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Just Go for It

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Hi Sarah,

I really appreciate your article. It expresses a sentiment and fear that I have felt hanging in the air since my junior year of high school when they ask you "what is your college major going to be?" The dictionary definition of "average" is "typlical," "common," or "ordinary," all words that would have made me cringe several years ago. Certainly, there are moments where I sit at the desk in my office (that I share with three other people) and ponder about how I got here instead of doing community development in Kenya -- or whatever country needed me most -- like I had once thought I would be doing.

However, I think what keeps me from getting frustrated about how I have found myself in such a "typical" pattern is a sense of self-efficacy. Being average is a choice, or more accurately, a series of choices. Many of us chose to go to college (a very "common" decision of upper-middle class students) instead of going directly into Foreign Aide efforts or going on tour with a band. Usually because applying to college is a path that has been traveled by many people and one that promises a higher success rate than doing otherwise. Similarly, when we get done with college, there is the obligation to chose a job to help pay off all the debt from college (or grad school). And now the emotional investment, or feeling of "I've put this much time and money into this, now I have to continue down this road -- there really are no other options" is pervasive. Once we obtain a job, whether it be one we like or despise, that offers us a paycheck, and if you're lucky, some health benefits and a few paid vacation days, it is very difficult to give those up to pursue being a freelance travel writer.

We continue to make these types of choices everyday. Normalcy doesn't happen to us, just as "exceptional" doesn't just happen to others. For the most part, both are chosen paths. For most of us, there is no job or lifestyle that we love more than our current comfort. There is no one thing that we are willing to sacrifice steady income, benefits, and our 401k for. If there was, we would choose that. I don't mean you should walk out of your cubicle right now to pursue your love of retro beatnik poetry. Because if you really love beatnik poetry that much you will already be taking steps, and making choices in favor of that goal. Being great is not simply being "non-conformist" and scorning the white picket fence simply because it's "normal." Extraordinary is achieved when you are willing to give up the fence for something you care about more. I don't say this to make you feel trapped in a hole of your own responsible decisions. Self-efficacy is all about empowerment. When you can take ownership of the choices that have brought you to your "average" lifestyle, you are in a much better place to exercise that ability to chose to change said lifestyle if you want. Maybe not immediately, all at once, but to be proactive in taking steps to make that happen.

If you are waiting for the ideal situation for you to stop your 9 to 5 and start your photography career, you will forever wait in discouragement. It is rarely a one-time, easy decision. It is, again, a series of choices and step towards your goal. And those steps to being "exceptional" requires sacrifice (just as it did back when you were choosing to go to college). I am not an Olympic athlete because, although I loved gymnastics, I also loved theater, and choir, and swimming with my cousins on the weekends and hanging out with my friends at night. I did not move to Europe after graduation because I did not want to sacrifice being that far away from my family. It all comes down to choice and sacrifice. You sacrifice the exciting nomadic lifestyle when you value having weekends free and money with which to pay rent. You sacrifice health benefits and regular income when you choose to give up your desk job and pursue your music career. Being "average" simply means you have made choices similar to those who have preceded you. It also means that IF you are unhappy or unfulfilled with the result of those choices, that you are able to take responsibility and use that power to choose to change that. I will say that it does seem to get harder to do that as you get older and have increasing amounts of responsibility, but seek out people who live the life you desire and find out how they did it.

Be willing to let your exceptional life look different than you expected. At 27, I probably missed the boat on being an Olympic gymnast. But if I love athletics, what's to stop me from getting a personal trainer certification? If you've always wanted to work for peace in the middle east, that might be difficult if your family has no interest in packing for Palestine. That doesn't mean you can't get involved in an advocacy group.

Important: whatever it is, make sure you love the activity/cause more than you love the ambiguous idea of being "exceptional." I will say that as a generation, we tend to love vague, formless ideas about what our life should be rather than actually loving and investing in the very things that make life exceptional, whether it be writing, music, children, spouses, communities, or gymnastics.