Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why Superlatives are the Worst

Mike and I went to see Jerry Seinfeld’s live stand-up routine a few months ago in Kansas City. Although we had a great time and laughed until our faces hurt, I refuse to proclaim it as “the best show ever” or “the most amazing experience.” Why, you ask? Because I don't like superlatives, and I really loathe the word “amazing.” Few things are truly amazing, and the word has become so overused that to hear something proclaimed amazing!!! has absolutely no impact any more, since everything under the sun is “amazing.”

If everything is amazing, then nothing truly is. Same with superlatives. People think their spouse is the best, their kids are the best, their dog is the best. It’s all meaningless. I have great kids, and I have a great husband. My cats aren’t really all that great, although I do love them in spite of their scratchy, barfy selves. But to proclaim something as “the best” only sets oneself up for disappointment. I think these grand proclamations are…well, sometimes a superlative is necessary…the worst.

Not to say I’m a comic genius or any such thing, but Jerry Seinfeld totally stole one of my ideas. In his routine, he did an entire bit about how he’s so tired of everything being “the best.” He said, in summary, how you hear all the time about this restaurant, or this store, or that movie, and how they’re “the best,” and “amazing,” and “so great.” And then you try whatever the raved-about thing is, and you discover that…eh….it’s okay. Seinfeld said he’s never out to find “the best,” but that he’s looking for something that’s “not bad.” And that’s all I’m looking for…something that doesn’t suck.

Superlatives are dangerous because they raise expectations and, in my opinion, raised expectations are about as bad for a person as intestinal distress on an airplane. If you think you have the best ____ (fill in the blank), you will be devastated when the ____ does something stupid, gets in trouble, or throws up on your pillow as you’re brushing your teeth for bed. It’s hard to recover when a paragon of excellence breaks your heart. Yet, knowing someone or something is faulty – that there are chinks in even really well-made armor - is one of the greatest often-unrealized secrets of life. Or so says Kelly.

I used to work at a small university. Because I am such an efficient worker, I often had a lot of free time on the job to explore personal interests, like on-line shopping, trip planning, and espousing my opinions to co-workers and some of the students I was friendly with. In hindsight, the students may not have been such a great audience (since many of them were just barely getting by), but I often preached the benefits of lowering expectations in order to be happy, as well as many reasons why embracing mediocrity is underrated.

Low expectations are good for a person for so many reasons. So much of life is completely out of one’s control and recognizing this is so important to achieve personal happiness. The lower one’s expectations are, the easier it is to be happy. If you expect little of the world, you won’t be disappointed if little is received. If you think you deserve so much - because you’re so smart/such a good person/tall/have beautiful penmanship - and then you don’t get it, it will be hard to find goodness in this mightily unfair world. On the other hand, if you expect little, and get little, you will be perfectly happy. And, on those rare occasions when wonderful things happen, it’s so easy to be delighted, since you weren’t expecting anything in the first place. Having low expectations – which goes hand in hand with avoiding superlatives in your life - is a win-win situation. If I get through the day and the whole family is still alive, it’s a good day. And if none of the cats produced a hairball or a meal, it's a really good day.

Embracing mediocrity is all about lowering other people’s expectations of you. This idea isn’t as well received as lowering expectations, but I support my ideas despite any perceived ridiculousness of said ideas. If one is the type of person who ALWAYS does their best, much will be expected of them – at all times. To do a great job will be to do a normal job. To do merely a good job will be a disappointment. Whereas if someone consistently does a sufficient job, the “sufficient” job will be perceived as good, any anything that’s a “good” job will be considered a great job. To be a high achiever is usually a recipe for disaster. To be an average achiever gives one the opportunity to occasionally be brilliant. I support embracing mediocrity because it takes the pressure off. And it’s much easier to please people, and less easy to disappoint them, if you’ve managed to manage their expectations.

Of course, now that I have kids, I frequently hear myself saying crazy things like, “Always try your hardest,” and “Always do your best.” I am curious if I can apply my own lax standards to my kids. But, educating kids and parenting is a lifelong journey, and you can’t spill all the secrets at once. As a parent, I hope to sometimes avoid the superlatives – like wanting the kids to be the best at something, or always knowing what’s “best.” It’s a four-letter word for a reason.

Sometimes I feel like I’m well on my way to writing a best-selling self-help book. But then I realize I’m treading into the waters of superlatives and expectations, when the reality of it all is that I probably need to buy, not write, that book.