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In Defense of Normal

We celebrate uniqueness, but our fixation on individuality can hold us back

Photo: Busà Photography/Getty Images

We underrate the value of normal.

We think normal means dull, average, or mediocre. Normal is unimaginative. Normal is being like everybody else.

Ads promise to save us from the tragedy of being normal. “Don’t be like them,” they say. “Be like you.”

At school and in our careers, we work hard to distinguish ourselves. We strive to be star performers and standouts. We want to get the part, land the promotion, fulfill our destinies. To separate from the normal pack.

But a strange thing happens in life. The further we go, the more welcome normal becomes.

For many it starts with having a family. When our lives are changed by the unknown of new life, normal becomes what we want most. A normal pregnancy. Normal child development. Family challenges that fall within the bounds of normal.

Normal means safety. Normal means others have been here before. Normal means we’re not the only one.

A sense of normal isn’t just helpful for normal things. It’s helpful for abnormal things, too.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro spent seven long years writing his first book, The Power Broker. Toward the end of that process he worked in a space at the New York Public Library reserved for authors. Here’s Caro:

“In my memory, no one spoke to me for the first few days I was in the room. Then one day, I looked up and James Flexner was standing over me. The expression on his face was friendly, but after he had asked what I was writing about, the next question was the question I had come to dread: ‘How long have you been working on it?’ This time, however, when I replied, ‘Five years,’ the response was not an incredulous stare. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s not so long. I’ve been working on my Washington for nine years.’ I could have jumped up and kissed him, whiskers and all — as, the next day, I could have jumped up and kissed Joe Lash, big beard and all, when he asked me the same question, and, after hearing my answer, said in his quiet way, ‘Eleanor and Franklin took me seven years.’ In a couple of sentences, these two men — idols of mine — had wiped away five years of doubt.”

Even for one of the literary giants of the 20th century, learning that his experience was normal brought profound relief.

When I was CEO of Kickstarter, I had breakfast each month with Fred Wilson, a board member and highly regarded figure in tech. During these breakfasts I’d share with Fred the challenges of the moment: someone was leaving, a new hire wasn’t working out, a competitor was creating headaches. Fred’s perspective — gained through working with many companies and CEOs — was always insightful. Some of the most helpful advice he ever gave me was the simplest: that the challenges I was facing were normal. Everyone went through this. It wasn’t just me.

Learning that a challenge was normal was liberating. It went from a personal shame to a badge of honor. This is what people (or companies, parents, couples, bands, etc.) like me go through. They got through it, and so can I.

Before that moment (and without realizing it), a belief in the uniqueness of my experience had led me to think I had little to learn from others. My own individualism got in my way.

Once I knew that a problem was normal, I became more resourceful in solving it. I wanted to crowdsource the best solution by learning what others had done. Before that moment (and without realizing it), a belief in the uniqueness of my experience had led me to think I had little to learn from others. My own individualism got in my way.

The limits of individualism were the subject of “Youth Mode,” a breakout 2013 report by the trend forecasters K-HOLE. Individuality had reached a crisis point. The energy and effort required to individualize ourselves, the group wrote, had increased significantly.

“Individuality was once the path to personal freedom — a way to lead life on your own terms. But the terms keep getting more and more specific, making us more and more isolated,” they wrote.

We’re all individuals with unique things about us. However, a world where we focus only on this fact is a world where each person is isolated in their hyper-specific experiences. Everyone is equally unique, and equally alone in their uniqueness.

K-HOLE speculated that some people were adapting to this challenge not by distinguishing themselves further, but by choosing to selectively become more normal instead. K-HOLE dubbed this choice “normcore.”

“Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging,” they wrote. “Normcore is a path to a more peaceful life.”

K-HOLE’s report became a viral sensation. But lost in the noise was K-HOLE’s actual idea: the proposal for a kind of post-individualism. A mindset that acknowledges each person’s individuality, but sees it as just one part of a person’s identity — not its defining trait.

A post-individualist perspective would say that all humans have individual characteristics unique to them — however, it’s not where the story ends. The bigger revelation is the many ways that we’re similar despite our unique experiences and differences. We all come from different places, but look how much we share. By letting go of our individuality we allow ourselves to participate in something bigger than just ourselves.

“Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality,” wrote K-HOLE. “Today people are born individuals and have to find their communities.”

Or to put it another way, today people are born special, but if they want to feel like they belong, they have to find their way back to normal.

One path back from the trap of hyper-individualism comes through accepting the ways that we’re normal. We’re all the exception to the norm in one or two facets of life, but in most everything else we’re normal. Even the cool kids tell their moms they love them. Even Noam Chomsky watches Law & Order most nights before going to sleep. (Or at least he did in 2003.)

The spectrum of human experience might feel wider than it used to be, but in reality it’s much smaller. The internet and mass media continue to make us more alike, while simultaneously luring us into silos of minute differences.

Trapped in our own unique experience bubbles, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s really going on. Our individual sample size is too small. We need our own experience plus an external reference point to properly situate ourselves. It was only after Robert Caro learned how long it took his heroes to write books that he knew where he stood. It was after breakfasts with Fred Wilson that I was clear on what was worth worrying about and what wasn’t.

By treating our own experiences more like public domain than copyrighted IP, we create a more informed sense of normal for all.

This is why sharing our experiences with our peers and others is so important. By treating our own experiences more like public domain than copyrighted IP, we create a more informed sense of normal for all. We tend to see our life experiences as proprietary information, but we have far more to gain by distributing them openly and widely. When we’re frank about our experiences, we’re helping our friends, peers, neighbors, and future versions of ourselves. There are few more generous or noble acts than this.

I saw this happen first-hand in 2010 when a writer named Craig Mod, who’d had a successful Kickstarter project, wrote a detailed postmortem of his experience. In it, he noticed his project’s “dead zone” — a period between when it first launched and ended where activity slowed considerably.

Mod’s essay prompted the Kickstarter team to dig deeper into the numbers. A few weeks later we published a larger study on “the trough” (as we called it), which showed that every project experienced that same dip that Mod went through in the middle of its campaign. The normalization of this knowledge helped creators be prepared for some lonely days and nights rather than feel despair or personal rejection when they inevitably arrived.

This defense of normal is not an endorsement for aiming low or settling for less. Progress depends on people breaking the expectations and boundaries of what’s normal. This is how normal gets better over time for everyone.

This defense of normal is a celebration of similarity. We live in a time when what’s desirable is what’s different. But there’s more value in our non-individuality than we admit. We’re not the first people to become parents, experience hardship or injustice, or create innovation or success. Without diminishing our individual achievements or stories, we have much to gain and little to lose by better appreciating the ways our experiences make us similar — and even normal.

Author of “This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World”; Cofounder of Kickstarter; Bentoist;

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