep in mind also that talent and fame won't in and of themselves make you happy, and that they often bring with them new and different problems of their own. Such as:

-People who only like you because you are famous or talented or rich or beautiful, not for who you are on the inside. They want to want what your money can buy them; or they want to be able to drop your name in conversation with others; or they are sexually attracted to you for shallow reasons but will leave you in a heartbeat should you lose your looks or money or fame.

-People who want to steal your research or take credit for your work; or copy your artistic technique; or use their connection with you as an "in" to get access to influential people you know.

-People in your field who decide to become competitive with you specifically, so that you always feel them breathing down your neck, ready to knock you out of first place at the slightest opportunity, rejoicing at your every misstep or failure

-The downsides of fame itself: paparazzi,gossip rags, lack of privacy - being recognized in public so that you can't even enjoy a nice meal in a restaurant with your family or a day at the park with your kids in peace. "Friends" who will sell your most private secrets to the Enquirer or People magazine for money.

-The disappointing discovery that "charmed lives" are largely a myth. Everybody has problems, and there is a fly in every ointment. And, no matter how successful you get, there will always be someone better than you. You may think you will be happy if only you start winning regional photography competitions on a regular basis. But once that becomes commonplace, you will soon start to look up at the next rung on the ladder and feel much like you do today, that you are not successful enough or special enough. And even if you climb to the top of the game, your star will eventually fade just as someone else's is rising. Age, time and changes in public taste will see to that.

The thing to do is not to lust after specialness or achievement as ends in themselves, for they almost certainly will not bring you the happiness you think they will. Focus on living your life and doing what you love; and if something you love engrosses you so much that you become fabulous at it, the downsides won't be quite as painful as they would have been if your success had been based mainly on a desire to be admired. The thing you are doing will bring you joy in and of itself, and the fact that people are noticing won't matter nearly so much, no matter whether they love you or hate you.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:45 AM on August 12, 2013

The disappointing discovery that "charmed lives" are largely a myth. Everybody has problems, and there is a fly in every ointment.

Yes. This is another thing to keep in mind, and it might be coming from the same place as one of your earlier questions where you associate having a degree with being personally "Valuable or Successful." A great quote come from Robert Redford-- a successful person if there ever was one, who says that a big lesson in life is:
Life is essentially sad. Happiness is sporadic. It comes in moments and that's it. Extract the blood from every moment.
This guy, a guy who is one of the most successful actors of the last 50 years, feels that life is essentially a sad slog with a few great moments in between. Now, from my perspective, it's better to be sad and successful than sad and unsuccessful, so one might as well be successful, but not because it will make you happy.

What's your goal here? To finish your degree, make lots of money, be famous? Go for it. I think you should make a try at those things. But it's not going to make you happy all the time. There are a few people here on MeFi who have talked about being happy and satisfied with what I regard as rather mediocre lives that I could never tolerate, professionally and intellectually speaking. But mediocrity and happiness are not incompatible. And if you're thinking that this "divine dissatisfaction" will be magically relieved just by getting a degree, getting a better job, or being famous, you're really, really wrong. The process of going through those slogs of accomplishment might give your contentment and satisfaction, but you don't arrive at a destination and realize, "hey, everything is better now and will stay that way!"
posted by deanc at 5:26 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with the other advice you've been given in this thread, and I would add in particular that you need to figure out what you are passionate about--not just "I want to be great at something, anything!" And whatever it is, as someone pointed out above, unless you're an elite athlete, someone will always be better than you, or rather, there will be no objective measure of "best" in most fields.

Also, you are 22. I hope this doesn't sound trite or condescending, but oh my god, you have so much life ahead of you. Over the next 20 years alone you will literally see the rise and fall of a number of people success-wise, both professionally and personally. People who appear to be living a charmed life right now will not necessarily be doing so in ten or fifteen years' time; others will surprise you by seeming to come out of nowhere with some wild talent (but it won't really be from nowhere, because they will have been cultivating it all along).

But, finally, what I really want to say is that none of this stuff matters. I have some very modest accomplishments in a field I am passionate about. While I like some other people who are in the same field very much, my liking and admiration for them has little to do with their accomplishments (the exception being people whose work I admire that I don't know very well). But one of my favorite people in the world doesn't do any of that stuff; he drives a train for a living (and not even a big fancy locomotive--a commuter train). Several other people that I think are the bees' knees are un- or underemployed. I remember your earlier question about not having a degree and I thought you sounded really cool and interesting then and think the same thing now when I read the details you've included in this question.
posted by tiger tiger at 6:18 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

What use am I if I am always to be average or mediocre? is a kind of a 'meaning of life' question.
Watch Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, and Woody Allen's Manhattan.

Here's the end of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life,
Lady Presenter: [briskly] Well, that's the End of the Film, now here's the Meaning of Life.

[An envelope is handed to her. She opens it in a business-like way.]

Thank you Brigitte. [She reads.]... Well, it's nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

and this is from the end of Manhattan:
Well, all right, why is life worth living?
That's a very good question. Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.

Like what?

OK... for me...
Ooh, I would say Groucho Marx, to name one thing.
And Willie Mays.
And... the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony.
And... Louis Armstrong's recording of Potato Head Blues.
Swedish movies, naturally.
Sentimental Education by Flaubert.
Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra.
Those incredible apples and pears by C?anne.
The crabs at Sam Wo's.
Tracy's face.

and based on The Wizard of Oz:
You may not have a degree, but you can have an incredible education. Read good books, watch documentaries, listen to smart people(you are already doing this). Use the Library - they have lots of fantastic music in addition to being able to get all the books you can read, and then some. The amount of free education on the Internet is staggering. Branch out, learn to play an instrument or learn a new language. It sounds like you are smart; you can listen to podcasts and get an education that can make you sound like you went to prep school and an Ivy.

You might become the best *something* in your town, state, but maybe not the world. Devoting yourself to pursuits you find worthy is a fine thing. Comparing yourself to others makes you feel bad. Compare yourself to yourself. Are you the best person you can be, the best boyfriend, etc.? Take quiet pride in your real accomplishments. If the lack of a degree still bothers you, take courses at a local college, or online, but the degree isn't everything.
posted by theora55 at 7:15 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just want to note that, whenever I meet someone who is intelligent and worldly and does not have a college/university degree, I am impressed. I actually find this more impressive than being intelligent and worldly and having a degree, because it means that you charted your own course in a way that those of us who were shunted along through the education system didn't. Most people - even the academically accomplished - learn most things outside of school, anyway. I think it's really awesome and respectable that you've educated yourself on foreign policy and photography and pursued those interests on your own.

Also, truck driving sounds like it could be a pretty interesting way to make a living, at least while you're young. I don't know anything about it, but don't discount the experience.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:09 AM on August 12, 2013

Read Outliers. I read that and then read this comic all within a few weeks of each other and it really changed how I looked at things. I had a real problem with starting and stoping hobbies because I couldn't be as good as I wanted as soon as I started. It's a family joke no one will buy me art or craft supplies for major holidays because I will change my mind on what hobby I was doing from making the list until Christmas, all because I couldn't be as good as I wanted when I wanted.

Anyway my point being that is what I was like until I read that book. Then I had just started a hobby I really enjoyed but sucked at, seriously sucked, looked like stuff a 6 year old would make, but instead of stopping I said to myself I needed 10,000 hours practice to be a master at this. Ok that was a lot of time, but I wondered what could I learn with 1000 hours serious practice? So I am practicing an hour a day, I have given myself 2.5 years and am keeping photo records of what I make so I can see the improvements. Funny thing is I am enjoying this hobby so much more than I thought I ever could, I am loving the fact I am actually improving, in just 6 months I can see huge improvements. Can you be great at everything? No Can you be really pretty damn good at some things yes,

Now you don't have to do that. There is nothing wrong with being average, heck I am so average in every area of my life it doesn't bother me because I am ever so slowly becoming less average at one small little unimportant, no way world changing, hobby and thats enough for me.

We can't all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.

Will Rogers

posted by wwax at 8:18 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are only 22. You have plenty of time ahead of you for developing more knowledge and expertise. Furthermore, always remember that there will always be people who are faster, stronger, smarter, better looking, etc. no matter how good you are (and there will always be people who are slower, weaker, dumber, and less good looking). And guess what, all those super achievers have shortcomings too (and it should be noted that a lot of people who are really good at something are not well-rounded because they spent most of their time working on one thing). Lastly, why do you need to compare yourself to other people? The key objective should be to be the best YOU can be. If you need extrinsic affirmation, your Ivy League graduate girlfriend certainly sees some good qualities in you or else she wouldn't be with you. As for driving a truck, sure it doesn't require a degree or high intelligence to do it, but that doesn't mean it's not an important role in society.
posted by Dansaman at 8:44 AM on August 12, 2013

Following up on Marcc, you can watch the video of Ira Glass' advice for beginners here. It's comforting.
posted by ialwayscryatendings at 9:21 AM on August 12, 2013

This actually comes down to the question: of what purpose is a human life?

... is to achieve and make a mark on history?

... is it to perfect a craft or talent?

... is it to grow spiritually?

... is it to be the best at business?

... is it to develop and nurture relationships?

... is it to network and climb the social ladder?

... is it to be happy?

... is it to grow as much as possible, in order to teach the next generation?

You need to answer this question for yourself. Right now you're saying the purpose of life is to perfect a craft. By this order, you are failing in the purpose of life. But is this really the purpose of life?

Personally, I decided long ago that the biggest achievement of a human life is to live as open-heartedly as possible. I mean a Cosmically Open Heart. My purpose in life is to eliminate my fear, and live in love, in every single thing that I do. I make decisions (career, lifestyle, relationships) from this purpose.

So broaden your thinking.

P.S. In many cases I find people are already living their purpose, but in small ways, in the values or activities that they have carried with them their whole lives.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:29 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Dude, do you think those people who are better than you were better when they were at the same level as you? You are 22, of course you are going to know less than someone who has been studying those topics since before you were born. In other words, they know more about it because they know more about it - simple as that. Not because they are better than you. Not because they went to an ivy league school or have a degree. Because they have used their focus and energy to learn about their top. You can do that too. But to think that you should be as good as someone with so much more experience than you is really quite arrogant, I think.
posted by dawkins_7 at 9:44 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

What use am I if I am always to be average or mediocre?

Whatever use you want to be.

The absence of an overriding genius means that you have an infinite choice of skills or purposes to master or fulfill. Total freedom.

Of course it also means you must choose, and must work. These seem to be what you're avoiding, by telling yourself a narrative of mediocrity vs. genius. After all, if you're "of no use" because you aren't Einstein*, then you are justified in doing nothing, choosing nothing, and drowning in bitterness. Which is super easy to do and virtually guaranteed to succeed--unlike becoming skilled, which is super hard, and risks failure.

You're neither gifted nor mediocre; you're crippled by perfectionism and a fear of failure. Work on these things. In therapy, on your own, whatever works for you. BONUS: being self-aware and addressing your own self-sabotaging thought processes will put you in the 1% of psychological health ;)

*You do realize that your question implies that all, or at least most, of us answerers are pathetic wastes of space, right? Because I don't think Einstein is a Mefite.

Do you honestly think that about us? Kinda doubt it, since why would you ask a bunch of worthless losers for their advice? Maybe your beliefs about "human value" aren't totally 100% true if they apply only to you, you know?
posted by like_a_friend at 10:02 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

[..] I have no extraordinary abilities, talents, or accomplishments.

You know what it takes to have extraordinary abilities, talents, or accomplishments? It takes practice. From the wikipedia article on The Outliers;
Throughout the publication, Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000-hour rule", claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:03 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Even though it may not look like it at first glance, this is the trap of seeking external validation.."
This is the best answer. It's a trap, it's not sustainable, and you deserve better.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:56 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I could be wrong, but I don't think Bruce Lee or Albert Einstein strove to be well-known at what they did, but rather excelled at something they enjoyed to do, and were recognized for that.

As for your friends who have Ph.Ds, are lawyers, professors, and such, are they on the level of Einstein or Bruce Lee in their fields? Those are just experiences and trades, just as you have yours.

I've also faced this personal dilemma. But then I looked beyond myself, and embraced the fact that I'm one of more than 7 billion people living right now, and most of us live quiet lives in the grand scheme of things. Some people strive for adoration and recognition, others do what they love and that's enough. I'm trying to be more of that second category, finding pleasure in my own accomplishments and activities. Sometimes I feel insignificant, then I think of the thousands of people around me who are living their lives, and I know nothing about them. It doesn't boost my spirit, but settles my feet.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:39 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

well, as a perfectionist and photographer, i'll use your example with the macro photography.
read interviews with almost any "successful" photographer (including the national geographic photogs)--and there's a reason for the scare quotes--and you'll hear over and over again that what it takes more than technical know-how is patience and persistence and stubborn refusal to give up. they will tell you that for the thousands and thousands of pictures they take, only a handful end up seeing the light of day. what separates the wheat from the chaff is willingness to stay on your grind. anyone can take a nice-looking, one-off frame. probably EVERYONE takes a really good picture some time in their life. but to be a photographer means working at it, waiting for it, shooting with intention. it's a craft like any other--you don't wake up one day and discover to your delight that you are the best ever. you work and fret that you're not good enough and work harder. edited to add: those "successful" photogs would scoff at the word successful, because the very nature of the work requires that you never give up; you are always in pursuit of a better frame than the last. the minute you think "ok, i'm totally on top of this, i am great at it," you're done.

i think this applies to all the stuff you mentioned, though, not just photography. i asked myself almost the exact same question you are asking here. eventually saw a therapist about what turned out to be a RAGING case of perfectionism, and realized that it's naive and maybe a little arrogant to think you should just be able to be great at something right away. it's also really false. all the people your're comparing yourself to, in all of these different fields, all worked really hard to get there. cokie roberts didn't just roll up to NPR fresh out of college and appoint herself their congressional correspondent, you know? she had a long career before anyone had heard of her. it's ok that you know less about foreign affairs than the people writing in foreign affairs. you're working on it! it's ok!

finally, this is easier said than done, but try to measure yourself not on external stuff (like how admired you are or whether you're the "best" in a given field) but on how hard you try, how much you love what you are doing , etc; and untangle your worth as a human from your success in this or that endeavor. your worth as a human is a given, solidly established.
posted by iahtl at 4:46 PM on August 12, 2013

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