Deborah Hill Cone: The incredible brightness of being ordinary

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"Legal Eagle Mai Chen's new path" was published in the New Zealand Woman's Weekly. Photo / Sarah Ivey
"Legal Eagle Mai Chen's new path" was published in the New Zealand Woman's Weekly. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Some people get inspired by stories of success and go on and do great things. They read biographies of iconic figures and glean motivation from their triumph and genius.

Me, I have a blanket policy to try to avoid freakish over-achievers wherever possible. If I think about Eleanor Catton, I can't get out of bed. If I were a songwriter, Lorde would make me want to chuck my guitar out the window.

Former gifted children are not to be trusted when they say how they are just like anyone else. Anyway, since I don't seek out rah-rah stories, I have no idea why last week I found myself reading this particular article "Legal Eagle Mai Chen's new path" in the New Zealand Woman's Weekly.

It was about stratospheric high-flyer Mai "finding some serenity in her life, slowing down, and changing her focus from busy, 16-hour-a-day lawyer, to a woman living a more sane, fulfilled existence."

You're spotting the problem here already, aren't you? How did Mai celebrate her new laidback approach to life? By being interviewed and photographed for a four-page spread in a national magazine. Way to go, Mai.

Personally, if I'd recently been reminded of my mortality and was deciding to change my focus from being a manic corporate goddess to becoming a chilled-out earth mother, I'd celebrate by blowing some snow-like drifts of dog hair off my sofa and spending the day playing Minecraft with my kids or cracking open a beer at 9am, rather than getting dressed for a professional photoshoot.

See, here is the difference. Whatever an overachieving brainiac says about how they got where they are today, do not listen. Cheers for trying, guys, but your advice is not really transferable to those of us with mediocre brains, middling self-discipline and average creative abilities.

The subtext to all the articles about achievers and leaders and heroes is that you could do it too. Unfair! So if you are still working at a call centre and sleeping in your mum's spare room at the age of 35, in case you weren't already feeling rubbish enough about your bog standard self, you can now berate yourself as well for the fact that if you tried harder, you too could be a global literary sensation.

Before I banned mention of the spookily talented Eleanor Catton, I did notice she declared "there's no room for competition in literature", which seemed kind of interesting given she had just got longlisted for the Booker Prize.

So she is super talented but also not competitive. Disembowel me now. I am particularly wary of stories from over-achievers about how they lead such normal well-balanced lives.

Most of these weirdos are over-achievers even when trying to be indolent. Newsflash: if you have to make sure you are relaxing in a super fastidious, creative, clever or well-thought out way, it is probably not actually relaxing. That's called work.

You must have seen those people in your yoga class with pulsating neck muscles who look like they are determined to be Zen even if it kills them?

I prefer my yoga instructor who says: "On the exhale, put your elbows on the floor. It doesn't matter if you can't manage it. It doesn't make you a better person. You can still be an arsehole with your elbows on the floor."

So, what does get me out of my dog-hair-encrusted bed? Curiously, what I find inspiring are people who are okay with being ordinary. People who are cheerful even though they work the hydraulic press in a diamond drill bit factory (one of my dirtiest jobs) or really like their job as a shopgirl.

As Philip Larkin (a librarian at a provincial university, as well as a genius) wrote in his famous poem for Sally Amis, the best thing he could wish for her was that she would have an average of talents, not ugly, not good-looking.

"In fact, may you be dull - If that is what a skilled, vigilant, flexible, unemphasised, enthralled catching of happiness is called."

I worried I may have been a little unfair on Mai Chen. So I read the article again and realised she was subtly trying to promote her new website willtolive.co.nz. (Slaps forehead). So, what Mai did to commemorate working less was to set up a new online business. I rest my case.

- NZ Herald

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