One of our most painful feelings occurs when we doubt that we are capable.
We may doubt that we are capable of accomplishing a certain task or being a certain kind of person. Or we may just generally doubt that we can succeed at life.
This is a widespread feeling that so many people suffer, even when they seem like the most capable people in the world.
I remember once reading an interview with Jennifer Aniston when she was at the height of her Friends fame. She talked about this “piece of &^*#” feeling she carried around inside her all the time.
This doubt of our capability stalks all sorts of people from all walks of life. And it can present itself in a wide variety of disguises. For instance this doubt may present itself as . . .
The feeling that we aren’t good enough to pursue goals meaningful to us.
Or the feeling that we are just average and mediocre.
The feeling that everybody but us gets it.
Or the feeling that we are small and insignificant.
Those are just some of the common ways that our doubt of our capability surfaces.
There are probably various influences that cause this feeling in our life. But I would like to address one influence, common in contemporary culture. This influence can distort our thinking and cause us to doubt our capability.
Exceptionalism: A Thinking Distortion
Contemporary culture, especially culture in the United States, obsesses over the exceptional. A lot of our cultural pastimes or entertainment focus on contests where people strive to outdo everyone else.
And our magazines and other media sources often focus on promoting people who are exceptional. For instance, such media sources might focus on the most wealthy or “beautiful” or talented or eccentric people or whatever.
Or, as another example, our economic system encourages us to constantly outdo the competition and show that our product is not merely helpful or useful or good enough but exceptional.
And in fact, our obsession with the exceptional is so pervasive that many of us feel like we must be exceptional to be capable or worthy.
That is why we constantly doubt our capability. We have learned to equate capability with being exceptional.
And certainly nothing is wrong with being exceptional. But no one is better than everyone else at everything. And even if you are the best at something, soon someone will come along and outdo your performance.
For example, at one point, people believed that no human being could run a mile in under four minutes. And then Roger Bannister came along and proved them wrong by running a 3.59.4 minute mile. He was exceptional.
But only for a moment.
Because once he broke the four-minute barrier, the world realized it could be done. So, a bunch of other people followed after Bannister and set new mile records.
The Pressure to Be Exceptional is Unsustainable
So, when we constantly equate capability with being exceptional, we place an unsustainable burden on ourselves. And it is no wonder, then, that we constantly doubt our capability. Because if being capable or good enough means being exceptional, then this entails that most of us are not capable or good enough at most things.
And even if we are, we won’t be for long.
Furthermore, the ironic thing is that even if we are exceptional, it does not guarantee happiness. There are a lot of exceptional, miserable people in the world.
Because being the best at something does not guarantee that you are wise, good to others, good to yourself, or connected to anything larger than your own narrow interests.
And granted, sometimes we need to focus on our own narrow interests for a while. There is a time for everything. But if all we are only ever focused on our own narrow interests, our life becomes an echo chamber.
And we miss the richer, deeper dimension of life that we discover when we confront otherness that summons latent aspects of our humanity. (I wrote about a time I experienced such otherness and a summons here: Are College Professors Trying to Make Everyone Liberal?)
And furthermore, because exceptionalism encourages an obsession with individual accomplishment, it neglects relationships. Thus, it also neglects the rich dimensions of existence that flow from a strong community.
But there is an alternative to our obsession with exceptionalism. It is a focus on flourishing.
To understand flourishing, it is helpful to look at an Greek word, eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), which Aristotle wrote a lot about in books like Nicomachean Ethics. Eudaimonia doesn’t have an exact English translation. It literally translates good spirit. But it refers (among other things) to the state a human being has when they develop and express every type of goodness.
Whenever I teach students about eudaimonia and the concept of flourishing, I liken it to a tree that is in full bloom. Every limb and branch, leaf, and blossom of the tree is fully expressed and blossoming.