In Praise of Mediocrity

Mediocre Marathon Runners

I use this title partly in jest.   ‘Mediocrity’ is, almost by definition, that which is not ‘praiseworthy.’  And yet in my comments that follow, I hope to point out that what appears to us as mediocre does not automatically warrant derision or embarrassment.  There is an important place for mediocrity in this world, and often there is much to be celebrated in the mediocre. And I’m proud of my contributions to that great sea of mediocrity that sustains us all!I recently presented myself to my Toastmasters club as ‘the Prince of Mediocrity,’ declaring that I am mediocre at more activities that anyone else I know.  My comments were partly in jest – one evaluator accused me of false modesty, and described my presentation as an example of ‘overstated understatement.’  And yet it is true – I have chosen the path of being just OK, or at best, ‘pretty good’ at a number of activities, and not truly excellent at any.

Mediocre is in contrast to the truly excellent – a level of achievement attained by great talent, combined with great effort. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book  Outliers and Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated, claim that 10,000 hours of focussed hard work and practice are necessary to achieve true excellence in any field.  We admire on television and on youtube those who perform at the highest levels in sports, movies, the arts.  In newspapers, magazines, and books we are inspired by the persistence, greatness of spirit, and the achievements of the great in politics, science and ideas, exploration, and even, everyday life.   We are not particularly interested in the modest achievements of those with common talent, or limited drive and persistence (though  the popularitiy of The Jersey Shore may argue this point.)  We are surrounded by mediocrity in our day-to-day lives, we might say.  It is uninspiring and uninteresting.  So what is there to praise about it?

Mediocrity is so very human.  All of us, even the great, are mediocre at much of what we do – whether it be cooking, automobile repair or maintenance, housekeeping, computer skills, even personal hygiene and diet.  And we have to accept that about ourselves, or be burdened with guilt and stress.   Though mediocrity is not the pinnacle of achievement,  it is not necessarily to be mocked, except perhaps in those who promise and claim excellence, and deliver much less.

Or when we are laughing at ourselves and our own mediocre efforts, talents,  and achievements – a healthy sense of humor and humility are essential to appreciating the mediocrity in our lives.

Those who will accept nothing less than excellence, for whom mediocrity is simply unacceptable, are often loath to enter into any activity at which they may not excel.  “If it’s worth doing at all,” they say,  “it’s worth doing well.”  But how many things can we truly do well?   My counter to that aphorism might be:  “Not everything that is worth doing, is worth doing well.”  Many over-achievers will not take up golf, fitness, music, art, kayaking, whatever, because they are afraid to be associated with the almost inevitable mediocre performance that comes with entry into any of these activities.  Accepting mediocrity opens the door to trying new activities.

I also pity those who spend their lives regretting excellence not achieved. Remember Terry Malloy, the former boxer played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.  Who can forget his anguished cry, “I coulda been a contender”?  We all know people who have lived their whole lives disappointed at the excellence they never achieved, rather than enjoying what (mediocre) achievements they may have had, and what good fortune did come their way.  Accepting mediocrity helps us to accept ourselves, and appreciate our lives, even when we may not have been at our best.

Achieving true excellence demands sacrifice and can come at great cost.  Life, literature, and history are full of examples of heroes who attained a very high level of excellence - indeed ‘GREATNESS’ – in one field, while the rest of their lives were a shambles.  Think of Hemingway. Or Ernest Shackleton. Or Mickey Mantle.  Or perhaps Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, or Charlie Sheen.  In Hollywood, great actors whose lives are NOT a mess seem to be an exception.   While we may praise their ‘excellence,’  it is with reservation and caveat.  A willingness to accept and even appreciate something less than excellence might open these heroes’ eyes to the value of the rest of life, outside their field of excellence.

And then there are those who sit on the sidelines and criticize, only respecting ‘excellence,’ while they ridicule those who may not be excelling.    We are reminded of Teddy Roosevelt’s “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”

Those of us who have learned to accept mediocrity, can enjoy a mediocre round of golf, without it ruining our whole day. Or a mediocre workout, or even a mediocre performance in a competition.  We will take on a new challenge, even when we are unlikely to excel.  We have learned to laugh at and accept less than stellar performance, learn from it, and move on.  Again we return to Teddy Roosevelt “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

“Who strives valiantly…”  may be a clue.  Mediocre results are much easier to accept, and even praise, in those who have striven valiantly.  Maybe it’s because I’m well into middle age – but there are only a few things for which I’ll ‘strive valiantly’ – and I pick those battles carefully.  In the remainder of my endeavors, I may strive…but depending on how I feel and what’s at stake, often not valiantly.    Mediocre effort is NOT acceptable however, if one has promised a valiant effort, or committed to a specific result, or when the lives, and well-being of others are at stake.  Those cases demand a valiant effort, and anything less deserves our contempt.

We mediocritites (don’t bother to look it up) play an important role in this world:  It is we who help inspire and motivate others to doggedly pursue excellence.  It is we who make the truly excellent look good.  Without the rest of us, there would be no one against whom the great could be judged as ‘truly excellent.’  As Walter Stack, an old long distance runner of the 70’s once said, “My role here is to help the rest of you guys to look good.”

We mediocritites make the world go round, supporting, inspiring, and cheering on those who are truly excellent.  When the strivers say that we are not fulfilling our potential by setting our bar too low, we just laugh and go have another drink, and wish them well – and remind them that there isn’t a lot of room at the top – somebody has to hold up the bottom of the pyramid.

The reality is that, as we get older, everything we do seems to slide toward mediocrity – except hopefully, our attitude and our wisdom.  The happiest people in middle age and beyond have come to terms with mediocre performance as part of life – not to be lamented, but to give depth to those rare occasions when we do something truly exceptional. As a golfer, I enjoy watching the Champions Tour, watching former greats humbled, but with a smile on their face, as they roll with a bad round and congratulate whomever may be having a good, or even a great day. In fact I suppose that is one of the things I like about golf – if you can’t live with mediocrity, you have no business playing golf.

In praising mediocrity, we are enjoying the glass half-full – which is so much of what life offers us, rather than cursing that same half-empty glass.  If we can’t enjoy mediocrity, and laugh along with our own foibles and those of others, then there isn’t much joy to be had.  The truly excellent is, by its nature, rare and unusual.

We mediocritites are life’s decathletes…we play at a number of different activities, and though we may not excel at any of them, we enjoy playing.  We set our bar where WE want to set it, and cheer ourselves on when we get over our low bar.   Somehow I believe taking on a variety of activities creates a whole (person) who is more than the sum of his mediocre parts.  Our place “shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” We are in the arena, and to those who may mock us for not having striven valiantly or achieved excellence, I respond, ‘Living well is the best revenge.’

So, how’s that for a mediocre essay?  :)

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20 Comments on “In Praise of Mediocrity”

  1. Kim Shults Says:

    Only you, Bob! I enjoyed reading this and as I did, my mind filled with flashbacks of staring at a black line on the bottom of the pool for countless hours. I quickly labeled myself as an over-achiever, not wishing to half ass anything I do. I’ve been that way all my life. But then I read on about being able to laugh at ourselves, which I now do very well- there’s a lot to laugh about :) I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with that part of me- the part that sucks at land sports, falls off bikes, and has never been able wrap my head around numbers and formulas. You know- the part of me that doesn’t want to suck at something because it’s embarrassing. Well, as I get older, I realize that it really doesn’t matter and nobody is paying enough attention to judge or even care. I’ve spent way too much time worried about what other people think. I’m going to focus on the final words of your essay, “Living well is the best revenge.” Excellent advice, Bob. Revenge has never tasted so sweet!

  2. jzettel Says:

    Great Essay & a fun read.

    2nd Paragraph: I recently presented myself to my Toastmasters club as ‘the Prince of Mediocrity,’ declaring that I am mediocre at more activities that anyone else I know.

  3. Sam havelock Says:

    Dear Sir,

    I dont believe anyone who has ever worn a Trident for any length of time can be termed Mediocre as it relates to the Profession of Arms. SEALs may slide into mediocrity over time, but the community doesnt tolerate the survival of patently mediocre souls. Because you are a Highly Successfull SEAL means that you were once and likely remain an extremismist at heart.

  4. Roger Crossland Says:

    “God must love the common man, he made so many of them.” —Abraham Lincoln.

    Well, I think just average man is here to stay and we better factor him into all our significant considerations.

    Just average however varies with culture. What was characterized as the “Arab Spring” and the source of great hope in the Westerm press may end up a matter of turnover without change.

    Some systems view mediocrity as essential and desirable.

  5. Elaine Thompson Says:

    Good post! I wonder if you are not talking about what I think of as a generalist, where you try a lot of things, one leading to the next. Without a lot of effort one never moves past mediocrity in any particular activity, but there can be interesting and fun synergies.

  6. Duncan Preston Says:

    Bob, Mediocrity seems a bit out of character for your style. However, as we age, it does seem that we are not as good at some things. Hopefully we each get a good measure of experience, knowledge, wisdom, patience, and acceptance to bring happiness and contentment. I credit McDonalds with consistent mediocrity. There is nothing that says excellence, but at least we know what to expect. The absence of surprise can be satisfying, just like the occasional “Big Mac.”

  7. jocelyne Says:

    Surprised to hear YOU praise mediocrity, but So true, human and wise (…too bad jb cannot read English it could help to accept it)

  8. Scott Says:

    If you are saying that there is a fine line between mediofilia and complacency then I feel confident in saying that I agree somewhat strongly.

    • schoultz Says:

      Scott -that is not what I’m saying. The picture of the mediocre marathon runners at the beginning of the essay is a clue. No one would call them anything close to ‘complacent.’ Thanks for your comment… Bob

  9. Liz Mueller Says:

    Great essay Bob – I am trying to learn Italian and am very mediocre at best but at least I am trying – buona giornata!!!

  10. RyanHC Says:

    Reblogged this on learningbydoingblog and commented:
    I’ve been looking for a way to say this for years, and my friend Bob nails it beautifully. Thanks Bob!

  11. Patricia Hutchins Says:

    Mediocre is just another word for well balanced.

    • schoultz Says:

      Patricia – you might go to my post “Life Balance – is it over-rated?” posted Augus 2011 and you’ll see a lot of the same themes. Thanks for your comment. Bob

  12. Roger Herbert Says:

    Great Essay, Bob…far from mediocre. It’s making the rounds at UVa. I wonder, can one achieve excellence at mediocrity?

  13. Sandra Macfarlane Says:

    Very much enjoyed your latest essay -made me feel rather good about myself but if you class yourself as “mediocre” I think I must have been flattering myself for years as that is how I would have described my talents and achievements!

  14. Annabelle Says:

    Thanks, Bob. I might have enjoyed surfing while stationed in Hawaii if I could have appreciated mediocrity. We’re told to strive for excellence in all we do, but a full adult human life includes both mediocrity and a few areas of excellence. I think I would like to spend more time being mediocre at bocce ball and kite surfing – to allow me the time to be a really excellent spouse.

  15. Cara Cerutti Holmes Says:

    Great essay Bob! You have a way of getting your reader (me specifically) to approach a thought from a less than traveled angle. When I was a teenager (insert know it all), I read an article written by our town’s art critic. She praised a mediocre local dance performance, and gave more credit to the small studio than to those larger professional dance companies that passed through on tour. I was outraged that mediocrity was her standard of excellence, and followed up with a letter to the editor, which after printed, made me less than popular with the local studio. I would be embarrassed to read the article today. Life changes you. Thank you for the reminder to try new things, and that you don’t have win a gold medal to enjoy the process.

    Well, I’m off to sky dive… or learn to knit.

    • schoultz Says:

      Thanks Cara – my sense is that you (like me) are by nature a competitive over-achiever learning the joys of accepting mediocrity – at least in parts of your life. One of the guys I work out with is 20 years younger than I and wants to keep pushing the workout, keep raising the bar, when I’m pretty damn proud of myself for just being there! Sky diving is cool – and so is knitting! Bob

  16. Taylor Koch Says:

    Thanks again Bob! I have a quick comment about your Malcolm Gladwell reference. Why can’t striving mediocrities such as ourselves spend 10,000 hours learning new things. That is a skill in itself. I challenge you to look around and see how quickly people pick up new things. That is a learned skill in my opinion that can only be learned by living the way you describe. Which is why I am describing you as an “Expert of Mediocrity”!

  17. Dr. Sean O'Leary Says:

    I really appreciate you writing this Bob. As an aging competitive athlete and one that has retired from competitive play, I really wanted to get out of the game before my skills declined to a point where I was mean and not the athlete that dominated the pitch that I once was. I made a decision at the ripe old age of 44 to quit playing soccer and to instead focus on running, weight lifting and the truly humbling sport of golf. I have leaned to set my own bar now and do not worry about getting passed by a younger runner in a 1/2 marathon anymore. We need to excel with our wisdom and our pursuit of higher level objectives and enjoy the sport of keeping active in the world.

    Cheers,

    Sean O’Leary


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