David Heinemeier Hansson

May 14, 2024

The endangered state of normality

When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, I had friends who were socially awkward nerds, friends who were cool but didn't like school at all, friends who were good at school but couldn't muster the will to finish their math homework, and friends who were tomboys. None of these kids ever got a diagnosis. They were all well within the spectrum of what constituted "normal" back then. Today all of them would likely have acquired some label of pathology because nobody seems to qualify (or desire to be seen) as being normal these days.

This is the natural consequence of "centering the margins". Of making it socially desirable to be not normal and low status to be regular. And it's happening across everything from gender expression to neurodiversity. There's cachet of cool to be had in identifying with some margin. Preferably one that can claim to be oppressed by society via heteronormativity or neurotypicality or other big words for "normal".

And, as Abigail Shrier documents in Bad Therapy, there's a large industry of therapists and other "mental health professionals" eager to accommodate this flight to the margins. Eager to supply the diagnosis, the pills, the reassurance of how every phase of experimentation or misbehavior can be explained by some big word of pathology.

I think we've given up on something important in this pursuit of individuality through the spectrum of marginalization. When fitting is less about having the right brand of backpack and more about having some medical prescription.

Whatever is at play, I think we're better off re-expanding the definition of normal  to fit a much broader spectrum of quirky, weird, and natural varieties of humans. Fewer labels, reserved for far more severe predicaments, and fewer interventions, left for those where the risks of medicalized action far outweighs the risk of iatrogenic treatment.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.