Imagine a world where everyone possesses the same amount of intelligence.
In this world everyone is born with the same brain, the same drive, the same motivation, intelligence, and talent. For the most part we are all the same. But we don’t like to think this way. Our minds make a motion to reject this claim and we substitute our own reality instead. No one likes to be generalized, and most people feel threatened when confronted with the fact that they might not be that different from everyone else. Don’t worry, it’s normal.
Am I the only person that believes that I am unique?
Probably not. Depending on the situation many of us would affirm that we are unique in some way, and the majority of us believe that we are above average in almost every regard when comparing ourselves to our peers. Most of us have a deep personal belief that we are a unique individual. But what if we aren’t that different from other people? What if we aren’t that unique? In Sheena Iyengar’s book “The Art of Choosing” she explains three key observations she came to after studying these questions:
- People are more alike than they realize
- What people believe about themselves, or what they would like to believe, doesn’t vary much from person to person
- Each person is convinced that he or she is unique
I hate to admit it but I really dislike reading those statements (er, observations). I disagree on so many levels because after all, I am unique. Or at least I feel that way. Since I was little I’ve always thought that there was something different about me, that I possessed a set of talents and abilities that made me different than everyone else. There couldn’t be anything normal about me, could there? In our attempt to avoid being labeled with the crowd, we tend to perceive ‘sameness’ to be less desirable. At the end of the day who wants to be the same? Our culture places a great deal of value on being unique. I am realizing that this belief of uniqueness isn’t exclusive to me. The majority of people harbor these same thoughts I’ve had my whole life.
If you’re anything like me you might spend more than enough time in your head dissecting your personality to better identify and understand who you are, why you act the way you do, what people like about you, what they hate about you, etc. For me, self-discovery is a process of deconstruction, like playing with those oddly satisfying Russian doll sets where each one gets smaller and smaller. The thought of being like everyone else is very unnatural, and slightly uncomfortable at best. If we have more in common with our fellow peers than we think, does this ultimately mean we may have a character flaw, that we’re lazy, or worse – that we have no character at all? In reality we assimilate with other who think like us, who agree with us, and who share the same values as us. It’s comfortable, it’s safe, and perhaps it’s a sign that we all share a little more in common with each other than we think.
Am I The Only One Who Is Different?
The “Better-Than-Average-Effect” describes the tendency for people to overestimate their talent and ability relative to others. Everyone else is just, you know, average. Studies have shown that only the tiniest percentage of people describe themselves as “below average”. In “The Art Of Choosing” Iyengar further explains that when people were surveyed about their beliefs on being above average, “90 percent of us believe ourselves to be in the top ten percent in terms of overall intelligence and ability”. If studies show that only six percent of the American population suffers from the very rare personality disorder called narcissism but yet 90 percent of us think we’re better than average, then we need to understand why we think this way.
How Similar Am I To Others?
My initial response to this question is predictably “not at all”. Based on the study mentioned above, I would guess that around 90 percent of you might answer the same way I did. It’s not bad, it’s just an observation. Why do we think that we’re so much more unique than everyone else? My guess is that it’s partly due to how intimately we know ourselves, our thought patterns, our choices, our likes and dislikes, our tastes and preferences, etc. We’ve come to make these assumptions over years and years of choices. It’s much easier to know that the people I hang out with, the music I listen to, the food I like, the clothes I wear, the brands I buy - these things all mean something to me.
But what if other people’s thoughts and choices are just as complex as mine?
I have news for you. They are. It’s clear that humans are hardwired to think we are above average compared to everyone else. And for some of us that may be true. Perhaps this is an evolutionary trait our species adapted over time. Regardless of how you identify yourself on the spectrum of talent and ability it’s clear that our expectation of who we are is important.
Instead of viewing talent and ability as a limited resource, it might help to see it as something more universal and collective that we all share. Understanding our unique individuality (and underlying homogeneity) with those around us might allow us to value each other just a little bit more, too.
After all, we’re more alike than we realize.
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