Everyone has something they're really good at, right? Isn't that what we tell our children when they begin to cultivate interests and hobbies? We encourage them to try their hand at a variety of extracurricular activities. Some children immediately find something they do well. Others try a little bit of everything but just can't seem to find their niche. "Keep trying," we tell them. "Everyone's good at something. You just haven't found your talent yet."
A patient sat in my office not too long ago. She was struggling with feelings of inadequacy and depression. "I'm not good at anything," she lamented. Like most of us, she'd been told since childhood that everyone has some sort of talent. "Keep looking," people told her. "Don't give up." My patient, now in her late 20's, never "found" her talent. As a result, she concluded that something must be wrong with her, that she was somehow lacking.
I could empathize with this patient. There was a point in my life -- shortly after I graduated college and started my first "real" job -- when I came to the same realization about myself: I'm not really good at anything. I am, of course, better at some things than others; like everyone, I have strengths and weaknesses. There are even a few areas in which my performance is probably above average. I cannot, however, think of any one thing I can do so well that I stand out from the crowd.
And I think that's true for about 95% of us. Theoretically, most human abilities follow a normal distrubution. This means that for any given skill, most of us will possess an (approximately) average aptitude. About 68% of us will fall solidly within the "average" range (i.e., within one standard deviation from the mean). Approximately 13.6% of us will fall within the "above average" range (i.e., within two standard deviations above the mean); another 13.6% will fall into the "below average" range (i.e., within two standard deviations below the mean). Altogether, this accounts for 95% of all people. Therefore, for any given talent, skill, or ability, only about 0.1% of people perform at the "exceptional" level (three or more standard deviations above the mean).
The point is, there is only a very small minority of people who we can say truly excel at a given skill. The rest of us tend to be average, slightly above average, or slightly below average.
I wonder, then, if we aren't setting our children up for disappointment when we tell them that everyone has something at which they excel. It might not be so bad for the 13.6% of kids who end up being "above average" at one thing or another, but what about the other 83+% who are just "average" or even "below average?" Are we instilling in our children the belief that it's not okay to be "average?" If we assure our children that they will find their place to shine but then they never do, are they going to end up feeling like they're somehow inadequate?
As a child, I remember thinking that I was meant to do great things. I believed I was somehow "special" and that I was going to have a significant impact on the world. Children are naturally egocentric so it's not unusual for them to feel special. Ideally, they grow up to learn that while their wants and needs are important, they are no more important than the wants and needs of others. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen, especially in today's world.
People today tend to have far fewer children than did people who lived 100 years ago. The parental energy and attention that at one time was divided among many children is now devoted to one or two. Many parents put their children at the center of their world, often sacrificing more than a healthy share of their own wants and needs. We tell our children that not only are they special to us, but that they are special in general. We heap excessive amoutns of praise upon our children in an effort to build their self confidence. We tell our children that they can do anything and that they should never allow anyone to stand in the way of their dreams.
We mean well. We want our children to grow into confident, successful adults. We want them to reach for the stars and to lead happy and fulfilling lives. But I wonder if we might have gone overboard.
It wasn't until I became an adult that it hit me: I'm no more special than anyone else. I began to realize that I will probably never create or achieve anything that will radically change the world. I can, however, make a significant and meaningful contribution to society, even if it's nothing extraordinary. I had to adjust my expectations, but I eventually reached the conclusion that it's okay to be ordinary. I don't have to do anything great to live a meaningful life; I just have to be myself.