In praise of mediocrity
Mediocrity. When I first wrote that word on my list of difficult topics to write about, well, it looked so bad that I crossed it off.
That’s why I knew I needed to keep it.
Why is mediocrity a dirty word? Our culture tells us to be great: to strive to be more, to be better, to be exceptional. (Of course, the very word ‘exceptional’ means it is rare, an exception.)
We’ve moved forward a little bit as "failure" and "imperfection" have become not only more acceptable, but actual buzzwords.
But "failure" and "imperfection" still imply extremes of success: failure’s okay if you’re reaching for something remarkable and wind up making a big mistake along your way to greatness.
Even ‘imperfection’ implies you’re almost there. You’re just one fly in the ointment away from being the best.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to do great things, create in big ways, live life that’s well beyond mediocre. I want to do all of those things!
In fact, extremes of emotion sit far more comfortably with me. That’s why I love to travel and try new things. It’s part of what makes me a great storyteller. And it may also account just a little for why I’m prone to bouts of depression.
I hate mediocrity. Case in point: I’ll take your best carefully crafted espresso or your crappy diner coffee in a chipped china cup over your average Starbucks-whatever any day. Meh.
So why do I want to give some love to mediocrity? Here are some reasons.
#1. It’s human.
We humans do a lot of stuff and let’s face it: most of it is mediocre. It’s just the reality of living. And most humans are not saints, nor evil geniuses. Most of us are just flawed, a bit messy, trying to make stuff and do stuff and most of that stuff turns out ‘pretty alright.’
This is supremely uncomfortable: it is far easier to paint things black or white. But if you look for the mediocrity it’s actually quite delightful. Because you start to see a lot more of the little efforts people put forward to do their jobs, give something a try or just show up.
It’s easier to appreciate the little things if you’re not just looking for the best ones.
#2. Mediocre gets shit done.
Yes, we want to do great work. But sometimes – correction, most of the time – you’ve got to do some mediocre work to get there.
You’ve heard the quote “the path to success is paved with failure.” It’s a cool quote but I’m thinking… not always. Oftentimes the work not a total failure; it’s just not very good.
Sometimes, not that good is good enough.
Mediocrity is the difference between trying something once, and trying something again. If you’re okay with failure you might try something new under the safety of “completely sucking” but to do it again means you embrace the awkward in-between space of some improvement, but not enough to be good.
This is really a gateway to accomplishing stuff.
My friend Krista said something recently that stuck with me: she said learning new things with a modicum of competency is like getting a passport to a foreign country. Being just "good enough" is not to gain permanent residency there, but permission to visit.
In other words, it's enough to participate.
And it's true. Think about it: A mediocre cook can feed a family. A mediocre yoga student can reap the physical and mental benefits of a practice. A mediocre guitarist can pick up their instrument and have a fun jam session with their friends.
To accept mediocrity is to accept that passport to new worlds.
It’s to walk through the door.
And it’s to damn well get things done.
#3. Mediocre is the space between failure and success.
Despite its reputation, mediocre is a rich and fertile landscape. It’s a place for experimentation, improvement, and growth. It’s a place where things can live that mightn’t be allowed to exist otherwise. Including humanity itself.
Hell yes. (Thank you Maria.)
Mediocrity is learning. Taking just 1 step forward. Finding small improvements, new things to try.
Mediocrity is trying again and again. Yes, mediocrity can be a productive stepping stone, but mediocrity doesn’t have anything to prove. It’s humble but fierce. It stands in the face of everything and everyone who’s trying to be the best, pushing and shoving each other out of the way so they can grab the spotlight.
Mediocrity saves us from all-or-nothing thinking. From pretension and falsity.
Mediocrity is just chillin’. Doing it’s own thing. Mediocrity makes it work.
#4. Mediocrity means you might disappear.
It is a human urge to want to be seen.
Being the best - or the worst - can help us ensure we leave our mark. We're seen, heard, we're on the map.
So why is it a good idea to let ourselves disappear a little?
Because if we’re not on stage doing our tap dance for the world maybe we can let go ourselves a little. Maybe be a little more integrated with the world. Concentrate on just being a part of interconnected humanity. Maybe be a little quieter, gentler, more forgiving; maybe a little more peaceful.
Wouldn't that be nice.
Now for the fun part: Storytelling practices to get more comfortable with mediocrity.
- Reflection: “The reason mediocrity is scares me is the same reason it’s good to practice.”
- Observation: Watch for mediocrity. Notice when it’s there. Practice smiling at it, welcoming it, just give it a little wink and nod before you move on.
- Free-form writing: Journal about mediocrity. Is it uncomfortable? What does it feel like to you? How does it show up in your life?
- Creative writing: Write a love letter to mediocrity. Imagine it’s the nerdy guy or girl who takes off their glasses and shakes their hair and suddenly you realize they were gorgeous all along. Write down what you would say to mediocrity now.