We should aspire to mediocrity

Half of people fail to attain average.

Life isn’t fair.  We would like it to be true that most people are good at something, that weaknesses in one area are usually countered by strengths in another and vice versa.  Hence the popularity of the stereotypes of the dumb jock, the ditsy blonde, the physically-socially inept nerd, and so forth.  I more often find that talents go together, a weak but positive correlation.  Of course, if organization A selects for beauty and organization B for intelligence, the average member of B will be smarter but uglier than the average member of A, but that’s not the proper comparison.  It may nevertheless be true, if unfair, that, for example, for the whole population pretty girls tend to be a bit smarter and vice versa.

When I brought home my first baby girl, I resolved to devote myself to her utterly and be an excellent father.  Since then, I’ve tried very hard to raise my girls well, but honestly I’m at best an average father.  The thing is, every new father says the same thing to himself, every father earnestly tries, and every father learns that doing right for your children is actually very hard.  The right thing is often unclear.  I’ve been sometimes too strict, sometimes too permissive; the more one fears one excess, the more likely one is to fall into the other.  The more one is alert to problems in one area, the more one is apt to overlook problems in another.  If I am an average father, then I’m pleased, because average is pretty good.

Like all physicists, I went into my field wanting to do exceptional things, but I clearly have not been able to operate at the level of my colleagues at my university.  To be fair, when I look at what they’ve done–in research, advising, teaching, and community outreach–the average physics professor is pretty impressive.  Then again, the average farmer, fireman, nurse practitioner, airline pilot, kindergarten teacher, marine, veterinarian, priest, electrician, or secretary in the physics department (seriously, they make the department run) is pretty impressive, when you stop to really think about it.  It is with careers like it is with parenthood (although less important).  Nobody wants to be a screw-up.  Everybody has a very strong incentive to give it their best effort.  To achieve average is pretty good.

Of course, there are screw-ups.  We’ve all known some.  But it would be sad for us to base our sense of self-worth on the contrast with them.  Then we would come to want them to be screw-ups.

I don’t think that popular entertainment–television and movies–does a good enough job preparing people for a life of mediocrity.  Sure, movies will often begin with the hero consigned to apparent mediocrity, so that he shares our own insecurities.  But usually he finds his secret calling, the calling that makes him successful and important to more than just a few.  I fear that some screw-ups have wasted their lives in fantasy from the idea of a secret calling.

One can have a satisfying life as an average man or woman.  Average means (or should mean) being able to make enough money to support a family, being able to cook well enough to feed them, being creative enough to invent stories and games to entertain one’s own children, and so forth.  Your children and their children will remember you, and then you will be forgotten.

It is enough.

6 Responses

  1. As I wrote at the O. some time ago, everyone fails sooner or later. Some just fail sooner than others. It’s as if an inexorable weight is bearing down on each of us, and some of us are spaghetti strands, some are wooden beams, and others are iron girders. Even the iron girders bend in the end.

    Like you, I thought fatherhood would be my redemption, but looking back I now see mediocrity punctuated by mistakes. The things that would “never happen to me” happen to me all the time.

    In my career I have repeatedly “focused on my strengths,” only to discover they were not strengths at all. Of course I started out imagining my strength was research and publication, and this strength proved wholly imaginary. Then I thought I had a knack for administration, which turned out to be a knack for alienation of superiors and subordinates. Then I thought I’d make myself a wiz-bang teacher–the result being another dud.

    The odd thing is that mediocrity is a lot of work, at least for me. Just the other day I was on campus at six a.m. to make some crappy revisions to a crappy lecture in one of my crappy classes. Many “deadwood” professors are actually pretty haggard because its not always easy to underperform.

    With all that said, you must bear in mind that other people are almost always relatively impressive because they are hiding things from you and lying. I can puff myself up in the eyes of another person, but I cannot puff myself up in my own eyes.

  2. Yes, I remember that Orthosphere post made a big impression on me, as well it might. I see we’ve had pretty similar experiences. The question is why I ever thought average would be something easy to attain. Your path was I bit unconventional, though. The standard route is first fail at research, then at teaching, and only then go into administration. I’ve only gone through the first two stages myself but have as yet been pretty successful in keeping to service work that doesn’t involve being in charge of anything.

  3. […] Throne and Altar on why we should aspire to mediocrity. […]

  4. A loving father is objectively the best person to bring up his own kids whom he loves.

    This can be seen from the difficulty (and indeed dnagers) of finding anyone else to do the job if the father is lost. Even when material factors are covered, which is not always easy even now and used to be very difficult; lack of love is missed keenly by most (normal) children.

    So an ‘ordinary’ person can be The Best Possible at something important.

  5. Just discovered your blog, and am enjoying reading through the archives.

    “I fear that some screw-ups have wasted their lives in fantasy from the idea of a secret calling.” Ouch. That sentence described me with an accuracy that made me wince.

    Good stuff, sir.

  6. This is a very good post. There is a hierarchy of being even among humans and it is better to recognize one’s place in it and do the best according to one’s own meager abilities than to delude oneself with fantasies of grandeur.

    Also, the flip side of the coin is that once one realizes how mediocre oneself and most people are, one realizes how extraordinary those of world-historical significance really are. All of philosophy is a footnote to Plato not because Plato got there first, but because Plato was a person of truly incredible intellect and insight. Likewise, people talk about the Apostles as if they were ordinary or bumbling. In all of human history, Jesus chose twelve such people (and perhaps thirteen if you count Paul) – only thirteen. They were *not* normal. Jesus said as much:

    “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.
    For, amen, I say to you, many prophets and just men have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them, and to hear the things that you hear and have not heard them. ” (Matthew 13:16-17)

    And our own mediocrity should not be a cause for disappointment, but rather we should rejoice that we live in a world with geniuses, saints, and heroes rather than the drab, empty world where all human beings are mindless hedonists that the nihilists envision.

    For my part, I would rather be a nonentity in a world with geniuses, saints and heroes, than be acclaimed the world over in a world without them.

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