A lot of people seem to be confused on what it means to be unique. Being unique means that there is no one else quite like you anywhere else in the entire world. There never was and there never will be. No one else has ever had the exact same shade of hair that you do or that particular little glint in their eye. Much like a snowflake, you are an individual—unique in every way.
That doesn’t mean that you’re special.
Here’s the thing: if we are all unique, distinctive little snowflakes, then by definition, we cannot be special. If everyone is completely unlike anyone else, then we cannot also be better, greater or otherwise different from anyone else. I am just as unique as you are and so is the man behind the counter at the gas station and the lady third in line behind you at Starbucks. If we were all to pause for a moment, look at the next person that we encounter and think to ourselves, “Wow, this person is just as unique as I am. They have their own distinctive set of talents and shortcomings, just like I do,” it may just change our day-to-day interactions with people.
There has been a lot of criticism of millennials in the media lately, and this “special mentality” is at the root of most of it. In her article for Business Insider, Susanne Goldstein states that “Millennials have been told since childhood that they are outstanding and they believe it, whether they are or not” pointing out how millennials are ill-equipped for the “real-life” workplace due to the influences of group-think via social media and helicopter parenting. Goldstein surmises that the inability for millennials to make decisions for themselves, while at the same time being praised for being “outstanding” gives them a feeling of entitlement that carries over into their careers and in fact, inhibits their growth.
David Brooks, in his controversial book A Road to Character, compares what he calls the culture of “The Big Me” in today’s society to examples of people throughout history who were aware of their own limitations and were willing to eschew making a name for themselves in order to effect the greater good. Brooks’ sharp critique of today’s youth has drawn an outpouring of responses from across the internet, from the Atlantic’s “David Brooks Misunderstanding of Millennials” to a more personal attack from The Concourse in “I Don’t Think that David Brooks is Okay, You Guys.” Interestingly enough, both of these articles were written by a millennial, but we would be remiss in dismissing this reaction to being solely relegated to those who came into adulthood around the year 2000. Anyone whose notion of distinction comes under fire would likely respond in a similar way, regardless of their age.
However, once we divorce “special” from “unique” we realize that there is no shame in being ordinary. Being ordinary simply means that we are, in fact, unique. It’s just that everyone else is just as unique as we are.
**Editor’s Note: For a wonderful and empowering viewpoint into being ordinary, watch this high school commencement speech from 2012. You’ll see that it’s not as bad as you think.