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.”

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