How to Escape The Age of Mediocrity

They had Louis Armstrong. We have Lance Armstrong.

They went to the moon. We’re melting down the planet.

They had Lewis & Clark. We have Abercrombie & Fitch.

They dreamed up superheroes. We rehash them in movies a hundred times.

They had Darwin. We have Dawkins.

They created the electron microscope. We created Google Glass.

They had the Founding Fathers. We have Congress.

I humbly submit: this is an Age of Mediocrity. You might say: we’re choking on it. Or maybe choking each other with it.

Here, then, are my top three rules for escaping mediocrity.

Reclaim your soul. Pollution today isn’t just the soot clogging up the physical atmosphere—it’s also the toxic gunk in the spiritual atmosphere. It’s fumes are billowing at us from every sagging big box store, faux-luxury-made-in-china-by-the-lowest-bidder-storefront, suspender-wearing-boss, reality TV show. If Dante rewrote the inferno, I’m pretty sure the first circle would be conference calls. And just like air pollution is poisoning our planet, so spiritual pollution is poisoning our souls.

Because that’s what’s really missing. Our souls. Go ahead, admit it. From business. From the economy. From our lives. We struggle and we scrape. We fight and we claw. We triumph and we conquer. And maybe, just maybe, at last, we win the model homes, the super cars, the designer wardrobes. But none of that stuff makes us happy. Or at least not for more than a nanosecond—which bursts like a glittering bubble…and then, somehow, we feel even unhappier than we did before. Why? Because it’s cost has been something we should never have given up: the lives we were meant to live. Lives in which we accomplished great things—not merely had mediocre things.

I think the truth is: we’re wallowing in mediocrity. We’re luxuriating in it. We’re obsessed by it. And that’s understandable. It’s easy. Comforting. Soothing. Like a warm bath. Especially in a troubled age, when the world appears to be spinning out of control. But even bathing in fine champagne is still just…sitting in a tub. When each and every one of us believes that all there is is mediocrity, we will surely strive for the…ordinary, average, predictable, tedious, forgettable. And so we will lead unhappy, unfulfilled lives.

If you accept my metaphor that it’s a kind of pollution, then, just as you wouldn’t drink water from a glowing river, you should probably step away from the furious pursuit of life you know to be desperately empty. To escape mediocrity we must remember that the more of it we desire, the more mediocre we will grow.

What matters is greater than what counts. Ah! You cry. Why you…you’ve cherry-picked the data! Where are the numbers? Why, I can’t even consider the idea that this is an age of mediocrity unless there’s a graph, a chart, an equation. To prove it. Precisely. When all you measure is what can be quantified—aka “the numbers”, which is what most of us spend most of our lives furiously pursuing…running away from…hunting…being hunted by—you end up with…mediocrity. For “the numbers” can’t capture what really matters in life. And more importantly, they can’t teach us how to live it. Love, wonder, grace, truth, imagination, defiance, nobility, rebellion.

But the truth is most of are too busy chasing….what? The numbers! In “performance reports”, in “scorecards”, in “analytics”. What do these mostly capture? Mediocrity. And so that is what they limit us to. What do we end up with when we chase the numbers? Profit, fans, followers, likes, hearts. Mediocrity. We end up adding features, buttons, bells, whistles, gizmos…because that’s what can be counted—hey Bob! I made a phone that can hover over your head…and do your laundry…while it’s doing yoga!!—instead of making stuff that’s heart-stoppingly awesome, radical, unimagined, insanely great. Mediocrity.

Greatness doesn’t stem from overquantification. It doesn’t stem from merely counting what can be counted, whistling, shrugging, despertately ignoring what can’t, and hoping no one notices. It stems from, if anything, elegance, parsimony, and quality. We don’t think of E=MC2 as a great equation because it’s full of complicated numbers, accompanied by a chart, presented with a graph. But because it isn’t. Greatness isn’t found in the pathological pursuit of the numbers. It is in the quest for meaning.

An identity is not a purpose. What are you?! I’m a techno-optimist libertarian. Me? I’m a socially conservative capitalist. No, I mean. What are you? Oh. I’m a Senior Brand Manager. Me? I’m a Business Analytics Manager. We’re obsessed by our identities. Or what we think identities are, at any rate: labels, titles, little boxes we squeeze our minds and spirits into. What do you get from techno-optimist libertarians? Techno-optimist libertarianism. What do you get from Senior Brand Managers? Brands. In other words, the identities we so desperately seek make us defenders of our cherished dogmas—not pioneers, explorers, renegades, rebels. And so we end up with the same old…tedious…canned…predictable…answers, responses, ideas, concepts. Fighting tooth and nail over them. Mediocrity.

Greatness never comes from people who eagerly jump into boxes…cages…caskets. It always comes from those whose identities are confusing, ambiguous, in-between, a little scandalous, unashamedly deviant, tantalizingly elusive. People who are less like policemen of the self, and a little more like its outlaws. Because only the outlaws of the self escape the prison of conformity. Go ahead. Label Steve Jobs. Albert Einstein. Benjamin Franklin. Billie Holiday. Elon Musk. Malala Yusufzai. Greatness is born in people who have the courage to stop pretending that all there is to them is their labels and their titles…and find a purpose that is greater instead.

It’s true. There’s mediocrity in each of us. And quite soon, I’m sure, people will write long essays in defense of it. But they shouldn’t. For the fact is that mediocrity isn’t worth defending. Not because, as you’ve probably been told, mediocrity is an inferno, a plague, or a zombie apocalypse.

It isn’t. It’s something more dangerous altogether.

Mediocrity is a a pleasant, sunny valley. Comfortable, safe, secure. You can stretch out in the sunlight, and recline, for a lifetime, on the grass. But on the other side, far across the mountains, lies something greater still. The reason you are here. And so. Until you have the courage to cross the line, you’ll never find out. Why.