Investing in Your Ordinary Powers
This week’s Breaking Smart podcast (15 minutes) has to do with tapping into the things that make you ordinary. If that’s not enough, here’s me on the Village Global podcast with Erik Torenberg from last week, where I rambled like a grumpy old man for 2 hours.
1/ The personal growth world is somewhat obsessed with strengths and weaknesses, or more generally, things that make you different from others, whether you view those things as gifts or curses.
2/ But a great deal of your nature is just ordinary. It’s neither a gift, nor a curse, but just an ordinary part of who you are, and a way in which you’re much like everybody else. This does not mean you have to use it to an ordinary degree. For example, I’m not particularly special in terms of how I walk, but I like to walk, so I do it a lot more than most people. That’s what it means to tap into your ordinary side.
3/ The industrial world is set up to both encourage and coerce you to discover, as early as possible, what makes you special, double down on it, and build a distinguishable identity around it. Your specialness-based identity is in some ways your Industrial True Name. It is how the world picks you out from the crowd.
4/ If you are good at math, the world will send you down a path where that makes you special. If you are blind, the world will send you down a path where that makes you special.
5/ To repeat, special need not mean gifted or cursed. It simply means different from others. And with every notion of what can make someone special, there’s a complementary way of standing apart from the crowd that you could call being antispecial.
6/ This is not the same as being ordinary. For example, if you think you are smart, somebody out there probably qualifies your smarts as “book smarts” and identifies their own intelligence as “street smart". They’re an antispecial evil twin on that trait.
7/ Strengths and weaknesses, or gifts and curses, are a special aspect of specialness-centric societies like the US. This is why the American personal growth movement can often be reduced to a set of philosophies about dealing with your special strengths and weaknesses.
8/ Strengths philosophies says you should work on your strengths. Well-roundedness philosophy says you should work on your weaknesses.
9/ To invest in your sense of specialness, as induced by the world, is to invest in the world itself, and the categories around which it is organized. To the extent breaking smart is about making your own categories, this is bad for you, ones better suited to the emerging world being eaten by software, this is a bad orientation.
10/ To get past a strengths/weaknesses orientation, or more generally past your specialness orientation, you have to get in touch with the things that make you ordinary.
11/ An early adopter is a classic example of someone investing in their ordinariness. There may be some mild strengths or weaknesses involved: maybe you are slightly better at figuring out janky UIs (a minor strength), or slightly more susceptible to distraction (a minor weakness). But mainly, being an early adopter is exactly the same as being a late adopter, except you are early.
12/ The same thing goes for a lot of breaking smart skills. You didn’t have to be a programming genius to build a web page in 1994. You just had to have very ordinary aptitude for writing html, but tap into it early.
13/ Beyond technology and breaking smart, a lot of very important things in life are more successfully dealt with by tapping into what makes you ordinary.
14/ You may attract a romantic partner through things that make you special, but most relationship maintenance skills are based on investing in the ordinary.
15/ A particularly good example is retail investing. Most of us are very ordinary as far as investing skills go, and those who do not have delusions of talent and just invest in index funds tend to do better than those who bet on the specialness of their insight.
16/ If you want to go deeper, let me offer a model, a slightly tweaked version of Jungian psychology that I call Self-Shadow-Sea. You may have heard the terms self and shadow. Your specialness is rooted in your self. Your anti-specialness is rooted in your shadow.
17/ Most of the time, those are the only 2 aspects of yourself you engage with. You access and work on your self directly, and on your shadow via projection. The goal of integrative psychology traditions is generally to eat your shadow.
18/ But your ordinariness is rooted in the undifferentiated mass of human traits where you don’t pop from the background. Jung thought it had a mystic collective unconscious character, but I have a much more banal mental model. The Sea is just the 90% part of you where you are a default basic human. Whether or not it is mystically connected to others is not important. Investing in it is like investing in your share of the S&P.
19/ I do like a different metaphor than collective unconscious. This is the Dirac Sea, which is an idea in physics that says vacuum isn’t really empty, but full of hidden realities. So pairs of particles and antiparticles are popping in and out of existence from the Dirac Sea all the time or something. The visible world is simply a persistent disturbance that last long enough for parts of it to become self-aware.
20/ I don’t have much by way of prescription for how to connect to your ordinary side and invest in it, but the mediocrity blogchain I’ve been writing on ribbonfarm is partly a prescription for investing in your own ordinariness, for discovering your the humanity-S&P within yourself.