There's only one real path to living an actually thrilling life.
Three Average Stories
Our friend — we'll call him Frederick — likes to get things right.
He likes to feel comfortable in the certainty of what he's doing.
He won't begin to act until he's completely thought through the entire situation and until he feels completely comfortable that he knows exactly what is wanted from him, exactly how he's going to meet that need, and has an idea of what's going to unfold after he's made his contribution.
Unfortunately, this idealized situation almost never plays out in his favor…
Most of the time in reality, projects stagnate as they await his action. Silence overtakes his team as he pulls away from the difficult questions he doesn't know how to answer. He sinks deeper and deeper into anxiety, never making it any closer to "feeling comfortable" with his part of the work.
He feels paralyzed.
He sees these growing problems rising up all around him and feels overwhelmed, with no idea of how to escape or improve the situation at this point…
Another friend of ours — we'll call him Louis — has a similar but different problem…
He also needs to feel comfortable in the certainty of what he's doing, but it plays out in a different way.
Louis is very good at finding and executing predictable tasks. He's a huge asset when you need to lean on someone who's reliable and gets stuff done — as long as that "stuff" is well-defined.
So he goes through life getting stuff done.
Like a machine, he consistently delivers exactly whatever is asked of him. (But never any more than what's asked, and never any less.)
There are some questions he avoids like the plague…
… He's begun to notice a problem cropping up at work. He doesn't know what to do about it and so he lies to himself about what he's seeing, pretending like it's nothing, it's all in his head, and it's not going to turn into anything.
… He feels that his family is somewhat distant. He sees his kids growing up, and he doesn't know what to do about it. So he just keeps doing exactly what he's always done and hopes everything works itself out.
… Deep inside, he feels like something is missing. He doesn't know what, and he doesn't know what to do about it. So he suppresses it and sticks to what he knows.
Louis is also paralyzed, but in a different way from Hector.
By all appearances, he's active and productive and engaged, but he holds back from confronting these growing, nagging questions. He doesn't know what to do about them, and so he continues on as though they're not really there.
Another friend — we'll call her Maria — takes a different approach.
She also feels more comfortable in certainty… but she knows that life is only sometimes certain, and that sometimes it's uncertain. And she knows in her bones that that dichotomy is good.
She leans into the pain, struggle, and fear of those uncertain moments. She lets herself sit in those feelings while she grapples with difficult questions. And then she gets up and acts. She has the painful conversations that she knows she needs to have. She makes the decision that needs to be made, knowing full-well that she might be making the wrong bet. She brings her best ideas - though they're only half-baked and less-than-ideal — with vulnerability and courage.
She uses strategies to help herself box up those deep thoughts, in order to prevent herself from falling into the abyss and never taking action.
Though she's not reckless — she acknowledges the need for thoughtfulness, like Hector.
And she's not unproductive — she understands the value of the mundane and predictable tasks, like Louis, and is able to manage them.
But she does one thing differently:
She doesn't avoid difficult questions or open-ended situations.
When uncertainty shows up at her doorstep, she brings it in.
This confrontation doesn't resolve overnight. Maria knows that the process of embracing and confronting the unknown unfolds over time — and she holds steadfast through the discomfort of the whole timeline, walking forward a little more, and a little more, and a little more. Having difficult conversations when they're needed. Making life changes when needed. Taking important risks with measured steps. Making choices and presenting ideas, though she only has incomplete and imperfect information.
She confronts the scary and uncertain things.
She acts anyway.
Sometimes, she doesn't get it right. And she discovers that it's ok anyway. Then she learns, gets a little better, and gets back up, and confronts difficulty again.
Hector's life is average. He spends most of it collapsed in anxiety and rumination. At the end of his years, he looks back at all the grand plans — all the dreams that he had hoped for. And he regrets allowing fear to hold him back. He regrets that they never became anything more than very grandiose, very perfect and pristine… dreams.
Louis' life is also average. He gets some legitimately respectable things done. But unfortunately, some of those unanswered questions eventually caught up with him. That work situation unfolded in a way that nearly destroyed his team. Many people became bitter and left the company, and the business went through a slump as everyone's focus turned to the recovery of his department. He drifted further and further from his family — until the day he found out about his wife's affair. They're now divorced. He still sees his kids sometimes, but it's a superficial relationship. And he still has that deep hole inside. He never quite "got around" to working through exactly what it was he wanted - exactly what that deep longing was that was going unfulfilled. And it's still there.
Maria's life, also, is average…
Maria was no one special. She didn't have any particularly impressive background, gifts of genetics, or access to resource. She wasn't connected to anyone you would read about and she never became particularly recognized. But her life was a truly remarkable adventure, and when she looks back on it, she feels satisfied. When she looks back, she sees monsters that she fought — and overcame. She sees problems that she was nervous to confront but that she successfully resolved, despite that fear. She sees relationships around her that weathered some really difficult moments, but that came out stronger and richer for it. She sees and still feels the bursts of joy that came with each breakthrough, when the thing that was once uncertain broke into something unexpectedly thrilling. She remembers the deep fear of each moment, and she's proud of her courage each time she stepped forward into that fear and uncertainty and offered her best solution.
And she's thrilled when she looks around at the manifestation of those dreams — that potential of youth — that have become reality. The reality isn't quite as pristine and perfect and easy as the dream was… but it's real — and oddly more fulfilling for it, and it was a wild ride making it real.
Your Average Adventure
Manifesting the thrill of average potential has everything to do with leaning into the unknown.
It has everything to do with embracing the difficult questions that present themselves.
It has everything to do with courage.
Enough of these challenges will present themselves — you don't need to go looking for them. They'll always find their way to you. Then, when they come, it becomes a question of whether + how you acknowledge them. And whether + how you act on them.
This is the basis for a thrilling life.
It's very simple. But that doesn't make it any less of an adventure.
Average potential can go unrealized…
Or it can blossom into something surprising and fantastic…
Which average life are you going to pick?
This article is Part 4 in a four-part series on Average Potential.
- Part 1 lays some theoretical groundwork on what we mean by "average," especially when it comes to personality qualities.
- Part 2 is a statement that you are average - no matter who you are - and that that's good.
- Part 3 looks at the implications for personal growth if you're "only" average, and it describes two specific strategies (that don't suck) that you can use to help you in your pursuit of becoming the best version of you.
Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.
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