Create an Extraordinary Life. That's the motto of the Morehead-Cain Foundation, the people who sent me to college. And it's piece of advice that each of us should heed.
No one in my family background, so far as I could tell, had ever been to college. My relatives were mechanics, truck drivers, and farmers who went to work, or served their country in the military, right out of high school. When I was a senior at Durham High, my mother told me there was no money for college. Then, out of the blue, or to be more precise, the Carolina Blue, I was nominated for what at the time was called a Morehead Scholarship, now a Morehead-Cain. After writing an application and going to three interviews, they told me I would have a completely free education at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I soon learned that I also had a magic ticket to meet all the best people, work with the top professors, and follow my instincts wherever they might lead. The scholarship was a doorway, and a long red carpet, that would guide me to an extraordinary life.
I love the way the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘extraordinary.’ It uses terms like ‘exceptional,’ ‘surprising,’ and ‘unusually great.’ By contrast, the word ‘ordinary’ gets this treatment:
"Regular, normal, customary, usual, not exceptional, not above the usual, commonplace…"
There is, in principle, absolutely nothing wrong with what’s ordinary – except when it’s also poor-to-mediocre, or significantly less than our best. But that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? That’s just what ordinary most ordinarily is.
The ordinary life is typically one defined by the past rather than by the possible, by other people’s expectations rather than our own aspirations, by what’s easy rather than what’s right, and by always considering the safe path rather than the best one. Ordinary efforts seldom yield exceptional results.
Why should we settle for ordinary when so much more is available? Something extraordinary beckons to us all, and simply awaits our passionate, determined response. But we don’t have to answer the call alone. Some of the most exceptionally wise people in all of human history have left us incredible insights on how to create and live an extraordinary life. That's why I urge people all the time to read the great practical philosophers of the past - people like Lao Tsu, Confucius, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Hadrat Ali, Balthasar Gracian, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They are some of our best guides to what an extraordinary life can be, for each of us.
This past weekend, the Morehead-Cain Foundation celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its wonderful Associate Director, Megan Mazzochi, who arrived at her job in Chapel Hill at a time when the foundation had no computers and was debating whether it needed a fax machine. For three decades, she's helped waves of young students, such as I once was, to enter the doorway of an extraordinary life. She and the great director Chuck Lovelace, with their remarkable staff, have made extraordinary things possible for more people than they can ever know. They've encouraged and supported me in every way imaginable throughout my career as a university professor and now as a public philosopher. They've shown me in vivid ways how we can each live extraordinary lives while helping others to do the same. They inspire me in an ongoing way. And through their work with future leaders in every facet of our society, they give me an additional source of hope for the future.
Like Megan Mazzochi, like Chuck Lovelace and the exceptional staff of the Morehead-Cain Foundation, and like the great thinkers of the ages who have left their wisdom behind for us to use, let's all try to play a role in helping others to live their own version of an extraordinary life, as we do so, likewise, to our own great benefit.
Oh, and for a short video of people congratulating Megan and thanking her for all her hard work over the decades, plus, at the end, a little country music style ditty I composed and played in honor of her truly super extraordinary extraordinariness, click here.