Forget Being at the Top, aim for the “Average”

graphic with blue background, showing average curve
©boiledbeanstudio — designed by the author in Canva

At school, my teacher always wrote “Aim Higher” on my report card. Even when I performed very well. She always wanted me to aim higher. So I did. From then on, life was a series of “aiming higher”. Parents, teachers, siblings, friends, friends’ parents and their cat — all wanted me to aim higher. I don’t blame them — they all thought they were providing me with the necessary motivation.

It was so easy to internalise this idea because it was everywhere. And it sounded like continuous improvement and so I thought it was a great ideal to live by. But it wasn’t. It isn’t. At best it is a moving target. It is an approach that focuses too much on racing to the top of socially approved mountains. It does not include a roadmap to get there — just a pin on the destination. And the destination keeps moving — with seasons, trends, generations.

This approach does not count or value daily progress. It does not factor in for individual preferences, aptitude or values. It does not acquaint us with the harsh realities of life nor help us build resilience to meet failures along the way. And it certainly does not help us look at all the various possibilities to thrive in life. The strange part of it all is we never even question the validity of this approach. We just buy into it.

Over time I realised I didn’t want to live this way. Aiming higher wasn’t making me better at anything. The feeling of constantly looking at the next thing to get to, is not pleasant. It made me ignore my daily life — as if it were nothing. It made me miserable and overwhelmed. It also made it hard to stick to things long enough to pay off in meaningful ways.

So I decided to create my own new ways of measuring efforts and growth in a few limited areas that suited me. I decided to only focus on these areas everyday, a little bit at a time, making sure I wasn’t compromising on health, wellbeing and personal connections. Most importantly, I decided that it must all be fun. The kind of fun that would quietly light me up from inside, even when no one else sees or understands it.

We don’t need an audience to feel joy, thankfully!

Before you call me an idealist, let me assure you that I am not. I am very much in tune with the realities of the job market. I don’t expect myself or anyone else to be saintly and forget about how the world measures our competence and worth. I’m just saying we can work with that system without internally buying into it. I’m suggesting we find better ways to trick our brains into growth mode without the anxiety of reaching the top of the heap. Here is what I do these days.

I aim for the average.

When I say “average”, I don’t mean mediocre. And I don’t mean compromising on the possibilities for personal excellence. I just mean that I’ll aim to be somewhere in the middle on the popular scales of measurement. Not the top, nor the bottom — somewhere in the middle.

That way, I’ll set a reasonable milestone to work towards, with a lot of freedom to experiment and learn. That way, I can put in meaningful and consistent work without the unnecessary overwhelm that comes with unreasonable goals. Especially if they depend on things outside our zone of control.

Let’s say you want to write more on linkedIn this year. Instead of blindly aping someone else (peer, sibling, colleague, friend) who wrote 365 posts in 2021 that helped them go from 0 to 10,000 followers, get 5 speaking gigs, and book 10 online workshops, here is what you could do. Halve that golden number.

Imagine that your friend wrote 180+ posts instead of 360+. Is it still invoking the same level of envy in you? If yes, halve it again. Keep doing this until you reach a number that looks nice enough but does NOT invoke envy in you. I call this your “Envy threshold” number. Now make this your goal. Aim for this many posts, but make them a very deliberate and intentional set of posts. Work to a consistent and practical schedule.

In the beginning, give yourself plenty of playtime to try new topics and formats and to make mistakes. Learn from the mistakes. Since you are closer to the base than the apex, your mini falls will not break you. This will help you tweak and finetune your style, subject and services. Over time you will end up learning so much about yourself while amassing a solid body of work at the same time.

There are only a finite number of top spots in every area of work and life anyway. How can we all possibly fit into those at the same time? And it’s not as if opportunities only lie at the top. In fact, I believe there are plenty more opportunities in the average zone. That’s where growth and learning live. Why not take advantage? So take your eyes off the top and go play for a bit. And stop calling me ridiculous. This really works. :-)

Simultaneously published on LinkedIn by the author



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Hello! I write on how to learn, grow, communicate and lead. I am no authority. I write as I learn about life. And I am always learning. I live in Berlin, DE.