Category: Being Uncomfortable

Statistically Speaking, You’re Nothing Special

Statistically Speaking, You're Nothing Special
I read this answer on Quora to the question “What are the most difficult things people (have to) learn in their twenties?“:

There are always going to be people who are smarter, better looking, more sociable, and just all around “better” than you.  In fact, you’ll learn there are LOTS of people who fit that description.  To be happy, then, you have to learn to accept yourself and your shortcomings.

In a room with ten people, you have pretty decent odds at being the most attractive, or the smartest, or the best at ping pong. But  in an earth-sized room with 7 billion people, your chances of being the “best” anything are slim to none.

Compare Wisely

Make your goal to be the most socially adept or fittest or smartest person in a room. If you walk into enough rooms you’re bound for a life of disappointment.

In other words, we have to be very strategic about where we invest our self-worth–and the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves.

Our natural tendency is to assess our value with comparisons. Often, we make comparisons of ourself against other people–and feel good about ourselves for being more competent than Larry and feel bad for being less competent than Sally.

This way of measuring self worth is haphazard because it’s essentially random.

I can’t control who walks into the room, what natural abilities they have and how much opportunity they’ve been presented with in life.

The Person You Should Compete With

I think a lot of contentment happens when you stop asking “am I better than that new person over there?” and instead ask “Am I better than the self I was last week? How about a year ago?

Comparison is a powerful storytelling tool, but it’s only as good as your benchmark. If you ask the right question, you’re still comparing, but it’s against your own benchmarks–and significantly less arbitrary.

You  control your own goals and track your own progress. You can control whether you’re a little bit better runner or a little more patient individual than you were last week. You have a natural ability that you can capitalize on and invest in. You have weaknesses you can minimize.

Statistically speaking, each of us individually is nothing special. But statistics aren’t everything.

You’re worthwhile. It’s just that (thankfully) that worth isn’t simply based on comparing yourself to someone else in our 7-billion-person room.

When you tell your story, make it about how you’ve changed (or been changed). Don’t spend the whole time accidentally talking about everyone else.

[Image source: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc]


It’s All Made By Humans

boy swimming in a pool underwaterThe real barrier to most of us doing things isn’t the thing itself, but the stuff we put around it.

A few days ago I started taking some lessons on a site called Codecademy. It’s a website that helps newbies learn how to code.

I really like the idea of the site. It’s a really easy, intuitive system to cajole a beginner into making computers do things. Codecademy realizes the real struggles that accompany learning something new. A good teacher helps us take away all of the barriers that we use to keep ourselves from trying new things–e.g., “I can’t go to the store because I’d have to shower and put on my makeup and some shoes”–by making the learning experience extremely simple and piecemeal.

Don’t know how to code? Fine. You know how to type your name in between quotes after the word ‘alert,’ right? Look! There your name is, in a popup window. Neat, huh? Don’t have to download any new programs, read a textbook or put on your makeup.


I’ve been interested in learning HTML and web design for about a year now. As I approached graduation a year ago, I was insecure and worried I didn’t have any marketable skills. Since I like the idea of creating things, and I am good with language and systematic thought, it seemed like a natural go-to. So I picked up a few book with the words “For Dummies” on the cover and started learning a little bit, but then I stopped learning because there were too many psychological barriers and I wasn’t really that motivated.

When I encounter a big body of knowledge, or a unfamiliar culture or a kind of music that I don’t understand, I take comfort in the fact that in the end, it’s all made by humans.

Linear Algebra? Humans came up with that. Portugese? Also a human invention. Car repair? A being with my same general equipment and faculties dreamed up each of those internal parts. Even the most dizzing complex literary theory had to first happen in a person’s brain.

When you enter a new field of knowledge or a new job, it’s disorienting. You can only tackle a few things at once, until you get used to them. Backing your car out of the driveway requires a near impossible level of physical coordination and mental firepower the first time you do it, but seasoned drivers have been documented literally driving in their sleep.


I’m comforted knowing that every human system started as imagination in a normal person’s mind: a person who had insecurities and trouble sleeping and awkward family gatherings and occasional moments of brilliance–but mostly just normal ones.

Of course, the really difficult things to learn aren’t the systems and the facts. Things like emotional maturity and being able to step outside of yourself are what’s really difficult. Stuff like learning to code (without giving up). Blogging real things adequately every day instead of  just fantasizing about creating The Perfect Blog, someday. Asking a question in class and taking on the risk of being the stupid one.

The really tough things are more like making yourself get into a pool and taking on the agony of letting your body temperature slowly adjust. It’s not any less jarring or uncomfortable to jump into the cold water first, but it can be psychologically easier, because it’s a commitment. A commitment to the discomfort that comes with the change.

Codecademy has something called “streaks.” You get a reward for every consecutive day, as long as you finish even one lesson. Lessons don’t take very long–maybe ten minutes. It’s a clever way of tricking you into learning, by making it easier to take the first (and hardest) steps of what could be a life-long lesson.

It’s another way to goad you back into the pool. To be uncomfortable for a little while, until you find yourself having fun.

It’s Codecademy’s version of the old staple:

“Come on in! The water’s fine.”

[Image source: Luis Hernandez – via photopin cc]

4 Scenarios to Test Your Awesome Level

Here are four scenarios:

a) You’ve been laid off from your job. You knew the company was going through changes and other people have already, sadly, been laid off. You didn’t worry too much about it because you were doing a good job. But then you were laid off anyway.

Honest appraisal time–pick your response:

1) I hate that company. Why didn’t they appreciate the value I was offering? I did all I could do.

2) Why was I fired? What could I have done differently to not be the kind of employee/position that got eliminated?

3) Well, times are tough. Better people than me got fired and I shouldn’t be surprised. I couldn’t have done anything to avoid that.

4) Time to get a new job and see if it sticks. I’ll try again and see if it works out better.

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Boredom is a Sign of Complacency

Wayne Shorter jazz composer

This guy composes free-form jazz. Figure that one out.

I was listening to NPR earlier today and overhead this enlightening interview with jazz composer Wayne Shorter. Just heading home after getting a beer with a friend, I listened to Wayne talk and answer questions:

Something I say is that boredom is just a sign of complacency.

He was talking, of course, about Jazz. People who listen to something new, like free-form jazz (or classical music, or whatever offends the palate–for me, it was actually Top 40 pop music that set off my alarms for a long time), they might be confused or offended, or more likely, just plain bored.

Change the radio station. Find the comfort zone. Don’t be willing to doubt your first reaction.

Embrace your skeptcism and protect it. It keeps you safe and warm and unchallenged, like the ugly threadbare blanket from your childhood. That blanket is cherished and sentimental–sure, but is it really keeping you warm? Or are you just afraid to grow?

Wayne Shorter went on to say ridiculous things during the interview, like talking about how when he played with Miles Davis and his band, they never rehearsed or talked even about music. They just talked to each other. Listening to the way the other person said a phrase was enough to riff off of later: they could hear something in the cadence of the other’s voice that was echoed in their improvisations, if the other musician cared enough to listen really closely.

Jazz isn’t about safety. It’s breaking out of a form, not fitting into one.

That quote was  taken from my memory, not from what Wayne’s own mouth. It might not be exactly right. Call it jazz, if you like. Here’s a direct one:

No one really knows how to deal with the unexpected. How do you rehearse the unknown?


For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’

Full circle:

Boredom is just a sign of complacency.

If you are bored at work, bored by your coworkers, bored by your boss–are you just being complacent? Have you given others permission to like you? More importantly, have you given yourself permission to like them? To enjoy the work and push yourself beyond the work’s less compelling exterior to the truly interesting, human bit hidden inside of it? It might be in there. Look for it.

Some of the music I most love I didn’t like the first time I listened to it.

Love at first sight is the happy exception, not the rule.

I didn’t love any of Rufus Wainwright’s albums wholly, not at first. It took me awhile to warm up to Fleet Foxes’s self-titled album. I didn’t understand Sigur Ros’s ( ) well enough the first time through to say much other than “I don’t think I like this. But it’s interesting, in a weird way, maybe.” Thanks goodness for the latter part of that first impression. Listening to Sigur Ros has taught me something new about being a human being, but it didn’t until the 3rd or 4th listen.

The same goes for the other people around you. Everyone has a superhuman ability. The difference is whether their environment has nurtured that superhuman ability or not. If it’s been stomped and tamped down, or if someone has watered that ability with a refreshing draught of encouragement and support.

You can focus on a person’s flaws and all the things they do that are stupid. Many people do. It’s easy to dismiss people. It’s risky and strange and often hard work to find the gem of talent, insight, or worthiness (C.S. Lewis would call it “glory”) that’s enbedded deep in the geode of neglect and self-doubt that encases many people’s talents.

Not being able to see and encourage the best in someone isn’t realism or being a straight shooter or the other person’s fault.

Your boredom with others is complacency.

My boredom with others is complacency.

And while it’s a tragedy that we aren’t there to offer the (literally) transformative  word of encouragement and support and belief, it’s a far greater tragedy that we can’t learn something from that person. When you can’t see through the haze of superiority, you’re losing something.

“Every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not that we should expect to be perfect at appreciating people right away. It takes time and practice to develop a skill, and listening to people and learning from them is a skill. I have a lot of learning ahead of me, and an embarrassing amount of needless boredom behind me.

But it starts with a change of mindset.

If you aren’t willing to do battle with a first reaction when you listen to a weird song, you might not be missing out this time. But if you adopt a mindset of not being willing to listen, you will miss out, eventually. It’s easy to believe all of Katie Perry’s songs are trash. (and some might be–but do you know about the ones that aren’t?) It’s easy to believe Les Miserables is too long a book for you to enjoy. You’re not really “a reader.”

The point is people, music, books, and causes are far too interesting–and matter way too much–to be bored by them.

Mastery comes after practicing (and being uncomfortable).

Boredom is a sign of complacency.

Delight is a sign of engagement.

[Image source: Murphys Law]