I was 16 when I first read ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,’ Gay Talese’s 1966 profile on the legendary singer. It’s a complicated piece of work, a story more about an enigmatic figure than it is a classic journalistic profile. After all, Sinatra never exactly authorized Talese to interview him; the writer just followed his subject around for a few months and wove his words into a story that was larger than life. It was fitting, though, because Sinatra himself was larger than life at the time, even when he was under the weather. And at 16, I didn’t really grasp all of the nuances that made up one of the most famous pieces of journalism ever.
But I did understand how Talese was so focused and almost hell-bent on illustrating how normal Sinatra was, even with his millions and with his famous ex-wife and his famous girlfriend and his friends and his family and his success. His son calls him “not superhuman, but supernormal,” only to continue and call it “the great bullshit, because Frank Sinatra is normal, is the guy whom you’d meet on a street corner.” And it is because the elder Sinatra is expected to be so very normal, so extraordinarily normal despite his fame, that he unravels a little at the seams. His normal, of course, is not normal. It is not normal to marry and divorce Ava Gardner, and it is not normal to bring your entourage with you wherever you go like a little slice of movable neighborhood. And yet the people of America and of the world thought that Sinatra was one of them, that he was normal, that he and his voice and his music belonged to them as much as the radios they bought on which they could listen to him.
In part because I was only 16, this endless quest to be normal stuck out at me the most. It resonated with me, I think because when you’re in high school and unsure and a little pudgy and too smart and strange, the thing you cling most desperately to is the idea that maybe one day, you will be normal. That you’ll fit in. That you’ll be accepted and won’t say the wrong thing and people will laugh at your jokes and you’ll not only be normal, but cool. I was very decidedly not cool. And so when it struck me that even those people at the top, even the people who seemed to belong at the top did not quite understand how to juxtapose their normal with what was average, I was floored.
Because normal is a construct. Normal is subjective. Normal is fluid. What is normal to me won’t be normal to you, nor should it be. And what was normal to me ten years ago probably wouldn’t be normal to me today. And if we’re all constantly chasing one fixed idea as to what normal could possibly look like—especially when that sense of normalcy doesn’t feel natural—is not only a waste of time, but an insult to your own individuality.
Perhaps, the most normal thing you can be is to forget being normal at all, and to be natural and an individual and utterly true to yourself.
And this seems so easy to say, and so hard to put into practice, because of course, we all want to feel like we belong. Whether it’s because we want acceptance or because maybe it’s easier to hide if we don’t stick out nearly so much, we always want somebody to think we’re just right, and that we’re not strange, and that we’re clever and witty and cool. And sometimes if we’re lucky, some of the quirks that make up who we are fall in line with what other people are looking for. And sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes we miss their mark.
And that’s okay.
It is normal, I think, to want to be happy, and to feel sad sometimes, and to constantly question the things you do and the choices you make. That’s part of being human and having free will. But that is as far as normal gets anyone in this world. Relying on the general consensus of people who don’t have to live your life for you as to what’s acceptable and what fits the status quo will leave you tired and unsatisfied and always inadequate. And you will always feel like you’re coming up short, even though you’re not.
Instead, chase your dreams. Listen to your heart. Make a plan and follow through, no matter how crazy people say you are. Do a little skip down the sidewalk when you have good news, and acknowledge how you feel when you’re sad or morose or sick or feel like you could do a better job the second time around. And then throw yourself headlong into your passions. Write a book. Write poetry. Run a marathon. Don’t just listen to your heart; do what it’s telling you to do.
Forget about the status quo; nobody ever grew very much or learned anything there.
Never settle for normal. Because more and more, the least normal thing in this world is to be overwhelmingly, entirely natural, and overwhelmingly, entirely yourself. Be that superhuman if you want to, but do it because you knew all along that you could do it better than anyone else. Because after all, there was only ever one Sinatra. And there’s only ever one you.