When I drove into Yosemite Valley for the first time, all I could think of was — I am so small. Just a speck on this earth. The scale of a National Park is always what gets me. Driving across vast open spaces, hiking in the midst of tall trees, with huge mountain ranges towering over me — I feel my own insignificance. It’s visceral. I am a small part of a huge and beautiful world — one that’s existed before me and will exist after me. Of course, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Reminders of our own insignificance are a big part of why anyone goes into nature. To remember our place in the world. So why is insignificance seen as a negative in so many other situations?
We live in a world that is more connected than ever before. I can have a conversation with a friend on another continent after reading an article posted one minute ago about a story that is unfolding across the country in real-time. We have access to everything. We are constantly bombarded with notifications of the successful. Those achieving things we’ve never even let ourselves dream of. And by the way, they’re like, probably 12. We can’t compete.
So the downside to this fame and like-obsessed culture is that we see the best of everything. The most intelligent, wealthiest, happiest, most athletic, creative, and best-looking people are constantly in our feeds. And we compare our own achievements to theirs. The big fish in a small pond analogy doesn’t really exist anymore. We are all small fish in the huge pond of life: Instagram. And while we innately know this on some level — we now have the added existential challenge of seeing it. Constantly. And when we compare ourselves against the most significant, our fear of insignificance is only strengthened.
The fear of insignificance is like fear in general. Some can be healthy and serve an important purpose, but too much is dangerous. We should care about our lives, of course. Strive for our best. Set goals and achieve them. Contribute something meaningful in our work and in our relationships — but we shouldn’t wreck ourselves in the attempt to achieve unrealistic absolutes.
I spend my days in middle school — arguably the worst time of anyone’s life. Where popularity (clout, as the kids say) is paramount. It’s everything. To be the best, the smartest, the funniest, or have the coolest stickers on your Hydroflask. It’s so raw at that age and you can see it so clearly. But we’d be kidding ourselves to believe it ends there. That along with age comes automatic maturity. A leveled and mindful response or awareness of our own place in the world.
We are still those middle schoolers. We still want to be seen. We want to be the best. I sure do anyways. Realizing my own insignificance can sometimes feel, well, sad. But it’s also freeing, honestly. There are so many people, places, things — I will never see it all, be it all, or the best at most (if any) thing! There is always someone with better photos, more interesting stories, or who teaches more kids to love math. But to be honest, that frees me up to stop caring so much about others, and start doing more of what I love. So why are we so convinced that in order to be anything we have to be the best at everything?
I am not the center of the universe. At all. And thank goodness — otherwise my bad day would throw everything out of orbit.
I always look back at the times I have been suddenly sick and forced to call in to work at the last minute. Like most teachers I know, I am always incredibly stressed about what could happen when I’m gone — who I’ll disappoint, what will be lost, and how this one day off, of course, will irrevocably ruin 150+ children’s lives (and my own). And yet, every time, as I reluctantly open my email the next day with one eye closed and a grimace anticipating what I’m sure will be hoards of mean, disapproving, and urgent emails… I am still always surprised to have usually not even one email regarding my absence. I didn’t ruin anyone’s life. I didn’t miss any meetings or make anyone mad. The world kept turning. Shocking. I know.
In fact, generally, I’m pretty sure no one even notices when I’m gone (maybe not even all of the kids in my actual classes) — and once I get past my own ego I’ve realized that’s a great thing. It means I’m doing my job well, not the opposite. Things can — and do — go on without me.
We are so conditioned to see the best and worst extremes that we miss the value in the middle. Significance is like anything in life — it’s relative. Things that are significant or insignificant to you are just that — to you. Everyone’s problems are more significant, their experiences more meaningful and the quality of their work more professional — to themselves.
It’s okay to just be okay at something. Humans have limitations. You can’t actually hack every area of your life for “unlimited productivity” or “crush all the obstacles in your path”. And that’s okay. It makes room for the things that, well, the things you still probably won’t ever be the best at — but the things in which you enjoy the attempt.
So the next time you start to doubt your significance in the world please remember that yes, in some things you are insignificant. In a big and beautiful world. On a scale we cannot comprehend. And that’s a good thing. Because our purpose in life isn’t rated on a scale of absolutes. It’s all relative, of course. You probably aren’t the best at anything — but is anyone really?
So just be you.