How to escape the cult of normal

Normal can be far removed from what is good, right or healthy. Instead of following the herd, it can be far better to follow your values and do what's right for you.

Normal frightens the hell out of me. It’s scarier than sharks, snakes or clowns. It’s even scarier than having a pack of mutant shark/snake/clown creatures piled into a tiny car with me.

Normal seems harmless. It offers a warm, welcoming embrace… then slowly squeezes the life out of you (if you let it).

As a shiny 21-year-old, I ran into the warm, welcoming arms of the corporate normal. I suited up and commuted to the city for my first grown up job. At the interview, I’d been told “we work hard and we play hard”. I didn’t quite understand what that meant, but I soon found out. Each day my office would fill sometime before 8.00 am and it would only start to empty sometime after 6.

Pulling excessive hours was frighteningly normal and CabCharge vouchers were handed out like badges of honour to anyone who still happened to be in the office after 10. After coming in on a Saturday, I once made the mistake of telling my boss that I was struggling with the workload. My complaint was quickly dismissed. “Toughen up. It’s normal.”

On Friday afternoons, beers were handed around the office and we would throw them back enthusiastically, before heading downstairs to crowd the bar, like moths on a bug zapper. The whole city was down there for this regular Friday night ritual. By the time it came to walk wobbly-legged towards the last bus, vomit pockmarked the footpaths like tragic exclamation marks on another normal working week.

As a 23-year-old, I walked into a non-descript office tower and started my next job. I thought things might be different. I was then given an induction where I was told “we work hard and we play hard”. Things were the same – the same long hours, the same Friday night drinks, the same “suck it up” mentality. There were even the same depressing ceiling tiles that seemed to be closing in on me. After three months I was done.

Normal can be far removed from what is good, right or healthy. While I’d always been suspicious of normal, these formative experiences made me question normal even more deeply. To me, normal was just a cult with a really large membership base.

Instead of attempting to do what was expected, I took a different path – my own squiggly one. I worked as a freelancer and instead of prioritising corporate domination, I prioritised fun and creativity and taking time to aimlessly stare at the fish in the bay. Others regarded this decidedly non-normal path with a mix of bemusement, jealousy and contempt.

After being told their stories about horrible bosses, toxic workplaces and having to work excessive hours, I would then be peppered with questions such as: Why are you doing a ridiculous writing project when you could be making money? How do you get to spend Thursday afternoons playing beach volleyball? Why don’t you get a mortgage? Why are you staring at those fish?

The simple answer to all those questions was, I was doing what was good for me. Joy and creativity and time in nature benefitted my physical and mental health in a way that sitting under ceiling tiles for 50+ hours a week simply couldn’t match. Rather than worry about what was normal, I simply did what felt right.

From a very early age most of us are pushed and prodded towards normal. We are asked to conform and contort ourselves towards someone else’s idea of social acceptability. We are told that we can be anything, then dressed in a school uniform, taught from a standardised curriculum and sent on a conveyer belt towards the safety of normal.

A lot of us feel like outsiders. Many of us feel like we don’t belong. The problem is not that you are a weirdo. The problem is that we are all weirdos trying to wear these really uncomfortable normal suits. Most of us are simply aching to take these normal suits off and instead be our natural human selves.

No one dreams of being the 138th marcher from the left in a North Korean military parade. All our heroes are innovators, rebels and boat-rockers. We love comedians who make a joke of normal. We love artists who transcend normal are unapologetically themselves. We love the changemakers, who point out that normal is not good enough and work to make something better.

If normal is stupid or stifling or all sorts of messed up, take heart – normal can change. Right now, there are billions of people doing their little bit to make normal a whole lot better.

Breaking from normal doesn’t mean you have to run off and join the circus, take up BASE jumping or start a punk band. You can create meaningful change right where you are.

At work, we don’t have to perpetuate all the things that have made us miserable since starting our careers. We can choose to be kinder. Rather than assuming everyone is doing okay, we can be brave enough to ask the question. Rather than requiring everyone to toughen up, we can act with compassion, flexibility and understanding. Rather than expecting everyone to fit some narrow definition of normal, we can allow space for people to be a bit more human.

If normal life is feeling a bit blah, we can change things up. We can do more of those things which makes us feel energised and inspired and less of the things that leave us feeling exhausted and unmotivated. Instead of making a habit out of busyness, we can make a priority of self-care. Instead of tuning in to harsh self-criticism, we can treat ourselves with kindness and compassion.

If we find it has become normal to skimp on sleep, relentlessly multi-task or spend too many of our waking hours staring at screens, we can change these habits. There is nothing wrong with taking a mindful break and staring aimlessly at some fish.

For many of us it has become normal to hide our emotions and pretend that we are always okay. We can change this up too. Reaching out for support is far braver than silently suffering.

Instead of following the herd, each of us can follow our values. By being brave and being ourselves, we can break free from the clutches of normal and live the life we truly want.