Dare to Be Mediocre!
When I was a teenager in the 80s, I had my own case of inflated self-worth. Nowadays people complain about it as a millennial disease. But of course, it’s been around forever.
There were some things I was definitely good at — art, writing, computer programming. But I was a solid C+ student, with a history of “shows great potential, needs to apply himself” comments, and occasional highlights here and there like winning a spelling bee or essay contest. My middle-class family, my teachers, and other benevolent souls were full of encouragement and positivity about my future.
In 1987, an elderly neighbor gave me a newspaper clipping about the youthful Bill Gates becoming a billionaire. She knew I liked computers and thought it would inspire me. She was right! I ate that stuff up back then.
Predictably, things got real after leaving home. No money for college, and the jobs available to me were typical entry-level stuff like grocery clerk and dishwasher, with hopes to advance someday to assistant manager after years of tedium. Observing the people who’d climbed those middling heights, I saw that most of them were miserable. It turned out life was kind of hard. I refined my expectations, just like everybody does.
I did pretty all right in the last few decades since leaving the nest. But I’m not “killing it”. I haven’t disrupted any industries. I don’t have a bestselling novel or artwork hanging in museums. Forbes did not add me to any of their lists.
I am a middle-aged man with a comfortable IT career, a woman who loves me, good friends, interesting acquaintances, and time enough to explore the world and express myself creatively. I’m happy. And yet, I somehow still have that weird spark of “I’m special” living inside of me, like an angstful cry from a younger self.
I bet you’ve got that spark in you too. You’re reading this on an Internet-connected phone or computer somewhere in the world. Just that fact alone means you’ve climbed a few levels of Maslow’s Pyramid to glimpse at the peak.
What to do with this spark? At first, it feels like an asset, a muse, or a guiding light. But spend enough time with it, and you’ll know that it also hurts and deceives. When people live their quiet lives of desperation, it’s that spark that is to blame. You picture some other version of yourself that tried a little harder, made better decisions, talked to the right people, or wore the right shoes. In an alternate universe, you heroically navigated to the Ideal Place. While in this universe, it seems like you fucked up somewhere along the way.
There is a simple alleviation for this curse, but you won’t like it. It goes against the constant chorus of self-improvement advice that is much more fun to hear.
Dare to be mediocre!
You don’t have to be the best. You don’t need to be on a quest for greatness. Your life doesn’t need to prove anything.
But at the same time, don’t give up on doing the things that express who you are or might be. These things should be worth doing for their own sake. Otherwise, chances are that you are making your short time on this planet a misery for no benefit. You might achieve that great success you’re after, but there is so much luck involved. Hedge your bets and enjoy yourself along the way.
The hackneyed advice to “follow your dreams no matter what” must be ancient. I’m sure there’s a cave painting somewhere with a crudely drawn soaring eagle and motivational message underneath. Anthropologists will translate it wrong and think it means something about worshipping an Eagle God. But it was just some Neanderthal version of Tim Ferris selling gullible people advice.
It’s the binary “all or nothing” nature of the message that is the root of discontent. We are to decide on the thing we want, bust some ass, and not quit until we have it. Anything less is seen as betrayal of our human potential. And by this measure, the world is divided into two groups: those with enough moxie to “Go For It”, and the other sadlings doomed to live with dreams deferred.
But many people have taken those brave steps outside the “normal” life. It begins with deciding to do something that nobody asked you to do. Whether that is performing stand-up at an open mic, starting a wedding invitation business, penning a comic strip, writing a science fiction novel, leading a political protest, or opening a bed and breakfast.
People do these things all the time and don’t become successful by any traditional definition. Motivational gurus will have you believe that the main obstacle to success is just beginning that quest in the first place. But go ahead and take one of these “Roads Less Traveled”. Unless you picked something truly obscure, like collecting beetle dung, you’ll see the road is actually well worn by other hopefuls. You will find yourself surrounded by people that have toiled for years at your same dream with only modest progress.
The communities that form up around these common strivings all look the same. There are books, workshops, and experts seeking to sell you advice and advantages. There are coffee shop meet-ups and bustling conferences offering a sense of camaraderie with your fellow undertakers. People who’ve been at it for a few years tolerate the newbies that haven’t yet paid their dues. And they resent each tiny glimmer of luck bestowed upon their peers. Eventually, the would-be poets, techpreneurs, voiceover actors, game devs, or other aspirants will arrive at one of two places. Either they will make it in their dream field, or far more likely, decide they’ve had enough. With a bittersweet sigh of relief they return to their more ordinary interests or pick something new to chase after.
This is what’s happened, again and again, in slightly different ways for different people, throughout all space and time. This cycle of trying and getting to no exceptional place is called “mediocrity.” It’s almost certainly going to happen to you if you attempt anything. Even with the full force of your will and talent behind it.
And you might expect me to say, like so many others have, “Push through it! Persevere! Break on through to the other side!”
But no, I won’t do that, because I am an expert on mediocrity. I’ve been mediocre at many things for decades, and I’m going to tell you that mediocrity is just fine. By all means, keep trying to improve yourself. But let’s take the “do or die” out of it, okay?
My mom wrote a book in her limited spare time while she raised a family. I read it, and it’s pretty good — not great. The stilted dialogue made me cringe. But I’m so proud of her. I shared in her excitement of unboxing a Kaypro II computer that would be her word processor. It sat in her office, a sacred place of creative work. When I sat at that same computer as a boy writing my own games and stories, I was sharing something important with her. We were people that made things.
My dad built a community basketball hoop in Kenya. He tracked down all the parts needed through local suppliers and got the concrete foundation poured. It took him months. I haven’t seen this hoop, but I’m pretty certain it’s mediocre compared to a hoop in any American grade school gym. Doesn’t matter — it was immediately enjoyed by the locals.
My sister sang at old folks homes. She’s got a good voice, but she’ll never win American Idol. It doesn’t matter if she was mediocre. Not to her. Not to the people she entertained.
My friend self-published a board game and sold it through a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s good enough to hit store shelves, but I’m guessing it won’t allow him to quit his QA job. There are a lot of other dreamers trying to publish board games, and the market for them isn’t very big.
In the 80’s, people used Amway to sell multi-level marketing bullshit to their friends. Now, we can instead use crowdfunding to sell a creative expression of ourselves to our friends. That’s kind of twisted, but it’s also beautiful. A lot of theater and comedy shows I go to have an audience largely populated with friends of performers. Friends making friends happy with mediocrity — it’s not so bad!
There are countless other examples of glorious mediocrity that I won’t post. Some of those mediocre people are friends still engaged in the “all or nothing” quest that makes them fragile to critique. I wish them all luck in that journey. And you too, if that’s what you’re doing. But if you find your goal unreachable, I hope you can continue on some middle path.
And I’ve got my own mediocre achievements to keep me warm at night. It sounds like I’m being self-deprecating, but I’m not. For those areas of skill and expertise, I’m better than all the people that never tried them, and about average among all the people that did. It’s good company to keep, these people who try to do things.
Don’t be afraid to be mediocre. The world needs your mediocrity.