There is No Normal

We seem to care a great deal about what is normal and what is not, but I have good reason to think that there is no normal and that our preoccupation with it becomes a counter-productive perspective.  Imagine if you will, a normal person.  How tall are they?  How heavy?  How smart?  What do they look like?  What are their talents?  Now consider what normal might look like for someone from another culture.  The same?  Whose version of normal is more accurate (hint: probably Chinese or Indian).

I suspect that most of us would consider ourselves to be mostly normal.  So is normal an arithmetic mean of the human population, or is normal people who are more like us? And why do we want people to be normal?

When I visualize normal, I’m visualizing a blossom of deviations from that median where everyone is just a little different than what the human genetic blueprint might suggest.  Now this is where things start to get interesting because different isn’t necessarily good or bad – The universe never claimed to be a fair place.  Some of us are ‘gifted’ with a high IQ, athleticism, or good looks, while others are ‘gifted’ with a lack of emotional intelligence, binge eating tendencies, and a big nose.  Or maybe those are all qualities of the same person.

The unfortunate reality is that some of these deviations are so extreme that they’re not given a chance to play out.  Infants die from differences in how their brains or hearts developed and while we might be quick to call them defects, they weren’t broken and they didn’t come out wrong, this was part of the process and they got the short end of the stick.  What’s important to keep in mind though is that we’re dealt a hand and the hand is rarely determined by one card.  If you look back, this defines some of history’s most fascinating and accomplished people:

  • Beethoven: Legendary composer who began to lose his hearing in his 20s went on to compose some of his best work almost completely deaf.
  • Turing: Socially awkward, gay, eccentric math genius who founded modern computer science as an out of the box solution to cracking the German Enigma in WWII.
  • Hawking: World renowned astrophysicist who developed ALS in his early 20s who went on to become one of the most valuable minds in modern history – and he’s going to space!

Each individual is incredible person in their own right, but they also illustrate what I think is a very important pattern.  Given the right motivations and circumstances, being dealt a bad card doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been dealt a bad hand.

I think that the motivation necessary to accomplish what these individuals did is not to be undervalued, but for the purpose of this conversation, it’s about circumstance.  Consider if Beethoven was born today.  He likely would’ve received the right treatment for his illnesses and would’ve never gone deaf.  Had Turing been born today, he probably would’ve been celebrated like a gay Steve Jobs (a far more suitable ending to his story).  But what if Hawking had been born 100 years ago?  What this all amounts to, is the idea that we are each dealt a hand, and that your cards are largely irrelevant without knowing the circumstances in which we have to play them – but things are improving.

Had Hawking been born 100 years ago, he would’ve likely died before 25.  Medical science isn’t yet capable of giving everyone a fair shot yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress and Hawking is a fantastic example.  As medical science continues to improve, more people will be given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

While medical science might allow someone born with a heart defect to go on to play professional sports, social circumstances exist as well.  Alan Turing is my favourite historical figure and perhaps one of history’s best examples of someone who was born before his time.  Turing was gay in England at a time when being gay was illegal.  Despite a tremendous education, being highly regarded in his field, cracking the Enigma, being awarded the Order of the British Empire, and founding modern computer science, the British government prosecuted Turing for being gay.  He was left with the options of prison or chemical castration – to which he elected a third option and took his own life.  Imagine where computer science would be today had he fulfilled his potential.

Society evolves along with the rest of us and so do our understandings of what people should and shouldn’t be doing.  Consider this: The word kind is derived from the word kin, meaning children (or family more broadly).  Knowing that, perhaps as evolved as we might be, we might still have the pack instincts of being kind to our family, and being cautious of those who are not.  Where we’ve evolved though, is who we consider to be family.  Perhaps it began as a family, then a tribe, then a village, then a kingdom, and eventually an empire.  As we’ve progressed through those stages though, we’ve understood that kin isn’t necessarily determined by bloodlines, or location, it’s based on how we choose to identify ourselves.  As we learn that identity comes from within and isn’t a selection on a multiple choice test, the closer we come to understanding just what normal is.

The more honest we are with ourselves and the better we understand ourselves, the more we recognize that we’re all just a little different.  With that understanding, it’s much easier to expand the idea of family, to include our entire species.  If we’re looking at the entire species, there’s a lot of deviation from that human blueprint.  If deviation from the median is the norm, then different is normal.

Now for my favourite part.  Embracing different isn’t about gay pride parades or shaking up the dress code at work, it’s about doing what we’re best at.  Everyone’s wired in their own unique way and we’re just now entering into an era where exploring that identity isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged.  The more we explore our own identities, the better we’ll understand ourselves and the better we understand ourselves, the better we are at recognizing what our gift to the world is.  Everyone has their own unique potential and we must understand it before we can reach it.  The first step is understanding that there is no normal.

Challenge Everything: Why?

My mental model is developed as a reflection of my current understanding of how our known universe operates – but how do I know if any of what I think I know is true?  I  start by challenging it.  Usually by asking why.

Most people are familiar with the idea that there are the things you know, the things you know you don’t know, and the things you don’t know you don’t know.  I suspect that more than 99.9% of the universe currently falls into the category of unknown unknowns, with aliens being my favourite example:

Consider the sheer size of the universe and the wide definition of what we consider to be life.  Still think it’s just us?  Now consider how long the universe has been around and how much ground humans have covered in the last 2000 years.  The idea of advanced aliens zipping around the universe and messing with us from time to time becomes much less far fetched.  This part is key though – we don’t know, and that’s OK.

Perhaps what we really just did was acknowledge all the unknown unknowns, effectively making them known unknowns?  My apologies if that made your head spin, but the purpose of this exercise was to help everyone understand that while I’m not literally challenging everything, I’m challenging the things I think I know and certainly challenging the things that people tell me.

In an age where you can find anything on the internet to back up any point, I think it’s fairly evident to challenge the things you’re told by others.  A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to pick up some diet ginger ale for her cold.  I brought her orange juice.  She and her husband said that ginger ale was actually good for a cold because of the ginger.  I knew ginger had medicinal properties but thought that everything else in the soda would outweigh those effects – so I looked it up.  I actually found a couple articles saying that it was a valid remedy and almost conceded that I was wrong until I found a proper medical journal that debunked that quite easily.  Adjustments to the mental model were made, time to move on.

So it makes sense to challenge what I’m told by others, but why challenge the things I think I know?  If you noticed that I said ‘things I think I know’ instead of things I know, you just answered the question.  How many religious extremists ‘know’ that they’ll be vindicated in the afterlife?  How many Trump supports ‘know’ he’s an honest guy?  Too often we mistake a belief or assumption with an understanding, and challenging my own thoughts when I’m presented with new information is part of how I keep myself honest and accurate.

Imagine if people like Hitler, Pol Pot, or Andrew Jackson had kept themselves honest.

Now imagine if people like Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, and Alan Turing didn’t challenge that all important status quo.

It’s easy to be inspired when you understand how that dynamic has repeated itself throughout history but here’s the kicker: Whether you’re Abe Lincoln or Andrew Jackson, leaders need followers.  What would WWII have looked like had the vast majority of Germans dismissed Hitler as unfit to lead?

Truth is, not only do I maintain this disposition in hopes of one day making an Alan Turing-like contribution, I also do it knowing that the pursuit of knowledge is fundamental to progress and we could all be reminded of that from time to time.