The Agony and Ecstasy of Mediocrity
One of my favorite movies has one of the best openings of all time. The protagonist of Goodfellas, Henry Hill, talks about his career dream.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Dun Dun Dun. You hear the music and then he continues,
“To me being a gangster was better than being the president of the United States… it was there I knew I belonged. To me it meant being somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies.”
(Wanna hear the imo better audio essay version of this essay? Click here).
And although, I never harbored any childhood dreams of being a gangster, in a weird way I really relate to this opening.
Because as far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be an artist Because just like Henry, I desperately wanted to be a somebody.
But, when I was a kid, I felt like I a nobody. Full of potential? Maybe. But a nobody just the same. And I felt there was more to me, something creative, something I could contribute to the world that didn’t have anything to do with a “stable good life.”
For me, unlike many of my friends and family, happiness didn’t come from a stable, well-paying career. I had to have a purpose, some sort of meaning outside of the money, the hours, and the prospects. This bothered me because I thought it was a much better decision (and better for long term happiness) if I just accepted that work is just something you have to do. So, I decided to hedge my bets. Now, I have a stable, well paying career and come home everyday after work to write, make podcasts, or give speeches. Most of my friends & family are confused as to how I have the energy and drive to do so many things after work.
And I tell that them on most days creating art is one of the best, most exciting, life affirming ways I can spend an evening. Here’s the tough thing about picking art though: some days, instead of coming home to excitement…I come home to a crippling self doubt.
And just life every other creative person I’ve done my fair search of googling the interwebs looking for solutions to my self doubt. And I’ve read a lot of articles. They all say the same thing a version of: trust yourself, it’s going to be okay, keep working, be compassionate to yourself, etc.
It seems so damn disingenuous.
I’ve never come across anything that makes me believe that anybody feels anything as agonizing as I do. I find it hard to believe that they have had days after days in a bed full of crumpled pieces of paper and tears. And worst of all, the ominous feeling in your chest, knowing that the thing you are so passionate about is the thing you are terrible at.
My self doubt nags and defines me in a way that I didn’t think a lot of people could empathize with.
Then, I watched La La Land and was proven wrong.
If you haven’t watched it yet, the movie is about artists trying to make it, dreams deferred, and the ‘what if’ of our choices. In the movie, Emma Stone is an actress who deals with many repeated rejections and embarrassments. She is the stereotypical struggling artist in a world that is often indifferent or cruel towards those who have artistic ambitions. At one point, she grows despondent and says, “maybe I am not good enough…maybe it’s just like a pipe dream.”
That’s a question that plagues me: am I good enough? The thing that kills me is that I don’t know whether I won’t win because I’m unlucky or because I’m untalented. You would think its the same thing, but being unlucky is a much easier to swallow for obvious reasons.
Are you a success story waiting to happen? Or are you the person who has always dreamed of doing one thing, but just isn’t meant for it? Should you work harder or give up and work on something else?
Each time I set to write any of these pieces, I face that demon of self doubt. It is often the first thing that whispers in my ear telling me I should give up. And sometimes, I think its right. Because the wonderful, magical essays I have in my head are never represented well when I try to write it down.
Granted, I am not trying to write something profoundly different than other stuff on the internet. This isn’t gonna contain secret messages that will guarantee your happiness or immediately allow you to conquer self doubt. But, what I am trying to do with this essay is harder. I want this particular essay to be the time it hits hard, the time you know you aren’t alone, the time you feel something. And that is a difficult proposition.
I am often envious of art that is able to do that; to make my heart ache, to make me feel, or to convince me I am not alone. How can I ever get there with the junk I am creating? Will I ever get there? Or will I be resigned to a life living out a pipe dream that I can’t achieve?
One of the only comforting ideas is that all those famous artists grappled with the same difficult questions. All of them were unknowns looking to make in a world that didn’t care or understand. I found solace in Ira Glass’s comforting speech about the creative gap all beginners face.
Whenever I feel that creeping sense of self doubt, this helps, a bit. Here’s the thing, though. What if you aren’t one of the people that is going to close the gap? What if your work will never be as good as your ambitions? I’m afraid that I will be okay at creating, but not great enough to do anything worth doing.
Sometimes I have insomnia because of the anger, sadness, and self doubt I feel about my work. Worse yet, I have this recurring nightmare that a person I really respect will call my bluff and say to me, “you aren’t even worth calling bad because what you are is simply mediocre.”
And every time I have this nightmare, I am reminded of the movie Amadeus.
Amadeus is about a creative rivalry between composers Mozart and Salieri. In the film, Salieri is plagued with thoughts of self doubt after hearing Mozart’s music. To him, Mozart makes music so exquisite that it seems like he doesn’t work at all. It seems that he is simply transcribing the music that God put into his head. Salieri, on the other hand, painfully, painstakingly, writes music that seems incredibly mediocre compared to Mozart’s music. He is so convinced of his mediocrity that towards the end of the movie he refers to himself as “the patron saint of mediocrity”
As is probably clear by now, I share all of Salieri’s doubts and fears of mediocrity.
But if you think about it more, maybe self doubt is good as long as it’s not overwhelming. If I thought the first terrible essay I wrote was good, I would never have labored to create this okay essay. It’s self doubt (what Ira Glass calls taste) that makes you realize what you are creating is crappy. It’s self doubt that propels you to get better.
Maybe it’s only because of self doubt that we can truly find happiness in what we have achieved. We remember all too well the pain that came with having to create stuff we weren’t proud of. And if we make something great, even for an instance, we feel like we are transcendent. For a brief moment in our lives we reached something that we continually struggle to get.
In many ways, this essay is also an exercise in self doubt and self indulgence, but hopefully I can say this: if you sometimes feel like I do, you aren’t alone.
To my fellow mediocrities:
Maybe one day we will be great to the point people appreciate our art. Maybe one day the self doubt will diminish to the point where we will know at least for a while we were great artists. Or maybe we will realize its a pipe dream and we won’t be able to get anywhere with our art.
Until then, my fellow mediocrities, here is an absolution from our patron saint himself:
3 more things to keep in mind when facing self doubt
1. Bake HOD into your journeys
When you have big dreams and journeys (mine is to become a great marketer, writer, and filmmaker). Then, you have to keep yourself motivated for the long haul. These are the types of things that take years or decades to achieve. This leaves a lot of space for self doubt, depression, and sheer boredom. The key is to love the process (yea, trust me I understand how cliche that shit sounds, but I address that in an upcoming essay don’t worry). The way to love the process is to bake hits of dopamine into your journey. Basically, identify your why (why are you embarking on your journey and taking each step), incorporate childlike giddiness in everything you do, make sure to fail even when you win, and shorten the feedback loop so you get little wins here and now. Look out for my upcoming essay where I go much more in depth and give you a 5 step formula to actually give yourself hits of dopamine.
2. Zeroes Contain Infinities
Again this is a whole another essay, so be on a lookout. But, basically the weaknesses we have can often be turned to strengths. Self doubt is in many ways a strength because it forces you to get better at your craft. The reason there is a good shot you will escape the gravity of mediocrity is because self doubt allows you to know where to work towards. Self Doubt means you are doing something you are scared of and not good at it (that’s how you know you are improving/growing). There are so many more reasons self doubt is good for me, but find the reasons it is good for you as well.
3. Create Lazy Habits
Lazy habits are about doing something small every day and using lazy strategies to make sure that the action becomes an unconscious habit. Having habits will mean you work through/despite your self doubt because that’s the only way you will eventually create stuff you are proud of. For more, see information about my class below.
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Remix of/Special Thanks to:
Austin Kleon, Steal like an Artist, Maureen McHugh, Josh Rutherford, Dylan Nguyen, Carlos Moya, Amadeus, La La Land, Damien Chazelle, Goodfellas, Scorsese, Ira Glass, ZenPencils, Daniel Sax, Mahika Gupta, Akshay Desai