In praise of (constructive) mediocrity

Young woman wearing "Normal people scare me" T-shirt
Photo by Artem Beliaikin

Work hard. Be the best that you can be. Reach for the stars.

For those of us lucky enough not to have to worry about more fundamental needs, aspiration is woven into the fabric of our lives. It drives us to push on at work, to keep in shape, to self-improve. It’s underpinned by a psychological thirst for self-esteem and recognition, and we admire it in others. Conversely, the absence of aspiration in people we encounter—if they are not limited by their health, or factors outside their control—is implicitly a sign of laziness, incompetence or lack of imagination. Anyone without that drive will never get on in life; they are resigning themselves to be merely mediocre.

Like its workaday cousin, average, the word mediocre has been shoehorned into a curious self-contradiction. In everyday usage, when people say something is average, they mean it’s sub-par; and yet, in the mathematical sense, being average should be the norm. We’d expect about half of people to be at or below the average, and most to be no more than a little bit above average. So how can we justify sweeping this plurality of people into a bin marked “fail”? Should they all feel bad because they are not amongst a rarefied few that we look up to? Is being the best at something really so important?

We also set a lot of store by single-mindedness. A life’s work. The sportsman who has been training hard and consistently since early childhood towards a pinnacle of achievement. Impressive, certainly; but admirable? Why is depth more important than breadth? Why should changing your mind feel like failure?

Consider the consequences of stardom. Having the money, fame or followers of an A-lister must be a tremendous buzz, but also very tough to sustain. In getting there, or more often (let’s be honest), in trying and largely failing, it’s all too easy to compromise the key relationships on which our happiness depends: we’re too busy for friends, too ambitious for family, too competitive to be collegial. Meanwhile, the stress of working long hours for a promotion, or borrowing heavily for the perfect house, can erode our mental health. It is striking how many hugely successful people suffer from “impostor syndrome”, depression and other problems linked to deficits in self-esteem. Why? Perhaps because their positions feel fragile and could disappear at any time, or because there’s almost always someone higher up that they can be jealous of, or because, deep down, they’re aware that, like most high achievers, a considerable amount of luck was involved in their success—often starting with the circumstances of their birth and early life.

Globalisation has only stoked our aspiration further. If you had been a blacksmith in pre-industrial times, you would only have needed to keep your neighbours in farm tools and horseshoes. Nowadays, you would be chasing 1.7m YouTube subscribers. The Internet has made it easy to compare ourselves against curated highlights of the absolute best from nearly eight billion competitors. That’s a lot of ways to come up short, and it’s hardly surprising that so many people feel inadequate.

It’s time to reclaim mediocrity and take it seriously. A constructive, enlightened version should focus on self-knowledge, sustainability and happiness. Firstly, we should try to understand ourselves as best we can, discover what we’re good at, what we enjoy and what makes us feel good or bad. Secondly, we can consider how to put that knowledge to productive use, with a focus on building gradually and being patient with ourselves. Thirdly, we should cultivate reliable, long-term sources of happiness, which tends to boil down to good relationships with other people: friends, family and coworkers. Finally, we should try not to criticise ourselves excessively if our priorities change over time, or in response to major life events: reconsidering the centrality of one’s career after having children, for example, is entirely rational.

This is not an new idea, by any means. Many other bloggers have espoused the virtues of embracing one’s own foibles and limitations. All the way back in Ancient Greece, Epicurus (and others) advocated for ataraxia, a stable, balanced mental state achieved by living a modest life supported by strong friendships.

The benefits may be nuanced, but they are nonetheless real. Instead of gunning for that high-powered new job, which might involve responsibilities we don’t really want to take on, perhaps we could focus on being more effective in our current one. Instead of setting out to be amazing at one thing, maybe we would find it more rewarding to be proficient at two.

This approach can also be better for our peers. Unbridled aspiration makes us cynical, stingy and defensive in our interactions with one another. It pollutes the atmosphere and drives up house prices for all. And recognition has a tendency to become an end in itself. In the follower economy, being good at what you do can become less important than being recognised for it. That leads to managers and politicians made entirely of bluster, and clickbait writing that continually ups the ante for outrage. Lowering our sights might give us a little more time for empathy and generosity of spirit.

Constructive mediocrity is not David Brent. It doesn’t and mustn’t mean accepting subservience, maltreatment, unfairness or discrimination. This is about making peace with the pragmatic view that not being in the top 1% of something is OK, while thinking more broadly about what can constitute success. Aspiration takes many forms, but it has no value of its own. It may not often occur to us, but optimising for happiness and sustainability is surely a rational strategy in life.

The world needs some high-fliers and overachievers, but it also needs everyday competence and a bit less cynicism. It’s time we all recognised that, and respected each other for what we all contribute, rather than all rushing towards an unobtainable and unimaginative ideal. Perhaps, some day, a version of constructive mediocrity will be seen not as a failure of aspiration, but as simply a more modest version of it. And maybe many of us will be happier as a result.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash.