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Made to Measure

Richard Quinn

IT SEEMS ALL MY LIFE I’ve been obsessed with one thing: not being average. It would be nice to be the best or the highest rated. But I have been happy simply to avoid average.

I grew up in a very average family. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Throughout school, I was very average. But in my first job as a mail boy, I went to work wearing a dress shirt and tie. Definitely not average—others in the mailroom wore T-shirts—but I started a trend.

When I was in the Army, I didn’t want to be one of the guys standing in the ranks, so I found a way into an office job as a personnel sergeant. There, I could avoid average duties, instead assisting the colonel in preparing job evaluations for the officers reporting to him—most of whom I never met.

I never wanted to have an average income, live in an average neighborhood or be an average retiree. I’ve often wondered whether there’s a flaw in my personality. Probably yes. But that may require more analysis than I’m prepared to do.

When we relocated a few years ago, I felt compelled to look up the median income for our new town, along with its wealth ranking in our state. The town was near the top in median income. I couldn’t compete—but that also meant I wasn’t average.

Even today, more than 12 years after I retired, I measure my Social Security benefit, my income and my net worth against national averages and medians for my age group. There’s little chance I will slip to average, but I want to be sure.

I also measure debt. On average, retirees carry a fair amount of debt. I’m debt-free. Except for mortgages and some car loans 20 years ago, I’ve long been obsessed with avoiding debt. I still am.

While working, I didn’t want to simply be one among 15,000 employees.  Being involved with employee benefits, I found ways to communicate benefits issues with all employees and unions almost daily via e-mails, meetings and so on. Result? I was among the most recognized people in the company. The corporate communications department accused me of having my own brand. But at least I wasn’t average.

When I received stock options during the last few years of my career, I exercised them and then hung on to the stock—definitely not an average thing to do. But considering the years of reinvested dividends and a doubling of the stock price, I’m happy I did. Taking the average route probably would have led me to blow the cash.

So, what’s my self-diagnosis? Trying not to be average is how I set goals, how I measure success. To be sure, a goal of not being average doesn’t sound very ambitious. But it doesn’t sound very greedy, either.

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