Thursday, October 24, 2013

Will Miss #527 - it's okay to be average

There are some aspects to life in Japan which are hard to capture with words, and this is going to be one of them. They are nuanced, but there are a lot of them and the aggregate effect creates a profound difference in behavior and quality of life.

Children growing up in America are often told that they can do anything, be anybody, and make anything of their lives if they try hard enough. The whole "you can grow up to be president" line is part of our cultural mantra. The truth is that, by and large, you can't grow up to be anything, anybody, or make anything of your life by sheer force of will, hard work, and making the "correct" choices (this is the "just world" fantasy). For most people, no matter how hard they try, an ordinary life with varying degrees of comfort, success, and status is the best that they can hope for.

The unfortunate byproduct of the message of self-determination and exquisite potential is that people often grow up feeling special when they are not. They feel entitled to greatness for nothing more than being essentially average. When they don't acquire it, they feel robbed, cheated, or unrecognized. This entire situation carries with it an attitude which reflects out at everyone that people interact with on a daily basis and it is not pretty.

You can see it in people screaming obscenities in traffic at people who don't do what they feel they should do as quickly as they believe it should be done. You see it in people who treat service people like dirt and service people who treat customers like burdens. You see it in men who call women "bitches" for not believing they're hot enough to date and women who call men "assholes" for the same reason. The message is "I deserve better" because they believe on some level that they are "better". Inside, we're all little rock stars having tantrums because someone told us while we were growing up that we were "special" and could do anything.

In Japan, people aren't generally raised with the idea that they are special and can do anything. They tend to believe they're average in most respects. Sure, there are some people who feel they are entitled or are better than others, but they are the exception, not the rule. This not only creates the humble mentality that most Japanese people display, but also a more egalitarian and empathetic outlook in daily life. They don't feel entitled. They don't feel special. They just feel average, and their culture says, "that's really okay". It's not a failure to be average!

I love the fact that Japanese culture tends to send the message to people that it's okay to be normal, average, and generally to just have an unremarkable life. And, you know what? It doesn't in any way stop average people from being remarkable in their own unique ways. In fact, it seems to grant them a freedom to  be so because they can do it in small, achievable ways rather than worrying about being "great".

I miss this mentality which keeps people grounded more in the reality of what it is to be human.


  1. One of my favorite quotes is Martin Luther King's street sweeper speech:
    “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

    It's a shame this mindset isn't given more weight in America. To expand on your special vs average point, studies suggest that in using praise to teach children, when praise is directed to the children's person, they are more likely to be frustrated when faced with failure. On the other hand, when praise is directed towards their effort or process, they are better equipped to deal with failure.

    In essence, we should be focusing on effort rather than telling everyone they're 'special' because it encourages one to work harder and results in less self-criticism and helplessness when faced with setbacks.

    A couple of papers on the subject, in case you're interested.

  2. Two expressions in Japanese are in accord with this: Ganbaru= to try one's best and Gaman suru= to not give up in the face of adversity.

    About "being average:" I believe that the Japanese emphasize fitting in or belonging over individualism and /or being exceptional. The advantage of this is that it makes for a much smoother operating society...for the most part. The disadvantage is that people seek group consensus in decision making to such a degree that they are often passive and lack initiative.

  3. "For most people, no matter how hard they try, an ordinary life with varying degrees of comfort, success, and status is the best that they can hope for." This is what I was raised to aim for. Then again my heritage is Mexican and I am first generation here. I was taught the value of hard work and no matter what we do to do it well. None of us were made to feel elevated above anyone else or more special that someone else.
    I think far too many kids are coddled and made to feel they are 'god's special snowflake' and it has made for some pretty bratty kids and some maladjusted adults.

    1. Studies certainly support the idea that telling kids they are great for nothing is not doing them any favors. Beyond an inflated sense of ones own specialness and value, there is also such entitlement. They think they are great, so people should just hand them things. :-p

      I wasn't raised in any particular way, but I was savagely bullied for my entire childhood and early adulthood. I not only grew up not thinking I was not better than others, but I grew up thinking I was pretty much worse than everyone else. In fact, I actually would say that I was "garbage" because that's what I felt I was due to how I was treated. I felt sub-human, so there was little risk of me feeling I was God's special anything.

  4. Wow! Great insight and the 'Horatio Alger' aspect of America is truly one of the greatest culture differences between America and Japan. My two cents:

    1. As a professor, American students are SO MUCH more entitled about grades than Japanese students, it is almost frightening. It truly is.
    2. American businesses are 'caught with their hand in the cookie jar' far, far, far more often than Japanese businesses. The 'if you can dream it, you can do it' is a big reason for this since Americans are constantly told 'it CAN be done' and then when it can't.....well bad things can happen.

    That said, Japanese businesses are notoriously risk-averse and, in many cases, have been caught flat-footed by innovations. The Internet simply caught virtually all of Japan flat-footed.

    Unfortunately, Japanese students also are shying away from American universities at a depressing rate. It's as if they are intimidated by America.

    Truthfully, I feel as if Americans could use quite a bit more of the Japanese ethos of 'do your best' instead of 'BE the best'. Conversely, Japanese could use a bit (not a lot), but a bit more American 'spunk' - especially in the current state of the Japanese economy.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think that what you said about "do your best" rather than "be your best" sums things up exceptionally well. And, yes, Japanese could use more American "spunk" as they are prone to passively accept things - even when they are blatantly unfair or injurious to themselves. There's a balance to be found between the two extremes, but each culture tends to embrace it's approach a bit too fully to consider moving toward the middle.

      I have noticed how much more entitled American students are. In fact, things have dramatically changed on the education scene since I was in school. This is especially so in colleges where people now view themselves as "customers" rather than 'students". It is quite shocking at times that things are viewed this way, and it is not good for anyone.

      I will say that one reason American businesses get caught with their hands in the cookie jar more often is that there is a culture that enables such behavior, but another is that there is better oversight and louder whistle-blowing here. It's not as good as it could be, mind you, but it's far better than in Japan where people look the other way quite often and there are oily relationships between business and politicians in a manner that exceeds that in the U.S. It's how things like the Minamata poisoning occurred as well as the nuclear disaster in the wake of the March 2011 quake.


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