At the Boston IECA convention, Dr. Ellen Braaten opened her keynote speech, “The Curse of the Average Child,” with this slide.

Walmart or Harvard. All other high schoolers should just go home, settle in with their iPads, hide under the t-shirt quilt Aunt Donna had custom-made, and binge watch Game of Thrones. If these are the only options, then it’s winner take all—because stocking shelves doesn’t play well on Instagram.

My yoga instructor had a similar idea nearly a decade ago. “We are a nation of extremes; moderation is no longer respected. Sodas are bigger. SUVs are bigger. And some family named ‘Kardashian’ is on TV. How long will people want to watch that?”

Ponder the following realities:

  • How many more ounces is today’s X-Gulp than 1976’s Big Gulp? A lot. (Ok, 118 to be exact [150 vs. 32].)
  • How many followers does Kim Kardashian have on Instagram? More than 50 million.
  • What percent of applicants were admitted to Stanford last year? 0{475f6e8ad7be3161114314a988b7e8f491719bdeedead1da50322e1eadee8259} (according to Frank Bruni)

Consider the following scenarios, both of which I witnessed within the last year in my practice.

  1. No Way Out

Nelson was diagnosed with acute school phobia (Didaskleinaphobia) at the age of 13. He missed 45 days of school his freshman year and was lucky that his transcript had four passing grades, all Ds, but passing nonetheless. In elementary school, Nelson performed just fine, earning honor roll each year up through the fifth grade. By the time he turned 13, his sister had been admitted to Wesleyan, his brother was a star lacrosse playter, and Nelson decided that if he could not get straight As, school was futile. His thinking (variations on I can’t get straight As, there is no place for me) led to suicidal ideation and a hospitalization. After extensive therapy, and an art class that sparked an interest in painting, Nelson finished his junior year with a 3.0.

  1. The Highest of Bars

Leesa was a straight-A student with 8 APs, a 33 on her ACT. She was a student residential leader at her prep school, a regionally recognized piano player, a six-time varsity athlete, and a nationally ranked water skier. As much as I tried to caution this only child and her parents that an Ivy League admit was a reach (I should mention that her subject test scores were in the mid-600s, and she received no 4s or 5s on her AP exams), she really wanted to apply, and with an ED application no less. Deferred ED1 at Cornell, and clearly shaken by the news, I engaged her with the following in the hopes of helping her gain perspective. “Leesa, name three people in your life you admire. Then tell me where they did their undergraduate work.” She began with Alan Turing (Cambridge, then Princeton). Bill Gates (Harvard, to start).. Sigh. I started again. “Ok, how about…” and I named a few teachers and mentors I knew had had a direct impact on her. Rutgers, Middlebury, Lafayette.

The fact remains that the majority of us—as a statistically reality—fall in the thickest section of the bell curve. (Why else would it be shaped like that?) And that is completely okay. I repeat this often to my students, and over and over again. But let’s face it: Being average or below average or even above average in any department guarantees nothing.

           It’s precisely your uniqueness that makes you awesome—deciding that someone else’s   uniqueness is better than your own isn’t exactly being your own best buddy about things…Can you imagine what our world would be like if our biggest heroes succumbed to the perils of comparison?…If the guys in Led Zeppelin compared themselves to Mozart? Dude. That guy’s huge. Way huger than we’ll ever be and he doesn’t even have a drummer. I think we should get rid of ours…You are more than enough. Avoid comparison like the plague. —Jen Sincero

What can we do as parents and mentors? Every day we must meet our children and students and their families precisely where they are. We are to awaken in them their unique value regardless of circumstance, test performance, athletic accomplishments, community service, extracurriculars, or GPA. Only from a place of acceptance can we help students shimmy their way back toward that sturdy trunk, and their marvelous unique center.