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facts & arguments

JORI BOLTON/The Globe and Mail

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Today's catalogues of super-athletes, supermodels and supermoms can really get the average girl down. I can't pass a newsstand, which for us regular folks happens in the grocery-store line, without being assaulted by a visual "Who's Who of Everyone – But You!"

Deflated by the absence of any person on this list who doesn't have a full staff of their own, I pack my scanned grocery items, replace them in the cart and trundle out to my economy car and an afternoon filled with the banal and un-extraordinary.

If I'm really in the mood for a pity party for one, I'll Google past friends who I vaguely know have gone on to do "great things." Their CVs read like a Rhodes Scholar phone book (a quaint item, I know – younger readers will have to look it up on Wikipedia); their accomplishments have taken them to the four corners of our not-so-square planet to ensure their legacies.

I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which touts the power of the average underachiever. However, since Gladwell is himself a literary giant, having injected a whole new lexicon into our world (The Tipping Point, anyone?), I can't take much comfort in his words.

Such is the way we live now: So hungry have we become for the next big thing that we adore the elite doing the most extraordinary things, but quickly become bored with our own lives. We all want to be super at something. But what happens when we're not?

Surely the fact Gladwell titled part of his book in reference to David, the human, against the giant Goliath reflects on another myth, that of Icarus. He flew too close to the sun and met his death by a sudden change in cabin pressure (erm, his wings melted). In modern times we witness all too often this Icarus effect. Almost inevitably, our superwomen and men fall to Earth, unable to maintain their godly perfection.

Strangely, even the food world has jumped on the "super" bandwagon, creating superhero foods out of green veggies, seeds and must-be-refrigerated oils. While I am happy to see the end of foams, powdered parsley and deconstructed plates, I can't quite see the fuss over the working-class veggie world. I mean, I love Brussels sprouts and kale, but do they need to be so lauded that they now receive star treatment in every restaurant that's cancelled its 15-course tasting menu? Should kale and quinoa be so revered that they arrive at your table in hushed silence?

Food and eating used to be about survival, yet superchefs and superfood now garner as much celebrity clout as movie stars. What do chefs do, exactly? They cook food. Which is something I do most days, but I've rarely received fawning praise from my diners. If I can get the five-year-old to sit still for the duration of dinner I've accomplished something.

Which brings me to parenting – another area kidnapped by elitism, and an arena to which I have season tickets. I think it's time to start embracing mediocrity in parenting. Heaven help us if another national magazine features a mother who does it all, a CEO who builds a daycare next to her office (I would, too, only I'm terrible at bricklaying – my own fault), or a parenting "expert" who asserts that all children have the potential to be geniuses if only their parents learned to push the poor dears to the brink with rigorous lessons in violin and math. What do we risk by striving to achieve superdom?

But wait a minute – or is a minute too long now? What if we told our kids and ourselves that we can't do it all; and moreover, that doing it all will only mean less quality, less meaning and less time for everyone involved?

Wouldn't it be wonderful to do one thing at a time, and indeed do it well? Isn't multitasking – despite being the boast of many people these days who are just "so, sooo busy!" – perilously close to attention deficit disorder? Am I the only one who discovers midway through the third item on my To Do list that I've forgotten what I was up to originally? Multitasking, in my un-extraordinary mind, seems to produce more flummoxing and unfinished projects to litter my house, which of course I should have tidied up a bit better instead of trying to vacuum/cook/arrange a car pool to some hockey arena.

Serious moral ramifications lie in the relentless pursuit of perfectionism. While we seek an App to outsource ourselves because we're too busy for our own lives, we risk making ourselves, our humanity, obsolete. Without this collective, vested humanity, we shape-shift into something not human. The "super" prefix creeps into our dialogue, skewing our behaviour, often with catastrophic, inhuman results.

Oscar Pistorius, the most recent super-athlete to have fallen from the sun's vertiginous heights, did more than overcome his physical impediment. His stratospheric success allowed us all to buy into the hero worship that occurs in elite sports. But his fall from divine performance was swift and brutal.

Perhaps mediocrity isn't such an unattractive state after all. Being ordinary allows one to remain human, to understand the faults in each other, and to recognize ourselves in the other rather than striving toward becoming the next Super-Whatever.

Now, I'm off to the kitchen to tackle a pile of dishes, lest I get too above my station.

Catherine Brennan lives in Toronto.