In praise of mediocrity

I’ve been thinking a lot about mediocrity. Partly, this is because I’m finding myself to be firmly located in the middle portion of the bell curve regarding something for which achieving excellence would mean a great deal to me. Turns out, my perfectionist nature does not take well to mediocrity. (Who saw that coming?!) If I am mediocre at something, I tend to give a “what’s the point?!” judgment. Why do anything if I can never be OMG THE BEST EVER at that thing?!?!

Um, because then I would do pretty much nothing at all. Mediocrity is not the exit; it is the highway. (This sign lies.)

mediocritysign

Reality is a b*tch for perfectionists. (Yaaaaay)

The fact is, most of us are mediocre! At most things! THE AVERAGE DESCRIBES MOST PEOPLE BY DEFINITION. To be considered excellent at something, we have to be better than 90%, maybe 99%, of people regarding that thing. How often can we really say that we are ever that much better? The chances of us being an Einstein (top 1%) or a deGrasse Tyson (top 10% — no offense, Neil my man) at anything are very slim.

Sure, this depends a bit on context and comparison. I’m an excellent writer when I compare myself to students in the physics department (again, no offense physics pholks), but I am an average writer compared to students in the English department. My chances of being excellent increase if I define and restrict my comparison group just so, or if I place myself in a community that tends not to excel at that thing. This is a very effective and comforting strategy for fostering self-delusion and faulty self-assurance. I am certainly not immune to its siren song.

Because much ink has been used admiring and praising all things excellent, I want to take a moment to defend mediocrity. I think when we praise only what is excellent, we miss some realities and values about human life. For one, it tends to ignore the indelible role that luck plays in life. The Einsteins of the world are all extraordinarily lucky in some way. Liszt would not have been “THE Liszt” had he not been lucky enough to be born with freakishly huge hands. LeBron James wouldn’t be “THE LeBron James” had he not been lucky enough to be born with his physical size and quickness.

They benefited from other forms of luck, as well. In addition to winning the genetic lottery, they both benefited from situational luck when they were born in places that offered the opportunities needed to be able to take advantage of their innate gifts. They benefited from historical luck that socio-political events didn’t erupt in decades-long, society-crumbling war in their lifetimes, derailing them from pursuing and achieving their goals.

Of course, luck isn’t ever enough for true excellence. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” The excellences produced by luck are remarkable and mesmerizing, so we tend to focus on the sparkle and elide the work ethic and virtues it takes to make use of those lucky gifts. We tend to care so much less about how high-achievers get to where they are. Ignoring the luck and hard work makes the excellent achievement feel possible for us, like if we could just “catch that lucky break” we would be set; we would then be ready to put in the blood, sweat, and tears. When we fail to acknowledge the hours and pain and sacrifice that go into becoming excellent at anything, we can delude ourselves into thinking that excellence is more available to us than it is. We may even denigrate hard work that doesn’t result in excellence.

But we should want to praise the hard work regardless of whether or not it leads to true excellence. We should especially want to praise those who do hard work with their eyes wide open to the inevitability of their own mediocrity. That is hard work done for the work itself, for the beauty, joy, and grace of improvement and learning, and that should be valued more than whatever achievement results.

Embracing mediocrity, I think, embraces this process and lets the achievements or consequences be exactly what they are: accidents. Products of hard work, yes, but also products of luck, as well. We can appreciate and cheer for excellence, and even use excellence as a motivator for good work, but we should not hold up excellence as the expectation or the standard for judging worthwhile endeavors. (YELLING THIS INTO MY HEAD SPACE RIGHT NOW)

Also, I think we should delight in our own mediocrity! Mediocrity is where most of we humans exist — in it is thus the depth and value we bring to the world. To fail to appreciate mediocrity is to fail to appreciate the people in our lives (and ourselves). We should cheer on the hard work that results in a less-than-stellar performance, praise the virtues the people display in living relatively unassuming, normal lives, talk about the importance of all contributions of excellent and middling talents as having their place in the grand panoply of human life and community.

Making excellence our unattainable but persistent goal gives us the opportunity to develop better, more refined skills and to develop the virtues that can grow out of (and also make us better to manage) struggle, disappointment, conflict, confusion.

I think when we appreciate mediocrity, we also get excellence thrown in. We get to delight even less enviously in the excellence of others; even when they exhibit or produce excellences that we may envy as particularly desirable to us, as excellences we may work hard for and never achieve. We don’t need to be jealous when we have a right appreciation for our value and for our talents, right where they are on the bell curve and no further right.

We should make sure to declare ourselves and others lovable in the same breath we proclaim our mediocrity. We should celebrate the work we do, be proud of the product as something that is the result of our work and growth (even if no one will publish or award it), and be aware of the kind of contribution we can make with our middling talents, in a world filled with mediocrities.

The message of delighted mediocrity is that there is meaningful room for exemplars and ordinary folk, that both are needed to fill out this big world with ideas, services, art, and play. Being mediocre doesn’t mean we have less to share — it means we have something different to share, that we have something beyond us to admire, and that we have a shared humanity with all other mediocre humans. To be human is to be mediocre. For most of us, anyway.

Let’s praise those areas where hard work does not always translate to excellence, and even celebrate them! In those areas we may find our humanity and our grace for a contented life.

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