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"An Ordinary Age" With Rainesford Stauffer - TTFA PREMIUM - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “TTFA Premium” episode entitled “ ‘An Ordinary Age’ With Rainesford Stauffer - TTFA PREMIUM.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

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I’m Nora McInerny and this is Terrible, thanks for Asking Premium. Thank you so much for being a supporter of our show in this way. I really, really appreciate it, so does our team, so much.

I’ve been sitting on this episode for so long, I’m so eager to share it with you. I get sent a lot of books – and I READ a lot of books – and some of them just jump out and punch me right in the face. In a good way.

This is one of those books, this is one of those writers.

Rainesford Stauffer is the author of An Ordinary Age. And it’s a book detailing the pressures of young people today to live an extraordinary life: to take the BEST vacations (which, lol, my vacations were flights home to my parents where I had at least 2 layovers to save money), to have the BEST jobs (more on that in my next book), to have the best LIFE that can be performed and shown off.

And while this book is written about and for people in their 20s, I need to tell you: this book is for all of us. It is for of us who are in our 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s…I pray that by our 80s we don’t give any more shits, but the point is: this book really shakes a lot loose about the ways we live in this world, and the ways we measure our value against expectations both real and imaginary, and the absolute lie of extraordinary and special, and the glory of the ORDINARY.

I’ve had so many conversations with friends lately about how absolutely inextricable our being and doing seem to be. Hans Buetow, former producer on this podcast, once told me that he’s only as good as his last interaction. And I have always felt I’m only as good as my NEXT accomplishment. So I do not take any time to metabolize the satisfaction of anything, no achievement, or even the work itself. It’s a miserable way to be, and when I see it in others I want to reach right into them and pull it out of them. I imagine it like a writhing snake, just venomous like “you’re nothing ssssssspecial.” That was not a good joke, I don’t know what a snake would say. But, phew.

I think that’s why this book touched me so much. Why I was dogearing it, highlighting it, thrusting it into the hands of other people and insisting that they read it. Which I guess is what I’m doing to you right here in this moment. So…here’s me and Rainesford Stauffer, discussing her book, An Ordinary Age.

Nora: So as you're researching this book, or even starting the process of wanting to write this book, what is the driving question you are trying to answer? 

Rainesford: I think the driving question that jumped out to me in conversations I was having with young people before I was even formally writing or reporting the book was, what happens if my average self is all I get? How do I live with that? How do I not just accept that person, but how do I have a full life with that version of me? And I think what stood out to me very early on is it's, you know, quite easy because of capitalism to think of this in the context of work and education. And that's obviously very significant parts of this. But it was playing out in how we thought of loneliness, in that you should automatically know how to make friends. If you feel lonely, it's because you're not independent enough to go it alone. It played out in terms of how we thought about hobbies and how we used our spare time, or spirituality and thinking, well, I need to have all the answers, and if I need a community to ask these questions then it means something's wrong with me. It became very obvious, very quickly how many of us were searching for an answer to the question of, what does it mean for me to be enough and why is there no space in my life for me to even figure out what that means? And I can honestly say that that was something—this idea of the self that is enough, the average self, not the best case scenario version of you—was something that played out in every single conversation I had over the course of the two or so years that I spent on this book. 

Nora: And when we say ordinary or we say average, the hidden meaning behind it- or the implied meaning is, not good. 

Rainesford: Oh, absolutely. It's- well, you fell short in some way, or is this really the best you can do, or aren't you ambitious? Don't you want more for your life and yourself? At some point we really took words like ordinary or average or fine, and bent them to mean lesser than. And I think that that's something that happens subconsciously in a lot of ways, just in terms of how the words get used. But also, young people get that message from society that it's, you know, it's not enough to have one job, have you turned your passion into a side hustle? And is your job your dream job? It's not enough to just want to pay rent and have health insurance. What are you aspiring to? And it creates this idea that everything we dream of or focus on or has meaning to us also has to have external meaning too, and I think a lot of the time that just isn't accurate. Something can be deeply meaningful or fulfilling personally, that's not going to register on the scale of a best life or an extraordinary self or these other things that we really think of markers not just of success, but of fundamental value. 

Nora: All of that, and also... most of the time, the things that mean a lot to us, will not be the things that are widely celebrated, will not be things that bring us riches or further accomplishments. And when we turn our passion into a job, there’s a danger to that, too. Right, a danger to blurring those lines further between what you’re passionate about and what pays your bills. 

Rainesford: Absolutely, and I think that, you know, a lot of the time when we talk about dream jobs as something that we're inherently supposed to be aspiring to, it takes out how many of those circumstances truly exploit people. And I think that it makes it sound like, well, you know, you should just be grateful to be in the room. And I think that a lot of people really do internalize that feeling because on one hand it’s, yes, I'm very grateful to have my job because I need to pay rent and I need to pay my health insurance. But on the other hand, it keeps us from critiquing the structure that the work is happening in and the ways that work exploits a lot of human beings. I think that when we conflate who someone is and their worth with what they produce and the context in which they produce it, it's just incredibly harmful and it overlooks so much. And this whole obsession with the dream job really takes away the fact that, you know, you can have a dream life that does not involve labor. It is truly OK if you're not pursuing something that you're passionate about, or if the thing you're passionate about isn't making you money. And in thinking about, you know, these big moments of dream jobs or dream work, I think that the biggest… moment like that for me wasn't even the book coming out. It was when I turned the first draft in and had done it at all. I was working a totally unrelated day job the entire time I was writing this. I was dealing with physical and mental health issues that had come up and were making their presence very, very known. And so the big dream moment for me was something that people didn't even see. It was very behind the scenes, with a very rough, messy first draft and just utter gratitude, not only that I'd gotten to do it, but that I'd been able to. And I think that that's something that's never going to make the highlight reel of the dream job or the dream experience of writing a book, and I think it's important that we talk about that. That even when you are working on something you really love, there are sides to that that aren't necessarily being seen in the same light as the finished product.