When Mediocrity Is Okay


You don’t need to be perfect all the time.

Most of the time you don’t even need to be good.

Because putting any effort toward your goal – whatever it is – puts you ahead of the 90%+ of folks who have not.

Only by freeing ourselves of the need to be perfect can we slowly, and honestly, become good.

These thoughts – basic though they are – came to me during my latest sojourn to Medium, where I read two posts – a brilliant satirical short story called “Life-Hacking Isabel,” and a transcript of an interview called “Malcolm Gladwell Wants to Make the World Safe for Mediocrity.”

Aside from being insanely jealous that I hadn’t written “Life-Hacking Isabel,” both pieces were a clear reminder of a single, important fact:

Most people are mediocre.

That’s the literal definition of the word – the fat middle – say, the 40%-70%.

And that’s okay.

It’s like noting that 50% of the population is below average.

That’s not mean, or an exaggeration – it’s just…true.

But here are 3 reasons or scenarios when mediocrity is sometimes actually desirable:

1. When you lose the need to be perfect, you lose your inhibitions. You don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

2. When a baseline understanding is necessary, but you need not be an expert.

Ex. You’re a manager who needs to know enough about product development, engineering, or coding to understand what the technical experts are telling you and make budgetary decisions accordingly.

Here, some knowledge is better than none at all.

3. Mediocrity could signal a cultural shift.

My favorite example of this was Ang Lee’s “gay cowboy film” Brokeback Mountain.

Brokeback Mountain


Despite brilliant performances from its cast of Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhall, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams, the movie’s true brilliance is its mediocrity.

At its best, Brokeback Mountain is a 3rd-tier romance, a melodramatic potboiler. Without the novelty of a bromance-turned-sexual-love-affair of two “straight” cowboys, the movie wouldn’t have gotten made.

So it was a seminal work because it was a B-movie, and allowed to be made anyway.

Its release signalled a shift in U.S. society — no longer did every story featuring gay/lesbian or trans characters have to be a masterpiece.

And that, my friends, is true progress.

As a culture, Brokeback Mountain showed that we were now okay with crappy potboiler romances that happened to be gay as well.

And that’s significant – a critical step toward a cultural norm in which gay characters are so commonplace that their inclusion at all is no longer news.

Here’s another area that it’s okay to be mediocre:

Most of life.

During the first 17 years of life, school conditions us to strive for perfection.

Or, at least 93%% (an “A” grade back when I was in school).

But once you get to college (or worse, grad school), forced curves take over.

In grad school it’s almost impossible to fail.

As in, the previous A-F grading scale has now been compressed to simply A-C.

But the dirty little secret here is 80% of folks land in the B range. Literally only 10% rate an A or a C.

So suddenly, the difference is a matter of degree.

My personal experience was as a law student at Emory University. Your mileage may vary, but Emory, as a top 30 but not 10 law school, used a forced curve of 3.17 (B/B+).

That means that the dead average law student, ranked # 93 out of 186 in her class, was supposed to have a 3.17 GPA (half B’s, have B+’s.)

But the “fat middle” applied, where ~20% of students received an A or A+ on exams (reserved for the top 3% of each class) and – at worst, the bottom 10% received a C+ or C.

The other 70%?

Received a B. (Could be a B+, B, or B-, but a B nonetheless.)

So here, the difference between an A and a B is an order of magnitude.

To be assured of an A vs. a B, you had to work roughly 3-4x harder than the average student.

Study 3x as hard to have only a 40% shot at getting the A- vs. the B+.

In an environment where everyone (by virtue of undergrad prestige + GPA + LSAT + extracurricular fame) is of roughly equal intelligence.

For most people, this is a losing scenario.

Working 3x harder for an A- vs. a B+ seems a waste of energy.

But in this case, it could account for +/- 30% in class rank.

The difference between ending 1L in the top 20% of your class vs. top 50% of your class.

At the time, that meant the difference between landing a $130,000 a year “big law” job after graduation vs. fighting to land a federal government position paying just $70,000 a year.

While that may seem an argument for putting in the 3x effort, here’s the equalizer:

5 Years Later

5 years after graduation, your GPA no longer matters.

Far more important is what you’ve done.

And at this point, the “B” student at a law school like Emory (or Boston College, or George Washington University, etc.) is judged far more on their actual work experience and legal record than on their grades.

The Lesson

Woody Allen once said, “80% of life is showing up.”

He’s not wrong.

80% gets you a C. Gets you to average.

Put another way, X gets you to 80%, far ahead of those who don’t even try to show up.

Your job, then, is to optimize it, and put in enough effort to get yourself to a 90%, or B.

In this model, B (or 90%) is still considered mediocrity.

To be a world-class player requires A-game, a solid 95% or higher.

But where the delta between getting a 90% (B) and 95% (A) is putting in one hour of work, vs. putting in three hours of work, the one will suffice.

The other two hours?

Spend them with your kids, your wife, your husband, or best friends, or hobbies.

Because the dirty little secret of life is that Woody Allen was right:

80% of the battle is in simply showing up.

If you can show up and put in an average amount of work on top of that, you’ll hit 90%.

And that, my friends, puts you ahead of 90% of the world for one third of the effort.

And still gives you the free time to enjoy life, and be there for your family.

If that’s not optimization, I don’t know what is.

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