In Defense of Mediocrity

It is okay to be mediocre and average. In fact, mediocrity is the key to happiness.

(ps. this post is largely and mostly influenced by Mark Manson’s “In Defense of Being Average” )

When I was a kid, I watched the Manga Series, “The Digimon”, that told the story of Destined Children and their adventure with the Digital Monsters to save the Digital World and Japan from the evil Digital Monster. These kids, from Taichi, Yamato, Koishiro, to Takeru, were destined as the Special Children and entitled to fulfil their destiny in saving the Digital universe.

The entitlement that being labeled on them, has put them on high expectation and constant pressure to always show moral fortitude of the saviour of the world. If you have watched the Digimon, you will see how the expectation and pressure to DigiDestined Kid have gone awry, especially when Agumon incidentally evolved to Skullgreymon because of Taichi keep pressuring him to evolve to Ultimate Level Digimon.

Living with such entitlement of special purpose was awful. And I think that this is the product of the tyranny of culture of exceptionalism (that I blatantly quoted and inspired from here – it is a good read of defending the mediocrity). There is an invisible force that slowly pressuring us that we must always be proving that we are special, one-of-a-kind, and entitled to achieve such extraordinary purposes. I didn’t realised it until I was old enough to feel it.

Growing up, there was a pressure from being a first-born kid to carry on the reputation of the family, let alone if you’re born in a quite well-known family in your local district. It influenced my way of thinking that I have to achieve something so I won’t tarnish my family’s good name. I think I was entitled to be above average.

Subsequently, I worked hard as a student. I was so anxious about the possibility of failure in the school and the family. I managed to enter the “Kelas Unggulan (Honors Class)” program, where the students were selected from Top 5 or Top 10 from different school across the small town. And as expected, I cannot keep it up.

Prior to this new program, I was always ranked 2 or 3 in my class. But in Honors Class, the pressure was real. I was always left behind in many subjects. Students from other schools were always better than me. I struggled to take it at first and it left me with deep mental scar. As a result, I was thrown away from Top 5 for the rest of my life.

The pressure was even harder when I moved to different city during high school and met people from different towns. While the school administration put me into the “International Class” of the school, my academic performance was still mediocre. I always failed the Physics class, and only managed to pass one exam out of the numerous exams during three years.

I tried to explore my passion and found that I was quite good at debate and pageant/tourism ambassadorship. Debating and Tourism Ambassadorship in turned have became my safe haven. I convinced myself that while I was no longer exceptional at class, at least, I have something that I can be proud of and above average, namely in these extracurricular activities. However, despite pretty glowing achievement from extracurricular activities, the pressures to always achieve the exceptionalism still lingers.

It peaked when I entered the college, one of the best International Relations Schools in the country. Coming from a smallest town in East Java inevitably has limited my perspectives and world view. I was jaw-dropped to enter the class where many of the brightest and the big brain across Indonesia were there to study and compete. Some gossips around and I learned that oh there is a guy who won the Social Olympics in High School, ah there is a girl who represent her province in national debating tourney, ah these groups are from the best high school in the nations, yada yada.

I realized it that the moment I had my first exam and assignments grade, I was extraordinary and I have to admit that I was quite shock at first.

I tried to escape to debate society, thinking that perhaps I could be special on this place. But, I was wrong. Debating Society is, in fact, the place of many highly ambitious and overachiever with list of medals/championship under their belly. Once again, my exceptionalism entitlement was shattered away. I never once won a debate championship during my undergrad. I was always lost it in the semifinal or final. My only chance to shine was gone.

It has more or less influenced my self-esteem. I lived the rest of my college with the anxiety of feeling inadequate as I never really excelled in class and shined in debate.

I brought the topic of mediocrity again because I sensed that the world that we are living today has really drowned into the tyranny of culture of exceptionalism (psst, read it here).

Everyday, we are flooded with the continuous display of the best of the best. For instance, the youngest CEO that managed to invent the exceptional application to save the world poverty, the business degree guy who jumped into the top analyst of MBB only months after graduation, hundred people went to Harvard and other Ivy leagues campus, and so on and so fort. And thanks to technology (yes, I’m talking about the social media, social network, and internet), it seemed that the display was so massive.

These extreme exposure to the finest of the finest has conditioned us to believe that being extraordinary is the new normal. That if we are not special or if we are not achieved something that include the greatness and above the average all the time, we are the failure.

This is so dangerous.

First, the insecurity from the “tyranny of exceptional culture” was significantly dangerous for your mental sanity. It is constantly pressuring you. Many of you will end up with constant jealousy over someone else’s achievement or because you failed to do so. Some people managed to cope it with professional support, others cannot take it anymore (like me), and others ran to compensate in any way possible.

Second, being always extraordinary is statistically impossible. It can be simply explained by the following Bell Curve, which again I took it from here. In the curve, you see that the extraordinaire persona are the bottom right, and it is impossible to always stay in the bottom right.

Nobody is perfect. There is no way any single person can be exceptional in every (or many) aspect of their life. The high performers must have other sides of life that is pretty messed up to begin with.

In my case, to my surprise, after years of feeling inadequate, I began to accept that my existence is ordinary and that is completely acceptable. I started to ingest the new paradigm of my mediocrity and boy, that feels painful at first, but I felt better. Imagine that you have to swallow a bitter pill to cure your illness. That is how I felt back then.

The constant pressure to always be exceptional is slowly lifted off my back. My endless anxiety and inadequate feeling has dissipated. As Manson said in his article, accepting oneself is the first path of self-liberation to accomplish what I truly wish to accomplish anything free from judgments and expectations.

It is clearly acceptable to be mediocre, as long as we are consented and accepted ourselves. Some of us are just born with different natural talents or wealthy privileges that may led to gap of efforts – but that will require another post to explain and argue about it.

However, accepting our own averageness should not be accompanied with the low motivation to work. Self-acceptance is not the excuse to stop striving.

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