Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once. – Shakespeare (from Julius Ceasar)
We choose to be mediocre because it mitigates the downsides of failing and succeeding.
Let’s start with failing first. No one consciously wants to fail — and doing everything we can to prevent failing takes up an inordinate amount of our psychic RAM. Of course, making a plan that assumes you’ll succeed is a lot different from covering your bases so that you don’t fail.
But what’s harder to see sometimes are the ways in which people are afraid to succeed. Succeeding can mean that they’re giving up something important to them (selling out, being shunned by those they care about, being the tall poppy that gets cut, not being everything to everybody), that they’ve done something to compromise themselves (cheated, bullied, manipulated, or used someone else), or that people will expect them to do it again or maintain it.
When we have to choose between failing (and losing) and succeeding (and losing), choosing mediocrity becomes the safe option. Mediocrity allows us to avoid letting ourselves or others down because we didn’t fail, while not having to deal with the assumed consequences of succeeding, as well.
Few people get called out, shamed, shunned, or criticized for being mediocre – after all, they’re not attracting much attention to themselves. It’s the people failing or succeeding who get all the attention, good and bad.
When success and failure become nothing more than feedback from the world, we can create new stories about what it means to succeed or fail. As long as we present this no-win scenario to ourselves, it’ll be easy to rationalize and settle for mediocrity in ourselves and those around us. It takes courage to accept that things might not work or that how they work might completely change your life, but that same courage makes it impossible for mediocrity to feel safe anymore.
The courageous may flame out or implode every once in a while, but it’s better than living a tepid life because you never stoked the spark within.
Where are you choosing mediocrity because of what success might bring? Might there be a way to succeed without the assumed trade-off?
Ryan D Coons says
You claim that people should strive for success essentially, not to settle for mediocrity. This approach may lead to failure, but you should still do it.
There are two ways you could convince me this is true. 1) Failure is more desirable than mediocrity. 2) Success is clearly more probable than failure.
1 seems implausible at first pass. You write much about how mediocrity is preferable to failure which I intuitively agree with.
2 is situational and I don’t see the ultimate point hinging on this consideration. Maybe whether you should aim for success just depends if you’re above a threshold chance of success, though.
All in all, I didn’t see much argumentation to either 1 or 2, and so I am unconvinced of your claim.
Charlie Gilkey says
I’m not exactly sure how you got to your two premises and they’re not ones I would argue for.
In the book (of which this piece is excerpted), I have posited that being acceptably mediocre at some things that don’t matter to you can free you up to focus on being great at things that do matter to you. I see now that I can edit this post to be more focused on areas of your life or work that matter.
For those areas, it doesn’t feel intuitively right to claim that you should aim to be mediocre or fail. So, even though you might not succeed (at whatever level of success you’re aiming for, it’s better to strive for success.
Even if it were true that being mediocre is better than failing, it’s not clear that we should aim for mediocrity. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t argue for the premise “it is always better to be mediocre than to fail” — to your point, it’s situational.