The case for being ordinary : Life Kit For those in emerging adulthood, there's endless pressure from all sides to chase an extraordinary standard in every aspect of life. But writer Rainesford Stauffer says the so-called milestones are more unrealistic than ever. Now's the time for creativity and carving your own path — and she's got some tips from her book, An Ordinary Age, to get you started.

'Extraordinary' is overrated. Here's how to embrace the power of an ordinary life

'Extraordinary' is overrated. Here's how to embrace the power of an ordinary life

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If I (Andee Tagle) called you ordinary, how would that make you feel? If I told you I had an average day at my ordinary job, and then went home to my ordinary family, would you think of me as unsatisfied? Unambitious? Unhappy even?

As author Rainesford Stauffer says, it's time to reevaluate the power of an ordinary life.

"The concept of the best life serves as a social script," she writes in her book, An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional. "Do these things in this order, and you'll end up happy or fulfilled or at the very least on par with the same kind of lives your peers are leading."

Especially for those in emerging adulthood, there's endless pressure from all sides: our culture, the media, your loved ones all purport the need to chase an extraordinary standard in every aspect of life. We're urged to travel the world, while simultaneously working our way to professional success – all to get married to the perfect partner, buy a home and raise 2.5 kids.

The big problem here, of course, is that a picture-perfect adulthood isn't realistic. The goal posts will keep moving and "we're never without the next best thing we should be doing on the path to growing into our next best selves," says Stauffer.

The other issue, she says, is that these days in early adulthood, "it's a challenge not to feel as though finding yourself has been turned into a competitive sport." And when the pursuit of extraordinary is the status quo, that's a game set up for many to lose.

The solution is to turn away from constant comparison and instead focus on finding fulfillment and identity on your own terms, says Stauffer.

"Seeking contentment and a life that feels true to who we are aren't afterthoughts," she writes. "What we might find is that the big questions – 'What matters to me? Who am I going to be in the world?' – have ordinary answers. Maybe it's embracing the pursuit of those answers that leads us to growth and shows us who we can grow into."

Rainesford Stauffer is a writer and the author of An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional. Harper Perennial hide caption

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Harper Perennial

For more on embracing the ordinary, read interview highlights below, or listen to the full episode linked at the top of this page.

Critique the "best life" ideal.

To rework your perception of the perfect life, it's important to understand and acknowledge the privilege of being able to pick and choose your plans for the future in the first place. Leaving your job to "follow your dreams" or moving to a new state aren't opportunities available for everyone.

She says we largely forget about this truth in conversations about emerging adulthood. "We still pretend that it all comes down to hard work and perseverance and daring to dream big," says Stauffer, even though young adults today know "that is not how society works."

Access to healthcare, affordable education or housing – all of these things play a role in one's ability to find opportunities for growth and success, but "we kind of other it and push it to the side and say, 'They've got plenty of time to figure it out,'" says Stauffer.

We're all impacted in both big and small ways by our own social context, she says, so remember that the road and the finish line will look different for everyone. But embracing your personal ordinariness doesn't mean you have to think small.

"Ordinariness does not stand in opposition to having dreams or having a vision for your life," says Stauffer. Instead, "considering the value in our average, good-enough-as-is selves helps us reorient ourselves to the actual needs and desires we have."

Focus on finding your own interpretation of fulfillment, instead of chasing "this myth that there's always more we need to be doing, that every struggle is our personal failing and every moment we don't know what we're doing signals that we're behind," she says. "It really is OK to not know."

Stop worshipping "the altar of work."

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How often have you been told to seek out a dream job or follow your passion?

The trouble with passion, says Stauffer, citing the work of Dr. Erin Cech, is "that kind of insidious mentality can actually keep us from critiquing the labor structure that we're existing in."

When you're focused on being grateful "to be in the room or to be pursuing the dream," she says, "it can actually prevent us from pushing for better work-life balance or policies that would improve our work life and our overall health and wellbeing, and critiquing the larger systems of labor that keep us working."

While Stauffer says much of this change needs to happen on big, structural levels, "young adults can start renegotiating what matters to them before you get to a place of crisis."

So if you're considering an internship paying you with "exposure," or you neglect to clock your overtime because the boss has said funds are tight, Stauffer says pause and consider your values: Is this where you want to spend all of your waking hours? Are you being treated as a human being? Are you equating this job to your self-worth?

"Having those conversations with yourself, with your friends, with your peers really strips away the isolation that we are each individually the only one feeling this way or [...] kind of disenchanted by work," says Stauffer. "Your worth does not have to come from your job. Your dreams don't have to be tethered to your job. And neither of those things means that you've failed at work."

There is no perfect next place.

The pandemic has brought on mass migration for a number of different reasons. Stauffer says one of those reasons is the common trope that moving to a new city to start over will jumpstart an extraordinary life.

What some people forget about this "onward and upward" ideal, she says, is that "we bring our old selves with us wherever we go." Young adults often want to start over and look for answers in new places, says Stauffer, but "everyone needs their version of home and community and stability."

She also notes that this notion can be incredibly disenfranchising for people who don't have the bandwidth or resources to move to a place to see what happens.

Stauffer suggests when you're feeling unsettled or alone, establish routines that give you a sense of stability and keep open lines of communication with your loved ones.

"We've got to quit glorifying the idea that there's always something better out there," she says. "You shouldn't feel pressure to automatically venture somewhere else to find a new self. We should get to find new facets of ourselves wherever we are."

In love, choose yourself first.

In emerging adulthood, Stauffer says dating is often grouped into two basic categories. The first is serious relationships, "which always means it's supposed to lead to marriage, whether or not that's a thing you actually want in your life," she says.

The second is the exact opposite – "'You're young. These relationships don't matter that much anyway. Why are you worried about it?'"

Stauffer says, no matter where your relationships fall between those two poles, it's important to remember that this time of your life is formative. Each relationship can "teach us how to love someone, how to be intimate with someone, what we want out of a partner." Or, on the more negative side, can teach us about what we don't want, or the danger of not exercising our own agency with a partner.

"All of those experiences add up and they stay with you into adulthood," says Stauffer, so it's important to choose wisely. And "it is not just about someone choosing me. It is also about me choosing them. And that is an extension of me choosing myself," she says.

There's an endless amount of messaging today that says finding a perfect partner will make your life complete. To that, Stauffer says: "No, you're complete as is."

A partnership may enrich your life, but If romance doesn't fit right now, says Stauffer, "nothing is wrong with you, and you have a choice either way."

Harness the power of everyday ordinary life.

"I think the biggest thing we can do to find power in the ordinary is to decide that in spite of everything, in spite of capitalism, in spite of the timelines, in spite of the pressure," says Stauffer, "we're going to find ways to embrace our most ordinary selves."

That can be as simple as logging off your computer 15 minutes early, calling a friend even if you still have items on your to-do list or being kind to yourself when you fall short of your own expectations.

"The more we think about this time of life to be a process of finding and experimenting and changing course when we need to, instead of a series of check boxes of what we've done well," says Stauffer, "the more expansive conversation we have and the more robust version of young adulthood we end up experiencing."

"Being able to renegotiate what matters to you, solve problems, and learn to trust yourself are ordinary things with remarkable power for young people."


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with engineering support from Gilly Moon.

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