In my early 30s, I decided to play ice hockey. I was an okay skater to begin with, so it didn’t take me long to become a decent player. After two or three years in the over-30 league, my hockey skills were better than average. I was no Wayne Gretzky mind you, but I rarely if ever embarrassed myself or my team.
Around the time I turned forty, I got a call from the team captain. Norm was very excited. He convinced two ringers to join our collection of misfits for the upcoming season. “Great,” I exclaimed. “A couple of elite players is the only thing separating us from a championship.”
The night of our first game in the new season, I was in the locker room with a bunch of my teammates. We were all excitedly donning our hockey equipment. The ringers, after all, would be arriving soon. But I remember being somewhat disappointed when the first ringer entered. He didn’t quite look like an elite player. He was on the short side, and pudgy. His equipment looked like it had been sitting in his parents’ attic for the past ten years. And he didn’t talk much. He just said hello to everybody after Norm introduced him and quietly went about getting ready for the game.
Ringer number two, however, was a different story. He was tall and lean. His chin was chiseled and his hair was perfect. He looked like an elite athlete. And if by chance his striking appearance didn’t convince you of his awesomeness, his words quickly filled the void. His game was very, very fast he announced to everyone. And he needed two wingers who could keep up with his dazzling speed.
I didn’t find ringer number two’s schtick very appealing. I don’t like braggarts. But I was sold. And I was doubly sold after he slipped his jersey over his shoulder pads. He actually cut the bottom of his jersey into sharp-edged strips of various lengths to resemble flames. And I remember thinking that this guy had to be good. No one who sucked would dare make that kind of attention-grabbing alteration to his jersey.
Ringer number two’s schtick continued on the ice. He didn’t participate in our warm-up drills. He just stood by our blue line and gazed at our opponents at the other end of the rink. I remember skating over to him and asking him what he thought of our competition. He didn’t think much of them, of course. In fact, his disgust for their hockey skills was unequivocal. “They suck,” he sneered.
Well, I think you know where this is heading. Ringer number one, the short, pudgy dude with the ramshackle equipment, was a damn good hockey player. And a damn good teammate. He was always smiling. Always upbeat. And whenever one of us made a boneheaded play, he never failed to pat the perpetrator on the helmet and say, “don’t worry about it.”
Ringer number two, on the other hand, was a douche (pardon my French). He was a better hockey player than I was. But not by much. He certainly wasn’t an elite player. And his pedestrian skills only made his flaming jersey look even more ridiculous. But the worst part of his game was his attitude. Whenever he screwed up, it wasn’t because his skills were wanting. It was because we sucked. Our suckiness was sabotaging his hockey prowess. And he wasn’t shy about making this known.
In short, ringer number two was a fraud. He was all flash and no substance. Take away the chiseled chin, the attitude, and the flaming jersey, and there was very little there. Just an average hockey player with delusions of grandeur.
Happily, ringer number two didn’t stick around for long. By the third or fourth game, he stopped showing up. Playing with us was clearly too demeaning for him.
Ringer number two definitely had psychological issues. For one, he couldn’t honestly assess his skills. He really thought he was an elite player. But there was something else. In some way, he equated average with failure. And being average wouldn’t work for him. Average was for losers like me and the rest of my teammates.
Fear of average, the elevation of appearance over substance, is hardly confined to the denizens of over-30 hockey leagues. We find this illness in the personal finance realm as well. Do you remember Demi Moore’s character Jules in the movie St. Elmo’s Fire? Jules had a fear of average. So she adorned herself with fancy clothes, expensive jewelry, and a fashionable Georgetown zip code. But the young and fabulous facade was a lie. She had lost her job and attempted to maintain her lifestyle with credit cards. And when her abject poverty could no longer be hidden, she broke down and tried to kill herself.
The sad part about ringer number two and Jules is that they felt their value as human beings depended on being elite. Average, in their minds, would elicit disdain from the community at large. And that’s just not the case. We had no problem with ringer number two, for instance, because he was an average hockey player. Heck, he was better than half the guys on our team. And we were in an over-30 beer league, for heaven’s sake. We weren’t going for the Stanley Cup. No, we had a problem with him because he was a jerk. And I’m sure Jules would have remained a welcome part of the St. Elmo’s crowd had she lived in a dreary studio apartment and shopped at Kmart.
So here’s the lesson, groovy freedomists. Expensive equipment, an alpha-male personality, and a flaming jersey do not elevate your hockey skills and make you a valued member of a team. Likewise, expensive clothes, a hot car, and a fashionable zip code do not make you more worthy of friendship and admiration. Embrace your mediocrity. Don’t live a lie. If saving for retirement and building wealth means driving a crappy car, bringing lunch to work, and living in a mundane neighborhood, so be it. You will still be liked—at least by decent people. And, thankfully, there are plenty of such people around.