In praise of mediocrity

Lorraine Forrest-Turner

Lorraine Forrest-Turner

How would you feel if someone described your work as mediocre? Hurt? Insulted? Angry?

Meaning ‘middling, ordinary, unexceptional, run-of-the-mill, commonplace’ or ‘average’, at best’, mediocre isn’t what most of us strive to be in life.

But is being average so terrible? What if Good Enough was a Good Thing? What if being mediocre at loads of things was actually better than being brilliant at a few things?

How hard can it be?

I’ve spent over 50 years being average at most things. But I’ve never found it to be a disadvantage. Far from it.

In my youth, as an out of work actor/ playwright/ director, I had a naïve “how hard can it be” attitude to jobs I needed but didn’t have any qualifications or experience in.

I’ll spare you the embarrassing details. Suffice to say there’s a lot more to face-painting, silver service and choreography than being able to apply a bit of make-up, lay a table or do jazz hands. But I got by. I did okay. The job got done. And I didn’t lose sleep, friends or my sanity.

But… some years later, everything changed. I finally found a lucrative use of my acting and writing skills and bluffed my way into a full-service PR and ad agency as a copywriter/account handler.

Desire for perfection

Suddenly, I was being paid to do something I was actually good at – writing. But something had happened to my ‘it will do’ attitude. The ease with which I’d gone into things I hadn’t been much good at – or really cared about – was now replaced with the dreaded desire for perfection.

I distinctly recall one conversation with my manager. He’d called me in to ask how much time I’d been spending on a low-retainer client. Ashamed to admit how long I’d actually been spending, I said something about ‘learning curve’, ‘wanting to make a good impression’ and ‘future possibilities.’

He stopped me mid-sentence and proceeded to tell me about turnover, gross profits, budget versus actuals, ROIs and other stuff I’d no idea about then – and not much more idea about now. He ended with two words: “commercial reality”.

Clients don’t want The Best

Opening my mouth to say something trite about standards, creativity and originality, he shut me down again and told me to stop. Stop striving for brilliance. Stop doing your best on every single job. Stop spending eight hours when the client is paying for two. Stop exhausting yourself and bankrupting us. Clients don’t want The Best. They can’t afford The Best. They want Good Enough.

I’d like to say I took his advice and stopped beating myself up. But it was many, many years (and a husband or two) later that I learnt to prioritise work and return to the blissful state of mediocrity.

Not with the writing, of course. That’s my thing. No compromise there. But by accepting I can’t be brilliant at everything, and Good Enough is generally More Than Good Enough, I can focus on the stuff I do well.

More Than Good Enough

 Accepting a level of mediocrity doesn’t mean doing things badly; it means not judging yourself. Not comparing everything you do to the one brilliant thing you see others doing. Life is not about being the best at everything. It’s not even about being the best at anything. It’s about doing what needs to be done to get the results you need.

The experts agree

And I’m not alone in my thinking. Experts. Those people who know what they’re talking about, who’ve done the research, written the papers, they present five pretty compelling reasons to embrace mediocrity in all its glory.

Reason to embrace mediocrity 1: freedom to be creative

At the risk of contradicting myself here, embracing mediocrity might actually help you produce better work.

In a 2022 study published in The British Journal of Psychology, perfectionism was found to be a killer of creativity. People who were high in trait perfectionism did worse than others on objective measures of creativity, such as generating fewer and less original answers when asked to name unusual things that make noise.

Perfectionists tend to focus on one thing. Creatives are more likely to have several tasks on the go at any one time. Creativity is a slower process, and the results might be a little tatty at the edges, but the possibility of something genuinely original resulting is far more likely.

Forget comparisons

Creatives are less likely to value (or even consider) comparisons. When we’re striving to be the best, we’re constantly looking over our shoulder to see what others are doing to make sure we’re doing better. And, simultaneously, like the paranoid child in a school exam, we shield our work from those around us so no-one else can benefit from our personal genius.

The reality is we’re all far too focused on ourselves to worry about what anyone else is doing. We think people are comparing us and what we do. In fact, no-one cares. We’re on our own, so it’s probably wise to do what we want to do and enjoy it while we’re doing it.

 Reason to embrace mediocrity 2: a happier workplace

 Let’s be honest, nobody actually likes working with a perfectionist.

The irony inherent in perfectionists is their repeated announcement “I’m a bit of a perfectionist”. What does that even mean?

When a psychiatrist friend of mine overheard a man say he was “a bit OCD” as he straightened a beer mat on a bar top, my friend nearly lost it.  “No, you’re not!” she said. “Obsessive compulsive disorder is a life ruining condition that destroys relationships and eats away at the individual to the point of extreme self-harm and even death. Do not mistake it for being tidy.”

The point is, you can’t be ‘a bit of a perfectionist’ any more than you can be ‘a bit pregnant’. Perfectionism is an all-consuming ideal that can alienate colleagues and negatively affect the workplace. This leads to a paradox in expectation and reality. We both laud and despise perfectionism.

Young people have higher expectations

A 2018 analysis from British researchers Andrew Hill and Thomas Curran investigated more than 40,000 college students’ answers to a “perfectionism scale” questionnaire, compiled between 1986 and 2015. They discovered that young people are far more likely to be perfectionists than their predecessors.

Recent college students, whether millennials or generation Z, perceive others as expecting more from them, while simultaneously having higher expectations of themselves and those around them.

So, while we’re coming to terms with the shortfalls of perfectionism in the workplace, the ongoing social myth is reaching deeper into the psyche of younger generations.

 Reason to embrace mediocrity 3: a realistic work/life balance

Have you ever met someone, a hero or role model, who is not only amazing at what they do, but also ‘a really nice person’? The usual, mocking reaction to this is: ‘I hate them!’

We react strongly to people who are both successful and lovely because usually people who excel in life tend to be people who have put the rest of the world to one side in order to focus on achieving perfection.

Musicians, writers, businessmen, bankers, you name it, the ones who reach the pinnacle of their world, are the ones who forsake all others in pursuit of their ambitions. It’s a choice we make early in life – and, judging by the bell curve of professional success, very few of us are up to it.

The paradox here is that you give up your role as a social animal in order to receive the applause of the very people you’ve trained yourself to disdain. For most of us, life beyond work is important. You know, the life that involves raising a family, nurturing and valuing relationships, having a good time, enjoying ourselves.

A rational, realistic approach involves accepting what is important to you and embracing it. Sometimes that means saying ‘no’. Other times it means leaving a task when it becomes ‘good enough’. Either way, this can apply to both work and home. Just because you’re being sensible about work doesn’t mean it takes second place all the time.

 Reason to embrace mediocrity 4: live life in the real world

 Embracing mediocrity could help you produce more realistic, relatable and, as such, better work.

While serious crime rates have been steadily decreasing for decades, media coverage of violent crime across the western world has increased. There have been many research papers on this that show how people perceive their risk of being a victim of serious crime is as much as three times higher than the actual risk. This is because while serious crime amounts to less than 10% of crime statistics, these crimes make up 50% of media coverage.

We’re being given a perspective that is wildly out of tune with reality.The same goes for success and failure. We hear an awful lot about the mega-successful or the mega-deviant, but combined, they make up about 2% of people. The other 98% are those of us who get things done, make mistakes, have a breakthrough, have a slump, realise a goal… and carry on.

Dr Marianne Trent of the Good Thinking Psychological services says: “The benefit of accepting ‘good enough’ as your benchmark is that you’re no longer a slave to comparison, which is the thief of joy. Perfection is an impossibly high standard and striving for it can lead to burnout and releases stress hormones such as cortisol. A more relaxed approach can have a knock-on impact on our health and wellbeing with better gut health, reduced tension and more of a spring in our step.

And you ain’t going do your best work while you’re doubled-up with stress-related IBS, I can tell you.

Reason to embrace mediocrity 5: better mental health

 Is moving the headline 0.5mm to the left, replacing the full stop with a semi-colon or giving the client 25 more ideas because he didn’t like any of the first 50 really worth going insane for?

The modern western workplace makes much of the dangers of poor mental health. The subject comes up almost daily in offices and on social media. I would hazard a guess that most businesses with more than a dozen or so employees will have trained mental health first aiders within the team.

And yet, pretty much without exception, all these companies will make much of their striving for excellence, as a company and as individuals. The irony oozes from the subtext of every meeting.

The relentless pursuit of flawlessness

Whether a company holds employees to punishingly high standards or an individual does it to themselves, the endless battle “to be better” has one guaranteed outcome: stress.

Professor Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a New York psychologist and neuroscientist, does not mince her words: “Research is unequivocal: there is little upside to perfectionism. The relentless pursuit of flawlessness leads to low self-worth, depressive and anxiety disorders, high stress in the face of failure, and even suicide.”

She goes on to say that when one becomes one’s own harshest critic (another spurious phrase frequently uttered as though it were something to be proud of), one becomes less able to bounce back from, or learn from one’s mistakes. We become unlikely to celebrate achievements or take pride in personal bests. “To be a perfectionist,” she says, is to consign yourself to all or nothing. “You can be a winner or an abject, worthless failure with nothing in between.”

In pursuit of ‘excellencism’

Despite all of the above, mediocrity should never be the goal.

There’s a world of difference between aiming for the best and falling short and dashing off some old piece of tat and expecting any kind of reward.

‘Doing your best’ is still the goal.

A psychology professor at Ottawa University, Patrick Gaudreau, has coined the term ‘excellencism’. It’s an ugly neologism but the definition is useful.

Professor Tracy Dennis-Tiwary outlined it as being: “open to new experiences, finding unique approaches to problem solving, but being ok if things go wrong”.

If I had to come up with a label for this, I guess I’d plump for what my old boss called ‘commercial realism’ or ‘professional realism’.

Professional realists are conscientiousness, motivated, successful and enjoying a positive wellbeing. This is diametrically opposite to the fate of perfectionists and their burnout, procrastination, depression, anxiety and, at the worst extreme, suicide.

Our media-driven world of perfectionism tells us that the harder we work, the better and more successful we will be. But that’s simply not true. Professional realists will work out that the quality of effort is directly linked to the quality of the result. It’s not about doing the most, it’s about doing what’s needed. And the irony is, the more we embrace mediocrity, the better we become.

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