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S2E6: Above average mediocrity

David Brooks calls it the “second mountain”, I call it “struggling with above average mediocrity in lieu of a mid-life crisis.” As my generation ages into their 30s and 40s, there’s a struggle — particularly among men — of how to deal with being “merely average”. I think it’s slightly worse recognizing you might be “slightly above average” in many things, but still not good enough to be great at anything.

Transcriptions for this episode are generated by automatically AI. A copy of the transcript follows.

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It’s probably no surprise that as people get older they tend to question their averageness, right?

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Sometimes I think about all of the people who have ever lived in the history of the world, in the history of civilization,

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and thinking about all of the things that most people did day to day that are completely forgotten.

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There are a handful of people that maintain sort of a vaulted status in our society.

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And a lot of them are the kinds of people that you would expect.

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Titans of industry like the Rockefellers or great rulers or great military leaders like Napoleon and that sort of thing.

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Queens, Cleopatra for example.

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But there are so many people who even get to positions similar to that

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Like there are plenty of presidents that most people have really never heard of or have almost no information about

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And I think about that and it sometimes depresses me a lot that there’s this

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lack of longevity to a person’s life and

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I think that I think about that more

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precisely because I

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Don’t have kids

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I’m probably not going to have kids if I do have kids. It’s almost certainly not going to be biological and

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as a result of my being an only child

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there’s something that bothers me about

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the fact that

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I’m the end of the line for this branch of this tree and

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genealogists would tell you that trees are very complicated and that branches

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have all sorts of sub branches and other things and that this doesn’t mean that this is sort of the end of

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the gene pool of my descendants are

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But at the same time it doesn’t feel great

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and I think about this too from

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An early age of my academics, right? Like I was always

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above average

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But I was never the top of my class. I was never the very top of my class. I was never

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the best at

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anything, except maybe, you know, here and there, maybe in elementary school, you know,

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I was the first kid in my third grade class to complete my multiplication tables.

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Whoop-de-doo, right?

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At the same time, I was 10th, or no, excuse me, 11th place in my fifth grade spelling

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bee.

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And so I feel like most of my life has been shockingly average, but only slightly above

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average.

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about how some people overcome this, right? David Letterman famously always had a scholarship that

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was offered to students at his alma mater at Ball State that was awarded only to a communication

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student, which he was, but also the most C average communication student because he himself was

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almost a straight C average student. And I don’t know that there’s a way that a person can overcome

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that, right? Like I feel like people can master certain things and we know a lot about mastery

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of topics or subjects or activities like athletics for example, or learning how to play an instrument.

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But it’s also true that a lot of people just don’t have quite what it takes for one reason

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or another, right? That, you know, to be a Michael Phelps-level swimmer requires that

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you have a wingspan like Michael Phelps, right? He has a biological advantage. And we can

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argue whether that’s fair or not, and I think a lot of people would argue that the equity

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of that is unfair, and inherently we should just sort of do something about that. I’m

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not one of those people. I tend not to think that it’s inherently unfair that some people

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have more money than me or that I have more money than other people or that some people

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are more physically attuned to certain things better than me than not.

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I think that the world has to recognize that sometimes there’s just luck, right place,

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right time, biological factors, economic factors, placement of things that just are in so many

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ways unfair but just the way they are.

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And as I’ve gotten older and I’ve gotten to a part of my life where I start working professionally

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with people, for a long time, for many years over the last six, seven, eight years, it

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has been really hard for me to think about how to make websites better, right?

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I make websites for a living.

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Now I sort of consult a little bit in a different capacity and I write for websites in various

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ways.

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And I don’t know how to make them

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World class right like I don’t I don’t I don’t know how to make them

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excel I can only seem to do about as well as

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It’s not budget right like

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There are some things in this world that no amount of money will make a big deal right you can’t take a small client or an author

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or an organization or something and

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and make them into a big deal globally known

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simply by virtue of a great website, right?

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There are so many other factors in that,

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including the team that they have in place

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and sort of the work that they do

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and where they do it and the geography of that.

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And that reminds me of this notion that Aaron Ren has,

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who’s a writer and podcaster here in Indy,

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where he talks about superstar cities, right?

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Where that there are places in the world like the London and New York and

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Hollywood and L.A. of the world where people there are just better, right?

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Not all of them, but that superstars in their fields will go to these places

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and just sort of be elevated to new heights.

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And I don’t know that a person can reasonably do that

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from within the confines of most other cities.

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Certainly every city has their celebrity du jour.

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Indianapolis likes to hang its hat next to Kurt Vonnegut,

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as well as others, Dave Letterman being another.

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But I don’t know that that works for everyone.

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I don’t think that a person in my position

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that a website consultant can sort of become

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a world-class website designer, developer, consultant, writer,

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whatever, but even being here or by being any place outside of some major agencies that

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have already attracted talented organizations and clients that they themselves are already

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a big deal.

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You think about Mad Men, for example, and Don Draper starts talking about Mohawk Airlines

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in this, which was a small airline for, and so as a small ad agency, they got this small

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airline having an airline was the big deal.

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And the famous quip in there was that we don’t need a big airline

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because we’re going to make Mohawk Airlines a big airline.

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And did they know?

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Is it possible to do that?

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Maybe it is somebody

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capable in sort of that anti-heroic way like Don Draper is to be able to elevate

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something like Mohawk Airlines into something from nothing.

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Maybe, but probably not.

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And again, it’s coming to terms with the luck and the randomness of it

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and recognizing that not every client can light the world on fire,

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that not every organization can light the world on fire.

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Not every person can light the world on fire.

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And therefore, there’s just a level of mediocrity and average

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that you just have to come to accept in life.

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And that’s really hard to do.

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And I don’t know that I know how to do that quite yet.

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I think about success inflation, right?

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Where there’s this notion that obviously

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if a person was successful that they need

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to have more success and whether they measure that

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in dollars or whatever is somewhat irrelevant.

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Although I would argue that money is a neutral indicator

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of value by and large.

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And so if a person is giving a person more money,

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then therefore they’re producing more success or more results, right?

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And I know lots of people can take lots of quibbles with that,

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but by and large, that’s a pretty good indicator, right?

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Like we’ve got a pretty good system in place in the United States

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to be able to sort of finagle that and figure that out.

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And that having one thing leads to wanting something else

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and leads to sort of a snowball effect of success.

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And some might argue that that’s a bad thing.

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And I don’t know that it’s necessarily a bad thing.

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I don’t think it’s a bad thing to always be reaching

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for the stars, right? You know, we think about just human navigation, right? That humans crawled out of a cave and

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we walked across the prairie and then we walked across the mountains and then we walked across

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the landmass and then

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we sailed across the ocean and then we made

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machines to do all these things faster and then we took to the skies and then we took to space and we landed on the moon

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And the next step is Mars, right?

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And so why do we have to go to Mars?

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Because it’s next.

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Because it’s the thing.

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We walked out of the cave and we saw where we could go.

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And so Mars is just next.

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And I don’t think that squashing that ambition

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is good for anybody.

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I don’t think it’s good for a nation.

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I don’t think it’s good for society.

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I don’t think it’s good for humanity.

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And so why would we do that and pigeonhole ourselves

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into those sorts of things?

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Why wouldn’t we always be wanting to reach

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for the next thing?

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Why is it not good to always be thinking about what’s next?

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What’s the best next thing that I can do?

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I think a lot of people look at that

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and they feel that this is sort of the rat race

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sort of a thing where you climb the corporate ladder

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and it’s all just sort of bleak and miserable or whatever.

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And maybe that is.

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It’s not a bad thing that some people don’t wanna do that.

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I don’t wanna do some of that stuff, right?

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I don’t want to climb a corporate ladder

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and become a big executive vice president or whatever,

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at some big corporation.

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But at the same time, I don’t think it’s a bad thing

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to be thinking about how to make things better,

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how to make my life better, how to earn more money,

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how to do it sustainably,

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how to live a more comfortable life,

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how to be more efficient and productive,

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and how to produce things that people care about

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and write things that people want to read

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and produce things that people want to watch

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or listen to or whatever.

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I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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And so success inflation can be good fuel for that.

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And by that rationale, you get back to this notion

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of superstar cities.

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And so if you live like me in a place like Indianapolis,

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by default, shouldn’t I want to move someplace else

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in order to be able to produce things that are better,

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to be able to be in an environment

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or in a community or a location

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that just has more built-in success to it

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by some virtue or by some rationale, right?

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Or by just being a slightly nicer place to live, right?

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That it could be some place that just has weather

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that you like more or that it’s some place that’s just

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more visually beautiful.

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Because I don’t think anybody would describe Indianapolis

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as a beautiful city.

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I don’t think it’s the worst, but I don’t think it’s the best,

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right?

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And so success inflation would dictate

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that we just kind of have to keep moving forward in a way that pursues something better.

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And Thomas Jefferson put that right there in the founding of the country, right there

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in the Declaration, right there in the pursuit of happiness, right?

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And all of this could come down to me having a midlife crisis, right?

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that there is stress over being merely average,

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that there is stress at being maybe even above average

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in some things and not being the best person on the planet

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at some thing.

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And I have given a lot of thought over the years

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about what is something that I can do

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that I can be the best person on the planet at doing.

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And I don’t know that there is an answer to that

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because we have an answer to that

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for so many other things, right?

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have an answer to who is the best swimmer on the planet, who is the best golfer, who

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is the best speller, who is the richest man, who is the richest woman, who is the best

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person at any number of things.

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And you can probably come down to somebody, even like who makes the best pizza, right?

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There are Netflix specials about this, about who makes the best kind of margarita pizza,

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or who makes the best pizza crust, or the best pizza sauce.

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Amazon even has lists of all these different things, right?

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If you write a book or produce something that gets into the Amazon store, there are so many

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categories and subcategories of best sci-fi thriller with leading female characters, right?

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Or best such and such with this other subcategory defined by the weather, right?

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And so it’s almost impossible not to become a bestseller in some subcategory someplace.

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And so I’m always thinking about how to get to that spot, how to become the best, most

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recognized known person about some thing.

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And I don’t know that a lot of guys would talk about it, certainly not men.

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I think it probably also impacts women, but I think it certainly impacts men, particularly

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in their 30s and 40s, where they start recognizing that maybe the peaks of things have come,

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right?

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no more mountain to climb, right? David Brooks talks about this in life as being sort of

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the second mountain, right? That the first mountain is sort of education, job, family,

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and that the second mountain is what happens as you climb what you… The second mountain

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is what you do after you’ve sort of raised your family and you’ve, you know, peaked in

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your career in some fashion and that now you start sitting around and looking at what is

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next, right? And it’s not retirement, it’s the thing that happens in midlife right before

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retirement, that second mountain of being able to have connection and community and

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a sense of belonging and purpose and place. And that the second mountain is so much harder

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than the first because the first is so well defined, right? It’s very obvious that you

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go from high school into a college or some sort of career path, maybe the military even,

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an apprenticeship, that the learning paths are very step stone oriented.

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But the second mountain is just this giant thing that you have to scale and you have

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to sort of define your own toe holds along the way.

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And then when you get to the top of it, how do you know that you’re even at the top?

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Because the second mountain, unlike the first where there’s gradations of things like top

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of the class by grades or top of the performance by sales or whatever, the second mountain

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doesn’t have that.

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And so as a guy in his mid-30s, I’m starting to look at this second mountain in my life

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and I’m starting to think about the averageness of things and trying to come to terms and

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being comfortable with that.

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And I don’t have any sage advice for it.

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I don’t have good opinions about any of this yet.

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I don’t even know how to feel about that yet.

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Because I also recognize that for a lot of people,

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that this is the time of their life

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when they actually have a little bit of money

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to be able to do some things

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and they have a little more flexibility

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and that things kind of free up in ways

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that they never had opportunities to free up before.

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And that enables them to accomplish great things.

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And so I can only hope that I have great things

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that are ahead of me.

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But I worry about it a lot.

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It takes up a lot of space in my brain

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to think about this sense of malaise,

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that I could die and that the only thing left behind

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would be some things that I owned

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that would all be distributed to who knows where,

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hither and thither, and that would be it.

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I even think about sometimes recognizing

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I’ve always thought that I wanted to be cremated when I die, but then recognizing that most people

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who are cremated don’t have headstones, and that headstones are at least this long-lasting marker

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of a person’s presence on this earth, and that yes, it too will crumble and fall away given,

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you know, a billion years or whatever. But not having even that strikes me as troublesome in

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my mind, which is kind of a bleak and depressing thing.

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I recognize that.

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People who are older than me may tell me that they themselves continue to fight with this

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problem.

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People may tell me that people get over it.

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Maybe it impacts some people more than others.

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I really don’t know.

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This is sort of where I am in my life and I recognize at least to the extent that everyone

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else probably also has these same questions and quandaries and problems and also don’t

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know what to do about it.

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And I don’t know what to do about it either.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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