THE UPSIDE OF AVERAGE
We all succumb to the ‘do more, be more, excel’ mentality. But is it always possible to be everything we want to be?
Can being mediocre make you happier?
Mediocrity – such a loaded word. But if the reaction to Canadian blogger Krista O’Reilly Davi-Digui’s post ‘What if all I want is a mediocre life?’ is anything to go by, it’s fast becoming something acceptable, rather than shameful. In it, O’Reilly Davi Digui questions a ‘noisy’ world, with its ‘loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Have a huge impact on the world. Make your life count.’
The post instantly went viral and, judging by the legions of commenters who thanked O’Reilly Davi-Digui for speaking their truth, it was clear that there was a low-level rebellion brewing in ‘the middle’.
‘Sometimes all this rhetoric about efficiency is just unbearable, so people like to have a chance to ease up a little,’ says researcher and philosopher Gloria Origgi, co-author of an Oxford University paper on mediocrity, or what she and co-author Diego Gambetta call – wait for it – ‘kakonomics’
(kakos being Greek for bad!). So the case for mediocrity appears to be a reaction to the pressure to excel… But what is so wrong about aspiring to greatness?
‘We all have our strengths and weaknesses,’ says Mark Manson, a popular blogger on personal development issues, ‘but the fact is, most of us are pretty average at most things we do. And even if we’re truly exceptional at one thing – say math, or jump rope, or making money off the gun black market – chances are we’re pretty average or below average at most other things.’ Manson uses a bell curve to illustrate how the truly exceptional – good and
Perhaps it’s that word ‘mediocre’ – so judgy and dismissive – that’s problematic. Still, ‘average’ is not much better, and if we’re honest, we are inclined to bandy the word ‘mediocre’ about too easily…
bad – occupy the furthest (minutest) ends of the spectrum, with 60% of us making up the bulging middle. To become truly great at something, he adds, you have to devote time and energy to it. And since we have families to feed and kids to ferry to soccer practice, not to mention the Two Oceans to train for – and limited time and energy (it’s the ‘middle’ that does all the work, after all) – ‘few of us become truly exceptional at more than one thing, if anything at all’ he says.
Maverick IT businessman and motivational speaker James Altucher (who insists he’s mediocre) seems to agree, claiming he has statistical evidence to prove that the basic multitasking we all do (in his case playing
a game of online chess while taking a phone call) causes a major loss of intelligence. Online chess rankings are based on a statistically generated rating system, he says, so he could easily compare how well he did when on the phone to how he did when he wasn’t.
Perhaps it’s that word ‘mediocre’ – so judgy and dismissive – that’s problematic. ‘Average’ is not much better, though, and if we’re honest, we are inclined to bandy the word ‘mediocre’ about too easily. We watch the Proteas or Bafana Bafana play and argue about whether a given player deserves his place in the team. He’s so mediocre, we declare, ignoring the fact that by the selectors’ standards, he is one of the 11 best players in the country.
So perhaps it depends on who or what you’re comparing. The composer Antonio Salieri, for instance, might have been famous for his music and not his mediocrity had he not had the misfortune of being a contemporary of the infinitely greater talent that was Wofgang Amadeus Mozart.
UK educator and popular TED Talk speaker Sir Ken Robinson shared an interesting story about two other, more contemporary, musical geniuses, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Apparently the two didn’t enjoy music class much in high school and weren’t really rated by their music teacher, either. ‘He had half the Beatles in his class and missed it. That was a bit of an oversight, if you don’t mind me saying,’ Sir Ken quipped.
It’s hard to say whether Paul and George were late(ish) bloomers, or whether their music teacher was just too mediocre himself to recognise their talent, but Malcom Gladwell, author of the bestselling Outliers: The
Story of Success, believes that the Fab Four’s global takeover was mainly due to the common denominator he’s found in every truly exceptional ‘outlier’s history’: the 10 000 hours rule. This holds that every outlier – from the young shepherd boy David who felled a giant, through Michelangelo to Bill Gates – had practised their particular skill for at least 10 000 hours. That’s about half the time John, Paul, George and Pete Best (Ringo joined the band later) spent playing nightly eight-hour sets in Hamburg as relative unknowns. It’s also about the time elite athletes spend practicing their sport. Interestingly, although we often stereotype athletes and some entertainers as not being very bright, (‘dumb as a lobotomised rock’ is how Mark Manson puts it), in football, there’s a concept called running off the ball – it’s all about reading the game, thinking on your feet and making split-second decisions, and for a playmaker like Real Madrid’s Ronaldo, it’s a critical skill. Oh, and then there’s the physical feat of running onto the ball and making the killer pass – still think they’re dumb?
As Manson says, we might be exceptional in one thing and mediocre in others. But we all have moments of genius, says US critical thinker and digital health expert John Nosta, in his TED Talk ‘Genius is our birthright; mediocrity is a choice’. They occur, he says, in those ‘Aha!’ moments of pure insight, of intuition, those moments that we’re so on top of our game that time seems to slow down.
So why do we still fall for the rush, rush, rush kind of pressure that O’Reilly Davi-Digui says destroys her?
The short answer is, because we’ve been told that – with a little more effort – we can be anything we want to be. The ’90s saw the rise of Oprah and the birth of the self-help generation, and though there were positives to the trend, it also led us to believe that if we could just adopt these habits, we’d be a Warren Buffett, Bill Gates or Sheryl Sandberg.
US Blogger Donna Highfill, author of The Blog, writes that she was looking for a birthday card for her son and found a whole section called Kids’ Encouragement. Kids need encouragement, she writes, ‘because they’re not putting on their rollerblades and spending hours trying to jump over the cracks in sidewalks. Instead they’re going to ballet and gymnastics… and Aikido lessons so they can become the next…Miss America/Mixed Martial Arts Champion. It seems that we’re terrified of having an average child.’
‘We have this expectation (of exceptionalism) more today than at any other time in history,’ says Manson, ‘because of the nature of our technology and economic privilege. We have more access to information than ever before. But the only bits that break through and catch our attention are the truly exceptional ones. All day, every day, we are flooded with the truly extraordinary. The best of the best. The worst of the worst. The greatest physical feats. The funniest jokes. The scariest threats. This has led us to believe that exceptionalism is the new norm. Yet the vast majority of us still reside in the middle.’
It’s possible that O’Reilly Davi-Digui’s successful blog could be attributed to her ‘small, slow, simple life’, which allows her the luxury of observation and introspection at a pace she can handle. Someone else might find their muse pounding the New York City pavements or the streets of teeming Soweto, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We all dance to a different beat.
O’Reilly Davi-Digui insists she is no high-achiever posing as mediocre. ‘When I say I’m mediocre, I am,’ she says. ‘I love to learn, but I’m not the most brilliant person. I like to write but that doesn’t mean I’m the greatest writer. I’m just kind of plain. What if I am mediocre and choose to be at peace with that?’
The ’90s saw the rise of Oprah and the birth of the self-help generation, and suddenly, self-actualisation was the buzzword.
‘We have more access to information than ever before. But our attention is limited. So the only bits that break through and catch our attention are the truly exceptional ones – all day, every day we’re flooded with the truly extraordinary, the best of the best.’