Mediocre — to be of moderate quality, value, ability, or performance — has this suggested origin:
from the Latin medius “middle” + ocris “rugged mountain.”
So in being mediocre, one is “somewhat mountainous.”
To be “somewhat mountainous” sounds pretty good, but in the context of Mount Everest and K2 (the world’s largest mountains), “somewhat mountainous” — e.g., Mount Wycheproof, a mountain but one of the smallest — doesn’t sound quite so impressive. This is mediocrity in our world … a crowd of somewhat mountains, a range of small Wycheproofs.
Day after day, mediocrity underwhelms the landscape. Our world is a world of “just enough” and “no more.” At “no more,” organizations reach for less than exceptional; they follow the pack, championing the box checked and the standard met. At “no more,” employees turn off, they disconnect, they offer their average instead of their best. All “somewhat mountainous,” which, in the shadow of Everest, is nothing more than an ant pile.
The Mediocrity of Machine Living
Frank Lloyd Wright said:
Mechanization best serves mediocrity.
“Mechanization” is the “introduction of automation into a process, activity, or place.” That’s the technical definition, but in life, mechanization is the automation of everyday doing … our robotic response to standards, herds, and tasks. These things all create a ceiling …. the standard upheld, the herd followed, the task fulfilled … and once the ceiling is reached (like the Wycheproofs of the world), “somewhat mountainous” refuses to reach any higher.
Understand that “somewhat mountainous” isn’t the opposite of success. Big pay days don’t necessarily negate small (i.e., mediocre) governance. The rich, the powerful, the titled … many of them are mediocre, and their yield — ideas, ethics, vision — proves it. Privilege, luck, likability … these upward thrusts sit external to mediocrity; even the “somewhat mountainous” can ride a wave (fool their way) to the top.
Likewise, “somewhat mountainous” isn’t the opposite of perfection. In fact, perfection is often mediocrity disguised as superiority, perfection being its own ceiling, one that masquerades as a “higher,” yet impossible, standard.
Perfect is the enemy of good. — Voltaire
Many companies and employees sacrifice the good — the broad, evolving good — for the imprisonment of perfection. And in so doing, they perfectly place themselves amongst the “somewhat mountainous.”
And while status and perfection won’t abate mediocrity, the opposite is sometimes true of the imperfect, the powerless, the untitled. Base position doesn’t automatically lend to Wycheproof status. Within the ranks of the uncelebrated, there are many amazing people — foot soldiers “stuck” by circumstances but still diligent, still passionate, still striving. It’s foolish to think that mediocrity dissipates with rank, salary, or status. Rather, the dissipation of mediocrity — at any level — hinges on passion, risk, humility, and creativity.
Mediocrity: Distancing Isn’t So Easy
I worked for a legal research company where leadership was tasked — every year — with a 2% increase in revenue. Here, mechanization best served mediocrity, and instead of ideas, imagination, and vision, leadership chose job cuts to increase revenue. These “leaders” — highly degreed and well payed — lacked the resourcefulness and desire to grow through growth; they chose instead to grow through simplicity and negation, which was artless, dull-minded, and “somewhat.”
“Somewhat” — defined as “to a moderate extent or by a moderate amount” — is encompassing. It’s above you, beside you, and in front of you. It’s in the herd, and the herd is big. It’s in things echoed, things repeated, things copied. It’s in the unstretched mind, the unstretched day, the unstretched self. It’s in the “somewhat” mountains that we climb … every day, over and over.
So if one can be a mountain by being “somewhat mountainous,” then why not? A job done or a customer served “somewhat” is still a task reached, a box checked, a requirement fulfilled (though unexceptionally fulfilled). So why not? Why not sit in the flabby middle where just enough is enough?
Advising Against Mediocrity: A Difficult Plea
Sadly, there’s not a convincing “because.” Preaching against mediocrity is a plea for blistered fingers, extra hours, and mental exhaustion. It’s a plea for above-and-beyond, a demand of the self that’s more than the horde. In life, above-and-beyond is to strain for “extra,” to consciously push past the mechanization and automation of everyday doing. It is, in the simplest sense, to fly against a hurricane when the flock glides with it. But if you’re willing to face the headwinds and turn away from herd, consider these three things:
#1. Abhor mechanization
“Mechanization best serves mediocrity” because mechanization is the rhythmic poison to creativity and originality. Mechanization promises a dim output … words, paths, actions done a “certain way.” Companies and people hide in mediocrity because they fear the “uncertain way” … new words, new paths, new actions … all of it different and unproven but all of it unique and daring. And it’s in the unique and daring that mediocrity lacks air and eventually suffocates.
Here’s how to kill off mechanization:
- “Whatever’s normal, do the exact opposite.” That’s from Jesse Cole, president of the Savannah Bananas, a baseball team that sold out every game from 2017–2019. While other teams prioritize baseball (because that’s “the rule”), Jesse Cole prioritizes fans, fun, and entertainment. Jesse “un-mechanizes” by defying the rules of normalcy. He takes a page from the legendary Bill Veeck, who once said, “I try not to break the rules but merely to test their elasticity.”
- Ramp up, and risk up. Mechanization has both a leveling effect (i.e., dull, repetitive, and predictable) and a sedative effect (safe, proven, and serene). One way to break this machine is to put some stress on your output, to churn faster than the machine of mediocrity. The other way is to put some stress on your routine, to risk higher than the soft slope of “somewhat mountainous.”
#2. Embrace villainy
The Key Performance Indicator (KPI) is less an enthusiastic goal, more a soulless acronym. KPI’s — dull, numerical checkmarks — generally don’t inspire. They might push, they might pull, they might pressure, but do they arouse?
Mediocrity takes root in the goal pulled to vs. the goal inspired to. The former is a world of KPIs; the latter is the tiny space of KVIs … the Key Villain Indicator. Yes, it’s another stupid acronym, but let’s fight fire with fire.
The KVI is the key villain in your world, the one you set your goals against. It’s the company you want to outgain, the rival you want to outperform, the competitor you want to outshine. Working towards a KPI … this stirs mediocre desire; competing against a key villain … this spawns a hunger to win.
Here’s how to choose your villain:
- Find something/someone you can put a face to. It might be a rival business or a rival service. At the task level, it might be a rival staff doing better work.
- Choose above you — make yourself the underdog. Mediocrity lives in playing small (but don’t overshoot).
- Tap into your fighter’s attitude, your winner’s mindset. As your villain toils in mediocrity, you’re playing to outthink, outperform, and outcompete … to win! For you, the battle is a reality, and “Winning means you’re willing to go longer, work harder, and give more than anyone else.” — Vince Lombardi.
- Benchmark against your villain … you vs. their quantity, quality, or risk. If the battle is one of quantity, bury your villain beneath output. If the battle is one of quality, bury your villain beneath value. If the battle is one of risk, bury your villain beneath resolve.
#3. Avoid over-analysis
Anything that thwarts doing has the potential to busy you with mediocrity. For individuals, this is especially true of “analysis” or its close cousin “learning.” Some might call it blasphemous, but learning … book after book after book … podcast after podcast after podcast … report after report after report … impedes people with its soothing sense of growth.
Accumulating knowledge only suggests action, sinking people into the inward and the easy at the expense of the outward and the scary. A good book on a soft sofa contains potential energy, but good book(s) on a soft sofa defer the starting line, each new title, lesson, or study being a sponge-like choice to quietly absorb instead of anxiously run.
Here’s how to free yourself from the learning trap:
- Beware the anti-library. In his spectacular book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes unread books (i.e., your “anti-library”) this way: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. … You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.” It’s a great passage, but it neglects to mention the infinity of scholarship and the danger of trapping oneself in the accumulation of knowledge.
- Focus on know-how, not knowing. It’s in the velocity of learning where vulnerability arises, in the ego of readership — proving one’s intellect by stacking titles — or in the fear of missing out … i.e., the FOMO of things unlearned. But consider the greater value of learning one thing (at the extreme) per year, committing to it deeply, and moving beyond mere theory and absorption. There is greater value in small knowledge practiced than there is in large knowledge amassed.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.