Mediocrity is Essential to Our Humanity

The pressure of excellence within our culture (or maybe just my head?) kills that little part of humanity in each of us that’s begging to get out in a society imprisoned by the desire to be productive — and not only productive but the most productive. Often, I fail to pursue lines of inquiry or interest simply because of my awareness that I cannot and will not be excellent at that thing. I have interest in a subject and desire more knowledge about it, but I know that I’m not interested in being an expert. I desire to be the kind of person who runs, but I struggle to do so because if I’m not racing or getting faster, it’s not worth pursuing. The same can be said for guitar playing, for philosophical inquiry, for listening to and enjoying classical music, for writing poetry.

In fostering a society which obsesses over excellence and optimal productivity, we have lost the tiny little quirks that make our lives enjoyable, meaningful, and just plain fun. Why should I care whether I run a 20-minute 5K, or 1:30 half-marathon? Don’t I just enjoy the very act of running? Am I required to continue to pursue excellence there, or can I just enjoy it for its own sake? I think that’s where the breakdown is — we’ve been so formed to think that everything we spend our time doing must be “worthwhile,” in a way that always improves, always optimizes.

Maybe that’s we’ve missed something essential about what it means to be human. Malcolm Gladwell notes in this interview with Tyler Cowen that the educational system has failed in part because we don’t make space for mediocrity, in sports, academics, or otherwise. It’s not enough to just have children and adolescents that want to try and experiment and enjoy themselves — they must want to get better, and they must show natural talent. If not, they don’t belong on the team, in the class, or in the club.

Another way of saying this: maybe, to be a little more human and a little less machine-like, we need “permission to suck.”

Something Small Everyday

This, from Austin Kleon, is exactly what I needed to hear today:

It takes time to do anything worthwhile, but thankfully, we don’t need it all in one chunk. So this year, forget about the year as a whole. Forget about months and forget about weeks.

Focus on days.

The day is the only unit of time that I can really get my head around. Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I can handle that.

I needed to take some time away from my thesis writing and reading — the end of the school year, along with the normal, daily busy-ness that comes with family and work life, led to the need for a little break. However, I’m finding it eminently difficult to get back into the hard work of reading every night. The inertia of the last few weeks is weighing heavy on my will.

So, what’s the solution? Well, I think it’s a perspective-shift. First, I need to actively understand that getting back into the work won’t feel natural or easy. In looking for the path of least resistance, my brain would much rather rewatch The Office than read a book called The Paradoxical Rationality of Soren Kierkegaard. Second, I need to lower the expectations which I have placed on myself I cannot immediately revert back to three hours of reading per night when I haven’t been doing that recently. Instead, I need to use the tactic of simply “one small thing, every day.” Kleon again:

Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done.

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day. People often ask me, “How do you find the time for the work?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies.

Let’s get back to it, one step at a time.