My friend Jess Gartner was a teacher with a problem.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a problem she could fix herself. This problem revolved around school budget data, which is one of those “behind the scenes” problems that teachers aren’t supposed to concern themselves with. Their job is to teach students, not to fix systems, even when those systems are so broken that it makes doing their actual jobs harder.
So Jessica quit teaching and founded a startup to solve her data problem.
This is because Jess realized that her real problem wasn’t the data; it’s that no one else was ever going to solve her data problem because “this is the way it’s always been done.” And everyone else was content to put up with a broken system.
Had Jess not insisted there was a better way to do things, this problem may have persisted. Instead, Jess refused to accept that “broken” was something that we — and specifically, that she — should accept.
Jess is not a programmer, and she wasn’t a classically-trained businesswoman. What she is is a problem-solver.
And to solve problems, you have to refuse to accept mediocrity.
But What Exactly Is Mediocrity?
Everyone knows what “exceptional” means. You may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. It’s why you cancel your plans when you find out you can see Kanye West perform live for free; because even if you don’t like him, you know he’s likely to do something memorable in a way that “safe” musicians won’t.
So if “exceptional” implies rarity, does that mean mediocrity is just “everything else”?
No; mediocrity is worse.
Mediocrity is the unremarkable, committee-created, toothless bare minimum required.
Mediocrity’s entire goal is “to just get by.”
Mediocrity is trying to fit in. It’s making sure you don’t rock the boat. It’s pursuing external approval rather than internal validation. It’s maintaining and managing rather than innovating and leading. It’s finding excuses instead of solutions. It’s hoping to be rewarded rather than demanding more.
Mediocrity means you’re waiting to be given something by the people you defer to.
Mediocrity is asking for permission instead of forgiveness.
Mediocrity is not politeness; it’s supplication.
Mediocrity is believing that change can be achieved without pain and uncomfortability.
Perhaps worst of all, mediocrity is the implication that wanting to be better is wrong; that aspiring to do something new, original, innovative, pioneering, disruptive, or that otherwise has the potential to effect change of any scale would hurt the system, and that the system’s well-being is always preferable to your own.
Mediocrity is, in short, the condemnation of trying.
A Momentary Defense of Mediocrity, Since It’s Actually Quite Popular
Let’s be honest here: some people just are mediocre.
You know what? That’s fine.
That’s who they are. That’s what they’ve decided to be. The happiness they’ve chosen for themselves is not to change, not to upset others, and not to do anything exceptional, or be associated with anything that could be construed as them being somehow dissatisfied with the lot they’ve been given.
This is because they seek the approval, validation, and trickle-down rewards granted to them by others — namely, by the people they believe to have justly earned a higher station, which they themselves also aspire to and hope to be given someday. Not that they’d ever seize it themselves, mind you; they just hope their loyalty is eventually rewarded in the end.
And, if not… well, at least they can say they played the game fairly and didn’t hurt anyone.
So yes, in the sense that “mediocre” means, literally, “average,” then yes, the average person is mediocre at most things — and that’s actually fine.
Because someone has to maintain. Someone has to sustain. Someone has to manage.
If no one did those things, we’d have anarchy. Everyone would constantly be innovating and disrupting and there’d be no system to innovate or disrupt. You’d never know if you were having an impact because there’d be no baseline to gauge against.
In terms of functional truth, the world needs mediocrity more than it needs the exceptional, the innovators, the pioneers and the leaders. This is why I don’t want to imply that mediocrity is the opposite of good; obviously, bad is the opposite of good.
The danger of mediocrity is that it’s the enemy of better.
And in a world where we need to be mostly average in order to function as human beings, a problem really only arises when you’ve decided you want to be exceptional at something.
Because that’s when you’re told you can’t be.
The person telling you this could mean “you can’t,” or they could mean “you can’t.”
This person could love you and not want to see you get hurt, or they might fear you and not want to see you succeed.
This person could be your family, your friend, a complete stranger, or even yourself. (And if your idea is truly revolutionary, you’ll probably be told “no” by all of the above.)
And they’re all wrong.
If you’ve decided that you demand more from yourself than the minimum, but you’re told that the minimum is all you need to get by — that aspiring to anything beyond the minimum, the safe, the expected, “the way it’s always been done” — is inadvisable, dangerous, or wrong, then you have a choice:
Who are you going to believe: them, or your gut?
Often, they’ll win.
Often, you’ll choose to play it safe.
After all, if you have a job, a title, a reputation, a status… why risk it?
If you have a home, a car, a family, friends… why can’t you just be happy?
The truth is, you probably have expectations to meet, and people who would be gravely disappointed in you — and in what your actions say about them — if you step out of line, and behave in a manner that indicates their estimation of you (or your estimation of them) is not the defining force in your life.
Meanwhile, if you follow your gut, you might not win.
In fact, you might even get hurt. You might lose money, time, assets, relationships, self-respect and self-esteem, to say nothing of the withering opinions of others.
Not only are you a boat-rocker, but now you’re bad at it.
Luckily, the mediocre will usually welcome you back [at a slightly lower status than which you left] as long as you’re willing to admit you’re wrong, and announce that they were right: you shouldn’t have tried after all.
Hopefully you’ll remember that the next time you think you know better than the system.
And the next time…
And the next…
So, Are They Right? Should You Even Bother? Or Should You Sit Back Down and Fit In?
Since she founded her startup, Jess has been told that her idea would never work. She’s battled the presumptions of a male-dominated tech industry. She’s had to prove, over and over, that she knows what she’s talking about and that the team she’s assembled can indeed solve the problem she’s set out to fix.
And she’s still doing it.
In fact, she’ll probably be doing it her entire career.
That’s because deciding you’re tired of mediocrity doesn’t make you magically successful. If anything, it’s the exact opposite: deciding you can’t put up with mediocrity any longer now makes you a target to be silenced by everyone else who does prefer to not be inconvenienced, and who is content to put up with broken systems and bad ideas rather than do the work required to be better.
Mediocrity is easy. And sometimes easy is fine.
When it isn’t — when you’re not happy with the status quo — you’ll know. And then you’ll be torn between staying with the herd or forging your own path.
That’s when you’ll have to decide: Who am I, really?
A good litmus test for whether or not you’re happy being mediocre is this:
What do the people you’re seeking approval from respect?
If they reward compliance, would you be happy if they thought of you as compliant?
If they reward big risks and big wins, can your ego and self-image survive a big miss?
And if you’re asking yourself “wait; why do I even need to seek approval from others,” then congratulations: you’re already a step ahead.
The lesson here isn’t that you need to be exceptional in order to do great things.
It’s that you can’t do great things if you’re willing to be mediocre.