We all suc­cumb to the ‘do more, be more, ex­cel’ men­tal­ity. But is it al­ways pos­si­ble to be ev­ery­thing we want to be?

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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.’

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