Redefining [my] Fear of mediocrity at 25

Saheb Motiani
Sam-The Learner


The last time I wrote about Fear of Mediocrity (back in 2013) I was naive and ignorant, just like current me will seem five years from now. I used to think a lot then, which I still do, but back then, my thoughts were dominated by my emotions; and it took me a few good years to strike a decent balance between the two pillars: Emotion and Reason. I’m still not there yet, but I think I’m getting there and the balance is sort of stabilising.

Balancing Emotion and Reason

The major misconception I had was — I mixed up being in the middle with being a mediocre.

Being in the middle, or being stuck with a menial job doesn’t make you a mediocre, but how you deal with that state you don’t like, and how you do that job or any job for that matter decides whether or not you are mediocre.
You don’t have to do a task badly to prove that you don’t like the task.

Say, I don’t like to enter data into database, then do I have to make a mistake intentionally to prove that I am bad that such a simple, error prone task, even though I can be efficient with a little more effort? Instead, I should do the task as best as I can, and then communicate later that the task is not good enough for me, if that doesn’t work out well, then I can quit the right way, after having done my job well.

Why be a mediocre in their eyes, when you are not? That matters quite a bit in the short term, especially, if you are young and are determining your’s life’s worth by opinion of others.*

Why do a task half heartedly?

Why not give it everything you got?

This my friend, I’ve realised, gives birth to mediocrity. It isn’t a state you end up in; it is mindset you form when you start doing things without giving it your full attention, heart and mind.

Back then, I believed working for a startup was irrefutably better than working for a big company. The college kid in me was just seeing startup as chasing a dream, and the job in a big company as a complacent dead end; place of work got the prime focus in my head then, whereas kind of work, and how you do your work was completely ignored.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Place or time doesn’t matter.

Time brings me to confess my second misconception — I wanted to achieve goals, accomplish things now, in short term i.e. few months or a year maybe, and I couldn’t imagine committing myself to more than that. I hadn’t realised, anything worth achieving takes years and years of efforts, and even then, there is no guarantee it would be what you wanted it to be.

The idea of working with my friends was very fascinating to me, but what I ignored back then was the time it takes to come up with something original. We weren’t business minded folks, who wanted to open a restaurant or replicate a business idea to make money; we were attracted to problem solving, and we wanted to solve some real challenging problem, which we believed would be worth our time. And as we haven’t found one, we are still at our jobs, which might suck on many days, but we don’t want to invest time in something we don’t believe in. With time, the risk of never finding the thing we believe in increases, but that’s all right, at least we won’t do something in a mediocre way, or just for the sake of it.

Be it a job at an innovative startup or your dream company, or a company with no name, it won’t matter if you don’t do your job in a way that gives you satisfaction. Sooner or later, you would come to realise, just like I have, that no rewards or compliments will be able to keep you happy, if you are not content with the work you do.

A startup job can make you miserable, while an MNC job can make you learn and grow in a way you didn’t expect it to — if you are given the time and freedom to do your task as best as you wanted to.
Or, vice versa.
Being in the best place doesn’t mean you would get to do the best work you can do.
These things are subjective, hence my point, it isn’t black and white, like I had emphasised in my earlier post; rather it’s a very personal thing, a life long quest — whether I’m mediocre or not? Could I have done the job any better?

Let me also tell you what happens after you decide not to be a mediocre.
You fight, you despise every one who you think is not giving his best at the job at hand; and that doesn’t stop; you will find it immensely difficult to convey your simple point, can you do better?
Because the person on the other side might not be in the same state as you are, (s)he might not love the job as you do, and (s)he might be just as happy by getting it done, as (s)he is not looking to find fulfillment in the work like you are. That you would still be able to live with, but what will haunt you every night will be your own struggle in giving your best at everything you do.
You will soon fight against time; and instead of chasing quality of work, personal satisfaction and peace of mind, you would be completing goals set by the broader community, company or some other system.
You would believe their goals and your goals can be aligned, but that hardly happens, not because they don’t care about your goals, but because you don’t know what you are looking for; and unless you know what you want, no one else can help you; more importantly, you can’t blame them for using you to accomplish their business.

In the world of computer programs, you see your own mediocrity pretty soon. The feedback loop is quick. You don’t write your code well, sooner or later, it will break and you would curse yourself in a light hearted way that you knew this would happen, why didn’t I program it better in the first place?
This behaviour is common across industries. I know we live in a cruel world with deadlines, but from my experience, they are not always tight and you often have enough time to push yourself and do your job better; but the thing is — you have become used to doing tasks with a mindset of getting it done that even when there is no hurry, you tend to do it hastily, instead of doing it in the best possible way — that is approaching the problem with curiosity, understanding it deeply without worrying about the time, and then solving it in the right manner.

Quality suffers and mediocrity wins.

You can’t always satisfy your endless curiosity, but sometimes you can; and the tougher part is to remember that you can, instead of just forming a mindset of getting it done — this gives birth to mediocrity, which would soon lead to a boring life and even the best job wouldn’t be the best for you anymore.

Getting it done is considered an important trait to have these days, where everyone wants to be more productive, but what’s the point in completing ten tasks and realising later that there was room for improvement in each one of them. The output of completing such tasks is just the momentarily happiness. There is nothing more to it. Is that what you want?

You should feel more than just the instant happiness of completing a task, don’t you think?

Not quantity, but quality matters, and if you can balance getting it done with quality, then it’s the most pleasant state you can be in.

Beware of the state where you get stuck in the cycle of doing it better, because then you would become a perfectionist who waits eternally for the time when (s)he can do his best work.

Strive for perfection, but don’t turn it into your enemy. Allow yourself to start from bad, then to good, and then improve from there. There will always be room for improvement, but it’s this attitude of reducing it to the minimum is what makes the difference. For example: each line in this article, can be written better, using better words or sentence formations, but that will always be true, and this shouldn’t stop me from reaching a reasonable state where I can be satisfied with my work and then leave it for later.

Hating mediocrity will influence you in everything you do, and it’s one of those principles which once you inculcate, you won’t be able to step away. You would often hate your former work, your former self and your former actions, but you have to let them go and start fresh. And start now, there is no need to wait for the right time.

Doing what you want, for as long as you want, is what life is all about!

Don’t worry too much about the outcome of things, just focus on doing it right, one step at a time; don’t wait, just keep doing, and with time you will soon see your work escaping the clutches of mediocrity.

I would end by repeating the words—not what you do, but how you do it decides its mediocrity. Set your own bar, and don’t give in to mediocrity, fight against it.
And as for others — don’t judge too soon; it’s all right to judge someone’s work but don’t judge them as a person, don’t judge them as mediocre, because they might have a life outside somewhere, where they might be doing the best they can do — for instance, a mediocre coworker might be an excellent guitarist; or a perfectionist cook who won’t tolerate a single mediocre meal — (s)he would go outside in the intense cold weather to get the ingredients, then stand and cook for an hour to satisfy his hunger; or a great parent/spouse/son/daughter who would always be there by your side in all your joys and troubles.
An old man who did the same mediocre job all his life cleans every corner of his bike every Sunday, is not a mediocre, just an innocent victim of his circumstances.
These are not the traits of a mediocre, because they know what a good meal is (or a clean bike is), while you or people like me would be happy with a boring sandwich (or a dirty bike), they won’t, because what matters to them is not the same as what matters to you.

Don’t be an arrogant asshole, when you can do better!

Lastly, about the people close to you, friends and family — don’t force them out of mediocrity if you see them stuck, instead, treat them with care and ease their transition; be their helping hand and make them realise there is a choice. And don’t act indifferent as if it doesn’t matter, it is your responsibility to question them in a way which makes them think about their work, about their job and about their life. This might not be an easy thing to do, but it has the potential to change their life, and if you really care for them, you will, even at the cost of risking the relationship you have.

*but in the long term, it hardly matters, because mediocrity has less to do with anyone else, just you.



Saheb Motiani
Sam-The Learner

A writer in progress | A programmer for a living | And an amateur poker player