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Koinophobia: The Fear of Living an Ordinary Life

Opinion | December 6, 2015

Growing up, I was the stereotypical quiet Asian girl: I enrolled in ballet class, took tennis lessons, played in violin concerts, and practiced math at Kumon. My parents were doctors and we lived in a cookie-cutter suburban New Jersey neighborhood. I liked to mention that I was born in Boston because it made me sound just a little more interesting around my friends, who were almost all New Jersey natives. I was in the public school system, I graduated high school, and I got into college.

I went to school in the morning and came home in the afternoon. I did homework until late in the night and went to sleep. Repeat. In the summers I would do service trips abroad, volunteering in the community, research internships—the standard combination that was supposed to get me into college. Written on paper, that was the gist of my life, and it sounded horrifically boring. I had no adventures to share, no life-changing moments that were uniquely me. Everyone I knew did the same thing. My life wasn’t even interesting enough to be my own.

So I decided to start my own story. Last year, I was in a safe, accelerated medical program that would essentially guarantee my path for the next seven years. But I was also in a life contract, binding myself to this path to “success.” As I looked back at what my life had been, I was panicked, realizing that I wouldn’t be “living” until I got out of medical school seven years later. And so I decided to do something bold, something risky, something interesting. I transferred to Tufts on a gut decision. I never took a tour, never did an info session, never met anyone from Tufts; I went to the library bathroom in the summer two years prior because I had to go. I remembered that moment distinctly, the feeling I had when I was standing on the campus.

“Why on earth would you do something so stupid?” This was a common question I received, mostly from adults. “You grew up in a doctor family, you went to a biotechnology high school, your life was made for this!” But how boring is that? I did nothing crazy, nothing exciting. I wanted to start my interesting life, and I couldn’t wait seven years. That meant doing something drastic. In fact, I’m trying to major in psychology and minor in film and media. My clean, linear life path was starting to fray at the ends into a knotted mess, and I was excited that for once I didn’t know where my life was going to go.

And apparently, that’s exactly what society wants today. The first time I applied to college, I was the carbon copy of a high school pre-med student, and I was rejected by almost every school I applied to. The second time I applied to college I was a transfer. I was the “different” kid who decides that a guaranteed spot in medical school is worth giving up for “life experience,” and I got accepted into almost every school I applied to. I realized that standing out is what society wanted from me. It’s not enough to be successful in my own element; I have to do something crazy to attract enough attention to myself. Apparently screwing up is not as bad as having a perfectly boring life because it meant I took a risk and set the stage for a heroic underdog comeback.

The United States loves weird, different people. It loves individuality and those who stand out. It seems that so many “successful” Americans have followed a “nontraditional” path. Everyone knows the first CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, was a college dropout who went back to take calligraphy classes. As a result, many of us have been trained to fear the exact opposite: fitting in with everyone else. The irony is that as children, we grow up in this world trying desperately to fit in, but suddenly this shift to the idea that being normal is undesirable leaves some lost and confused. Normal has suddenly become the new “loser.”

Why do you think we college kids do what we do? Why do we go on crazy trips, have adventure-filled nights, and do things that the rest of society thinks are ridiculous? Why do we want to be hip but not hipster, popular but not basic? We don’t want to be labeled because that means there’s another person who is similar enough to fit in the same category. We have a fear of being boring. We want to be interesting, different, cool, and unique. We want to “live,” whatever that means. We want our lives to tell stories.

The question arises then: what if you’re the normal kid? The one who doesn’t have weird hobbies. The one who follows all the rules and works hard. The one who prefers Netflix. The one who doesn’t have the desire to study abroad and travel. The one who wants the white picket fence and the suburban security. Do you have to make yourself different in order to fit in?

Many claim college students fear growing up because we naturally associate it with responsibility. But it’s also the image of waking up in that suburban house again, dropping the kids off at school in our minivans, driving to our boring desk jobs, coming home and taking care of the kids and the bills and the garden and the dog, and starting all over again. This time of youthful impulsivity and idealistic dreams is our chance to escape that relentless cycle of ennui and be bold. Move to Germany. Work at a bakery. Take risks at a startup. Get off the grid. Record your life and become famous.

At the same time, we shamefully admit when we spend nights watching Netflix; we still need to seem like down-to-earth humans. The social image of the college student is a paradox. We need to be interesting, but not so interesting that it comes across as pretentious. We need to be ambitious without caring too much. We need to be brilliant without trying too hard. We need to be laidback without falling behind. We need to be so interesting that we can’t be defined.

After coming here, I saw that my life had increased in what you could call its “interesting factor,” but that I would never catch up to the people I’ve met—people who lived on a boat for four months at sea, backpacked alone for a gap year, or moved to a new country every few years. But then people started asking questions about my life, fascinated with my “story,” even though I thought it was barely a draft. And slowly but surely, I realized the cheesy lesson that everyone has an interesting life. A person who grew up in the inner city of LA and a person who has lived in 30 countries are both interesting to a person who stayed in mid-Atlantic suburbia her whole life. But a person who grew up with generations of his family in Italy might find it interesting that my parents and I live in two separate cultures.

The fear of being boring our youthful brains, but these brains and this fear are naïve. Coined by the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Koinophobia means the fear of an ordinary life. This seems like a fear that college students, of all generations, have faced. But like all fears, the key is to face it head on, not avoid it. Embrace the fear and let it fuel you to take opportunities life throws at you, but realize that at the end, it’s your life against no one else’s. It’s the little things that add dimension to a life. A list of countries and jobs you’ve experienced is great, but it’s just a list. The biggest things in your life shouldn’t be something so tangible. They are the ineffable moments that have gradually molded the person you have become.   When you look back on , you’re not going to compare it with the person next to you. You’re going to remember it just as it was. Even with the first 17 years of going to school, coming home, and spending time with family in a suburban house, it was my school, my family, my suburban house, and it will never be someone else’s. It taught me my meaning of boredom, it gave me my feeling of home, it incited the next phase of my life: it was mine, and that’s enough.