Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality
Thu Feb 5 2009

Ordinary vs. extraordinary

The other night as I was washing my hair and brushing my teeth and playing piano, I started thinking about being ordinary. A lot of times I get through hard or unpleasant things (like the flu, a fight with my parents, stepping in poo, etc.) by reminding myself that billions of people before me have gone through the same things and survived, so I can too. I’m a normal human being, capable of all the normal things we go through. Ordinary is good!

But wait.

I want to be extraordinary too. I want a long, successful career as an author, and as we all know (or if you don’t, I’m telling you now) the odds of that are not high. For all the Stephen Kings, Amy Tans, and JK Rowlings, there are hundreds if not thousands of unknowns sitting at their desks, typing/writing out what they believe to be The Next Great Book.

Just like there are tons of programmers who want to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, tons of film students who want to be the next Steven Spielberg or Ang Lee, tons of athletes who want to be the next Derek Jeter or LeBron James.

So who gets there? Who rises to the top, while the rest toil anonymously?

Think about it before you read the rest. I really do want to know your thoughts, so please leave them in a comment.

~ ~ ~

My answer (if you’ll allow me to “think aloud”) is just one answer, and perhaps not my final answer.

But for right now, I’m thinking it’s often the ones who are extraordinary all along. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about thin-slicing, the act of understanding a large thing by analyzing a small piece of it. I bet if you thin-sliced Spielberg, Gates, or LeBron, you’d see something extraordinary about them every day, every hour, maybe even every minute. Their work ethic. Their creativity. Their focus.

I look at the people in my life, and I believe I can see that difference. For example, Andy is extraordinary. I jokingly call him The Robot, but the truth is, I’m jealous of his concentration and productivity. It’s absolutely not ordinary the way he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to, whether at work or at home. Unlike me, he isn’t distracted by (sorry) stupid things like Twitter or Facebook, or the vast number of blogs on the internet. He doesn’t hem and haw over decisions; he just makes them and moves forward. Even though his life may look somewhat ordinary right now, I can tell you it won’t be for long.

In a lot of ways, Andy reminds me of my mom. She has the same self-discipline and incredible work ethic (and the same frustratingly high expectations of me). But my mom doesn’t think she’s accomplished anything extraordinary with her life. I suppose relative to some of the people I’ve named, she hasn’t. But if I look at where she came from, what she had when she moved to this country, and what she made of it, I can’t help disagreeing with her. She learned a new language in her twenties, earned a Master’s degree in a foreign country, founded a business unrelated to what she’d studied, and kept it running for over 25 years. She even raised a pig-headed, know-it-all daughter. Don’t you think that’s pretty extraordinary? I do.

On the other hand, my dad and I don’t have those kinds of extraordinary personalities. We like to watch a lot of movies and take a lot of naps and look up a lot of random things on the internet. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it sure cuts down on productivity. Now don’t get me wrong, I think my dad has done a lot of extraordinary things too. But I guess that’s what I have to figure out now: how?

How did my dad, an ordinary person, like me, lead an extraordinary life? How did he travel around the world? How did he build a city in Saudi Arabia for the king? How did he put up with a sassy, chatterbox daughter?

I know I’m an ordinary person, but I think I have extraordinary potential, and I want to reach it.

~ ~ ~

Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject…

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Comments
  1. Aisha says:
    Thu Feb 5 2009 at 5:44 PM

    I read this article in Body & Soul magazine (lol) about different kinds of people. Some people, like your mom and Andy, are producers. They don’t make excuses, they just get things done and their finished work is a reward in itself. People like you and your dad are connectors. They need to connect with people (like via blogs…) to function, and they tend to be more creative.

    So anyway, don’t beat yourself up because you can’t just spit things out like Andy does. Do what works best for you, just make sure you get your writing done sooner or later ;)

  2. Angie says:
    Thu Feb 5 2009 at 7:55 PM

    I am happy to talk to you about this anytime later! But for now I just wanted to say, those social entrepreneurs are amazing. When it comes down to the innovations and changes they’ve made, it’s because of their passion.

    • Angie’s recent blog post: Go to bed, I’ll see you in the morning

  3. Erin says:
    Thu Feb 5 2009 at 9:14 PM

    My parents put it in my head that I was extraordinary from a young age. It was hammered at me so often from so many angles — teachers, family members, random acquaintances — that I had an artificial sense of my own awesome. No, I’m not kidding. I thought as a result I didn’t have to work hard I didn’t have to show people how wonderful I could be — they’d just intuitively recognize it. (Brilliant logic, young Erin. Brilliant.) You have to fall on your face a few times to learn how to get up, but I was surrounded by people who kept me upright. It was, retrospectively, a very strangely mixed blessing.

    Then college smacked me in the face with the reality that there are a heck of a lot of awesome, extraordinary, ambitious, successful, smart, proactive, creative people in this world (you being one of them). I was used to being the big fish in the small pond. CMU is filled with an awful lot of big fish, haha. It wasn’t that I was not special or was not capable of being special, it was that at some point, growing up, I just stopped trying to be all that I could be, merely floating around acting ordinary and getting praised for it. It didn’t work that way in the Real World, I learned. I knew I had to work harder, be extraordinary and show it to get that same external validation. I wanted it not by default from people who cared about me but from strangers because I had earned it. It’s one of the reasons, I think, people try to publish instead of writing a novel and letting it sit in a pile somewhere. Writing a novel is hard but really, anyone can do it. But to do it and get it published — get that external validity of the awesome — well, that’s not something anyone can do. It takes some serious chops. I mean, Steven Spielberg made movies as a kid. He enjoyed making them for himself. He could have kept making them solely for himself but he didn’t — and his desire to make something of himself in the world has changed it behind him. I hope to do that too, one day.

    It’s definitely a strange kind of selfish thing, the desire to be seen as extraordinary, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I mean, if people did not work to be extraordinary — either for themselves or for another reason — what would the world be like?

    • Erin’s recent blog post: I essentially pay rent to Starbucks.

  4. Mary says:
    Thu Feb 5 2009 at 9:56 PM

    I don’t think this is really a question of who is extraordinary and who is ordinary. What you’re talking about, really, is drive. Sometimes that’s the same thing as ambition.

    I’m going to toss modesty aside for a moment, and tell you that I have an extraordinary capability to absorb and interpret knowledge. I do this better than most. However, I will likely not make a career doing exactly that (i.e. entering the academe) because I have no drive to do so. I am physically capable, but I don’t want it enough.

    Or, take the piano. If I worked my ass off, I could probably make a career of it. I don’t think it’s false confidence to say that I probably would be good enough…if I was willing to work as hard as professional musicians do. I certainly like playing the piano (and have missed, incredibly, not having one), but I don’t like it enough to work that hard at it.

    So how do ordinary people accomplish something extraordinary? Honestly, Kristan, they just do it. There might be a lot of bitching and moaning that goes along with it, but they don’t let that stop them.

    It may not seem especially incredible, to give you a more concrete example, that I currently live where I do. After all, lots of people move far away from home and do just fine. But for me, it was extraordinary, and the only reason I managed it is because I didn’t let my fears and worries hold me back. And because I had one hell of a carrot waiting for me at the end of it, one that still matters more to me than anything else.

    • Mary’s recent blog post: Welcome to the real world.

  5. Sy says:
    Fri Feb 6 2009 at 12:56 AM

    I started writing at a young age and my preteen years were filled with displaying my work and accepting critiques and figuring out if I was meant to write. I know I am. I remember my family telling me all the time that I should write – my friends completely smitten with my work – and my professors appreciative of them.

    I believe that everyone is absolutely extraordinary – I don’t base it on being famous or earning millions – I base it on the person. You can be extraordinary just by conquering your fear or facing someone who hurt you.

    But – as far as fame – it IS ambition that leads people to it. It’s that drive that keeps your grounded in order to achieve that level.

    I think you are extraordinary :) That’s so corny, but I do. You inspire people with your writing. It doesn’t matter how many naps you take or how much television you watch.

    If you want it enough, you could live an “extraordinary” life. It’s up to anyone really. You got to prepare for the life you want.

    xoxo

    • Sy’s recent blog post: girlfriend material

  6. Trisha says:
    Fri Feb 6 2009 at 8:32 AM

    Kristan,
    Your dad is not ordinary. He came from country-club hopping money. He married a blue-collar workers daughter because it was the right thing to do. All he ever wanted to do was own a print shop. His dad, wanted him to be an architect. So he did. He played the role for many years. He knows more about more things and more places than most people have ever heard about. He never used to nap. Yeah, he slept in late. But he also worked until 2am to make sure his family live the life, the country-club life. Just like his dad would have wanted him to. We are all someone’s kids just trying to measure up.
    To me, he is a one of a kind.

  7. Kristan says:
    Fri Feb 6 2009 at 1:47 PM

    Aisha-
    Producers vs. connectors. I like that. (And thanks for your kind words about my parents.)

    Erin-
    I think I had that beaten into my head too, but sometimes I feel like I haven’t done what you’ve done, and that is, learn that I’ve got to show it too. A lot of times I still float by. I guess that’s the problem…

    Mary-
    I think what you’re saying is similar to what Erin said: Erin’s “show it” = your “drive.” And I agree. I guess part of it is figuring out what you’re passionate enough about to work at.

    And yeah, I think a lot of people forget how much extraordinary internal strength it takes to do some ordinary external things.

    Sy-
    Thank you! That means a lot coming from someone else whose writing, I’ve seen, inspires people as well. :)

    Trisha-
    Your comment had me in tears. I’m not sure I knew you felt that way about Dad, I guess ’cause we all give him a hard time (as family is wont to do).

    “We are all someone’s kids just trying to measure up.”

    Yup.

    “To me, he is a one of a kind.”

    :) Me too.

  8. D'Arcy says:
    Fri Feb 6 2009 at 3:37 PM

    I think you said it….not getting distracted.

    Anyone who is an Amy Tan or a Bill Gates has suffered loneliness. It’s a tradeoff. Many times relationships suffer from being the best at something.

    I think we can all be extraordinary, but lately I wonder that if I were an extraordinary photographer I might not be an extraordinary painter and so on….

    it’s a give and take.

    and it’s hard.

    • D’Arcy’s recent blog post: Can Boys REALLY be Boys?

  9. Kristan says:
    Fri Feb 6 2009 at 9:48 PM

    Yeah… Actually sometimes I wonder if I let relationships get in the WAY of my drive…? Can’t we have it all?!

    (And btw, you ARE an extraordinary photographer!)

  10. T cells .. you’re dead to me « string cheese & triscuits says:
    Fri Feb 6 2009 at 10:05 PM

    [...] Kristan’s post on the extraordinary vs. the ordinary.  It’s motivational in some ways.  Check it out. [...]

  11. Laura says:
    Sat Feb 7 2009 at 3:19 PM

    To achieve something extraordinary I reckon it’s a mix of ability, work and luck. It could be any combination of the three. To continue being extraordinary, your luck will probably run out, and it’s the work and ability that will keep you going!

    It’s probably hard to be the next JK Rowling/Bill Gates, but there are still a lot of niches for extraordinary – so many people are extraordinary in their own way, if you look at how many people you mentioned. And another common denominator of extraordinary is doing the best you can, given certain constraints – like your Mom having to move country, learn a language… I think – as a fellow napper/facebooker! – that procrastination is a constraint in itself and every time we overcome it it makes our achievements that bit more extraordinary!

    Final thoughts – surely ambition/drive/determination are pretty necessary for extraordinary-ness too, and you can tell you have those!

  12. floreta says:
    Sat Feb 7 2009 at 5:08 PM

    great post! i’d like to say along the lines of ordinary/extraordinary that my answer for people who “make it” isn’t so much as talent, but tenacity. ok, no offense to stephanie meyer, but her twilight books are HUGE and she seriously SUCKS as a writer. i think if she can get published, then so can i. but it takes stepping out of the ordinary and doing something extraordinary (tenacity). she is a perfect example that tenacity wins over talent… both are a double weapon! i hated her book “Twilight” yet it has become such a phenomenon so obviously, lots of people DO enjoy it. Stephen King actually took a stab at her and said she can’t write which I think is awesome. Go Stephen King (I should read his book “On Writing”; not a fan of his books/genre, but respect him greatly as an author).

    • floreta’s recent blog post: Why Blogging is Postmodern

  13. D'Arcy says:
    Sat Feb 7 2009 at 5:16 PM

    Thank you!

    I think relationships DO get in the way if you have a goal that can’t foster relationships. And yet, if your goal is to have AMAZING relationships, that becomes the point of life.

    That’s where I run into trouble. I can’t decide which one to keep putting first.

    • D’Arcy’s recent blog post: Can Boys REALLY be Boys?

  14. Kristan says:
    Sat Feb 7 2009 at 5:29 PM

    Laura-
    I think your first paragraph is DEAD ON. And yes, hehe, we can overcome Facebook and naps!

    (PS: Hi, and thanks for commenting!)

    Floreta-
    I loved King’s “On Writing”! One of my first blog posts here (if not the first??) was about it, in fact.

    I was actually a bit surprised by how publicly… well, sort of rude he was to Meyer, especially given that his own work has been derided in terms of quality — it seems sort of like offending someone in your same club/boat — BUT I have heard lots of people say more or less the same thing about her, so perhaps he thought he was just stating the obvious.

    D’Arcy-
    True true, if relationships are your goal, then obviously they wouldn’t get in the way, haha. And I think there are a lot of people (women especially, but related to your post, I won’t say men don’t care too!) who struggle between relationships vs. other goals. Hence the question, Can we have it ALL?

  15. What’s Happening? » Blog Archive » Ordinary Vs. Extraordinary • Kristanhoffman.Com says:
    Mon Feb 9 2009 at 3:11 AM

    [...] Just like there are tons of programmers who want to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, tons of film students who want to be the next Steven Spielberg or Ang Lee, tons of athletes who want to be the next Derek Jeter or …Page 2 [...]

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