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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Celebrating the Ordinary

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 10th 2013

Celebrating the OrdinaryMay and June are the time of the year when students attend their graduations from high school and college. Speeches abound about the importance of hard work and success. Parents and grandparents feel enormous pride as they witness their loved ones take the next full step towards the next stage of life. While everyone is hopeful about the future, one of the most puzzling questions that each graduate and their family must answer is how to define success? Graduations themselves seem to make a statement about success by issuing prizes for research, fellowships, scholarships and recognition for extraordinary scholastic and athletic achievement. However, where does all of this leave all the many, even majority of students, who do not win prizes and fellowships? Does it mean that they are failures even before they start their lives because they did not achieve recognition in school?

Several writers have focused on the fact that we become so obsessed with being competitive and successful that we lose site of the ordinary things of life and this includes being someone who is ordinary or having such a child. In this sense, ordinary is not a failure but success defined in a way different from what is usually thought of as fame and money. Rather, being ordinary and successful means being kind, generous, thoughtful, grateful, generous and compassionate. Alice Tugend writes about this in a New York Times article, "Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary."

Many years ago a school psychologist friend of mine complained that parents were so insistent that their children were gifted learners and, therefore, should be in classes for the gifted that the school had to start remedial classes for these children who were not gifted and could not keep up with those who were. It's this kind of attitude that does damage to young and old by sticking to a narrow definition of success. By pressuring children to be outstanding we overlook their particular ordinary but important talents and capabilities. Everyone wants to have an exceptional child and ignore the fact that their children are ordinary in the most positive meaning of that word.

This is part of the message conveyed in the book, "The Gift of an Ordinary Day," written by Katrina Kenison, mother of two adolescent boys. As Ms. Kenison said, one of the most important conversations we can have with our children is what we mean by success."Ordinary has a bad rap, and so does settling — there is the idea is that we should always want more," she said. "But there’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have." She goes on to state: "I know I began writing in an attempt to heal the disconnect between what I observed around me — the pressure to excel, to be special, to succeed — and what I felt were the real values I wanted to pass on to my children: kindness, service, compassion, gratitude for life as it is."

In the end the point to get across to our children and to ourselves is that it's not that we should sit around doing nothing but to aspire to goals that are important to us, not to impress others but because they fit our individual values. As one high school English teacher, David McCullough Jr.,  said in his speach to graduating seniors,  "Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you."

What are your thoughts about success and how it's defined?

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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