The pressure to stand out plagues us all.
Even if we don’t really want that job, that body, that car, that trip or that kitchen, we’re aware of the attention given to those who have them – on Instagram, TikTok and even in real life. And we might feel bad for not having them ourselves. Even during a global pandemic.
No matter the structural inequalities that make such acquisitions impossible for so many or the fact that the value system behind such desires can be questionable, we still yearn for more.
So often, we want what we think we should want, and that distracts us from figuring out what it is we actually do want when free of outside influences.
While this pressure doesn’t discriminate based on age, it is particularly heavy on the minds of teens and young adults. When you are supposed to be figuring it all out and having the best years of your life, the internal voice reminding you that you are not enough tends to get very loud.
Rainesford Stauffer encourages young adults to rethink their definitions of “enough” in her new book, “An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional.” CNN spoke to Stauffer about how to embrace the ordinary, why it is so important and the external factors that can get in the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity:
CNN: In your book, you encourage young adults to embrace the ordinary. What do you mean by “ordinary?”
Rainesford Stauffer: “Ordinary” and “extraordinary” will look different for everyone. It’s about how we feel. Ordinary is what makes you feel fulfilled and what gives you comfort rather than what you think you are supposed to be chasing or hustling for.
It’s about feeling good enough about who you are rather than living in this state of constant self-optimizing or self-improvement.
CNN: What’s your ordinary?
Stauffer: It’s the actions that bring substance to my life, like taking walks, long conversations on the phone with friends and baking.
CNN: How does one find their ordinary?
Stauffer: You have to do the heavy work of sitting with yourself and realizing you are enough as-is, as opposed to looking outward and learning what it is you are supposed to chase and figure out.
CNN: How did ordinary go out of style?
Stauffer: Ordinariness and slowing down don’t map onto a society that is rooted in individualism and competition, which our society increasingly is. Everyone is experiencing the pressure to be better than whoever they are. This “best life” pressure impacts everyone, but the circumstances in which it impacts them can vary depending on their economic and social status.
I talked to dozens of people in the United States, and individualism popped up in nearly every conversation I had with young adults. It wasn’t just about them wanting to stand out, but this feeling that they had to stand alone. They felt guilty for feeling lonely and believed they should be able to do everything by themselves, which is harder than ever.
I spoke to so many young people who struggle to get basic needs met, which doesn’t just apply to young people by any means. They’re dealing with a lack of living wages, lack of physical and mental health care, the cost of higher education and working multiple jobs while still being in school and it’s never enough.
CNN: What is being lost now that being ordinary is so hard, whether for personal reasons, structural reasons, or both?
Stauffer: The idea of just being is really important. We have so few opportunities to just be, and this starts when we are little kids and continues through our life span. We are always supposed to be self-optimizing, improving, always supposed to think about what we are doing next.
Growth is an important part of life, but so is valuing the people we are right now. This came through loud and clear with the young adults I spoke to. They want the space to make a mistake, and second guess themselves, and just exhale.
CNN: And what do you say to those who say they want to dream big?
Stauffer: Ordinariness does not have to stand in opposition to having big dreams and a vision for your life. Considering the value of your “good enough” self or selves can help us reorient to the actual needs and desires we have. We just need the space and resources to make this happen.
CNN: Is this a very US-centric problem or did you notice it across cultures?
Stauffer: I did interview folks who had lived other places or weren’t speaking from an Americanized perspective. What I heard is that capitalism’s grip on the United States, in particular, and the obsession in Western cultures with personal success and individual achievement, are big factors.
Sometimes it seems that that spirals into hyper-self-reliance that tells us we need to do it all alone and that achieving some form of greatness is the only way to have meaning.
CNN: How do we avoid making “being enough” another search for something better? What’s a simple practice to help us relax and be, rather than do?
Stauffer: I think the tricky part is there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
First, when I was reporting the book, I heard a lot from people that they wished we’d just talk about all this more openly. If we can embrace our friends and communities as enough, then maybe we can extend that same grace and patience toward ourselves. But that can’t happen if we think we’re the only ones feeling this way.
Second, I’ve found diving into the big questions to be clarifying: What makes me feel safe or happy or fulfilled, rather than what is supposed to? What is meaningful to me right now? These sound like superficial questions, but when you really delve into them, they can be incredibly telling. It’s about extending compassion to yourself.
CNN: Is there any research to support that we can be more content as people if we’re not chasing some impossible dream?
Stauffer: I want to point out the work of Dr. Erin A. Cech on the “passion principle,” which I cite in the book. The passion principle is explained as self-expression being a guiding force in career decisions. It’s what we’re all supposed to aspire to, right?
But some of Cech’s research points out that the passion principle can neutralize critiques of our labor structure, meaning that we might be less inclined to push for more leisure time or shorter work hours because we see it as “pursuing our passion,” even if the conditions are poor.
Another piece of research that comes to mind is one I quote in the book on young adults and leisure activities. Often, we see “finding ourselves” or discovering our path as something tied to work and big dreams, or goals we want to accomplish.
But this research suggests that leisure — defined here as free time and stuff you do for fun — can help us navigate identity development, new experiences and relationships and commitments to things we find fun or fulfilling. So, it isn’t just these wildest dreams that help us grow. It’s the small experiences, too.
CNN: Might the pandemic help hasten our embrace of the ordinary?
Stauffer: With the pandemic, it was interesting to look at what we turned to and reached for when so many of the circumstances of our lives were upended and structural inequalities exposed. In the middle of this struggle to get basic needs met, with so much chaos, grief, loss and trauma, most of us did not reach for the shiny so-called “aspirational” things.
We reached for the ordinary ones. We reached for families and communities. We cared for each other.
CNN: In your book, you encourage young adults to not forget relationships in their process of self-discovery.
Stauffer: There is something so underestimated about growing into ourselves in relation to the people and communities we care about. There is this idea that I need to get everything figured out about myself first, and I am going to get to know myself deeply and get it locked down, and only then can I really open myself up to other people, whether it is friendship, a broader community, a romantic relationship or some combination of these things.
Personal agency is important for development, but somehow we have forgotten the other side of this. Needing people and needing support are not character flaws. They are deeply ordinary things that keep us going and in many cases reveal new parts of ourselves that help us become who we are.
CNN: How do you recommend parents of tweens and teens help expose their children to the richness of being ordinary?
Stauffer: Not every question you ask of a teen or tween has to be future-oriented. It is fun to hear about their goals and dreams, but it can also make them feel like their worth rests entirely on their future self.
Make a point to ask them what they are passionate about, curious about and stressed about. We all want to be seen or celebrated for who we are right now.