During the pregnancy for both of our children, Judy and I prayed and worried and hoped our child would be born with all the fingers and toes and with the normal mental and physical capacities of newborns.  Infertility and miscarriages had made these legitimate worries for us.  In short, we wanted a normal, healthy baby.

As soon as each of our children was born, we breathed a sign of relief that each appeared to have all the normal capabilities and physical features intact.  In pretty short order, however, it was tempting to raise the bar and begin hoping for extraordinary.  I began to imagine all the great possibilities each child possessed.  Before either of my infant children had a say in the matter, I found myself shifting from “delighted with ordinary” to “hoping for extraordinary.”

To tell a child or teenager that they are extraordinary, that they have great potential and capabilities provides them with a powerful dilemma.  On the one hand, such a message can provide children with an image of themselves that can be full of life and energy.  The message can be a springboard for them to explore possibilities and develop their capabilities in ways that can bring them joy and fulfillment and a sense of meaning.

However, the same message that can be a springboard can also become a wall.  When being extraordinary becomes the expectation or the goal, something happens.  The child shifts focus from, “I love soccer.  The more I play, the better I get.  The better I get, the more I love it,” to “I love soccer, but I didn’t score as many goals this game.  What’s wrong?”  The expectation and outcome get the focus rather than the task at hand.

I worked with hundreds of university students who lost all interest in their chosen major because their entire focus had shifted from the material they enjoyed to their expectations (or their parents’ expectations) of what their final grade should be and how that would affect their GPA and their eventual career.

Focusing on outcome and expectations eventually leads to a kind of constricted living, characterized by caution and worry.  Expectations of being extraordinary eventually sap the very energy and creativity that got the ball rolling in the first place.  We are then left with joyless, worrisome striving.  Rather than an expansive view of self, we end up with a restricted and narrow view of who we are and what we can do.

When being extraordinary becomes the expectation, something else happens.   We lose the possibilities for truly celebrating ourselves and our work.  If the “extraordinary” person fails at something, that is a disaster, a source of shame.  If that person does average, they have not lived up to their potential and should try harder.  If that person does very well, it is simply what is expected of them.

The bottom line, the person who defines himself or herself as extraordinary eventually has nothing to celebrate.