Have you been job hunting lately? All the ads seem to want a superhero, a ninja, a wizard or a genius in the given area. Are you any of those things? I don’t know about you, but I am certainly not.
That got me thinking. Is there any space for average or, heaven forbid, mediocre professionals in today’s world?
You may have heard of the Gauss curve, also known as normal distribution, or bell curve.
The part of the curve we don’t like to talk about
Many qualities in nature follow this distribution, such as height, weight and IQ. The point on the graph shown as 0 is the statistical average (somewhat simplified), and that is where you will find most individuals. The curve tapers off towards both extremes, meaning that the further you move away from the average, the less individuals you will find.
Enough about the statistics lesson. Let’s assume that professional excellence (the skillset, mindset, and attitude) of employees follows a similar curve. This may not be the case, but at least some of the attributes that make up this excellence definitely follow the standard distribution.
The superstar employees companies are looking for reside, I assume, around 2 standard distributions above the average. This is about 2% of the whole population, within a given profession. 2% of doctors, 2% of engineers, 2% of hairdressers. My question is, what about the 98%? They are among us, they work with us: they ARE us. But they are never talked about. Why?
One explanation might be that people tend to grossly overestimate their ranking among their peers in almost every aspect. This is called illusory superiority, and it leads to hilarious results, such as 87% of MBA students believing they scored above average.
Another explanation is that even if we do recognize our limitations, we are unable or unwilling to admit them. And with good reason. When was the last time you saw, or wrote, a resume that described someone as an “okay” candidate? No, we prefer calling ourselves outstanding, exceptional, seasoned, or another term from the Linkedin BS bingo.
This leads to a worldwide illusion that everyone who has a job or wants one must be among the best in their field. But chances are the lawyer who handled your divorce was average. The last haircut you got was done by a passable hairdresser. And, scary as that may sound, if you ever get surgery, the chances that you will be operated on by a superstar are very slim.
It is okay to only be “okay”
I changed from a superstar career to an average one, and I’m telling you, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
As a giant stroke of luck, I stumbled upon the one career I am perfectly suited for, at the age of 22. I was studying business and I took a specialization in translation and interpretation. I loved translation: I had been doing it as a hobby and also got some paid jobs with it. I had no idea what interpretation was about. But pretty soon, I became the star pupil. I have exceptional short-term memory, perform well under stress, and multitasking is my standard mode of operation. My teachers told me I had a real knack for this profession, and I should explore it further.
I listened, got myself a Masters degree (with honors) with a scholarship from the best public body in the world for someone like me, and 3 months after graduation I was accredited by them as a freelancer. Newcomers do not usually pass these exams, I later found out. One of my professors said getting the degree was like a driver’s license, and working for the institutions of the European Union was like Formula-1. Boy, was he right.
After 9 years of working there, I sort of felt I belonged. I could do the job to the employer’s satisfaction. In this line of work, there is no promotion or pay raise for doing a good job (which is a big part of why I wanted to do something else), but the fact that they kept offering me contracts lulled me into a sense of security. Then along came Covid.
I lost my livelihood overnight. Fortunately, I had enough savings to hit pause and figure out what I wanted to do next. And social media marketing was what I came up with. I started taking courses and doing unpaid internships until a real opportunity showed up. It did, and I am grateful. But I know I am not brilliant at this.
To someone who has never been top-notch (98% of the population, remember?), it might not be obvious. But for months I grappled with the feeling that nobody comes to congratulate after a working day well done. This used to happen for me in my old job. So what was my next move?
What to do when you’re average
Chances are, you are average too. But this isn’t the end of the world. Think about it: we need more than 2% of the population to make things work. There is a place for you in this system. Here are my tips to feel better and function better as an average, good enough, or okay employee.
1. Enjoy your freedom
Top talent is always under enormous pressure. 60-hour work weeks, chasing the next career carrot, giving up their best years to make it onto the “.0 under .0“ list. You don’t have to do that. You can just do your job as well as you can, and when the day is done, head home and find something you might be excellent at, even if it will never pay the bills. My guess is that this approach will make you more satisfied with your life than trying to keep up with the absolute best.
2. Improve your game
Remember what I told you about being an EU interpreter? There is no promotion or raise, no matter how good you are. It is insanely hard to stay motivated and overdeliver every day, when you know your work vanishes (literally) into thin air, leaving nothing but a headache behind.
You, my average friend, are luckier than that. You start from the middle, and there is plenty of room for improvement. And I hereby give you permission to celebrate the smallest milestones. As soon as you stop measuring yourself against the top performers in your industry, your wins suddenly seem more significant.
You are the absolute majority! You are the opposite of being alone. And the more you open up about being in this enormous group, the more peers are going to join forces with you. There is something comforting in connecting with people who are in the same boat as you, and even more so in letting go of the constant push to outperform everyone else. Peer support is amazing, you should try it out!
I am an exceptional interpreter, and a good enough marketer. I am learning and growing every day in my new role, and I am comfortable with the journey. I hope my words are liberating for someone else.
If this article spoke to you, drop me a line (just say ‘Average high five!’) and send it to a friend who is still in the hamster wheel of excellence.