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?