In Defense of Mediocrity

 

What do judo, dog training, rock climbing, racquetball, and music all have in common?

 

When I was a young judoka many people told me that karate and judo were in competition. This always struck me as a bit absurd; when people asked me who would win in a fight between a judoka and a karateka I always told them it would be whoever was paid to heal the injuries. It was a senseless question, although until I got older I did not understand why.

 

Judo has an enemy. It is not karate. It is not dog training. It is sloth, manifested primarily in the 20th and 21st century by the greatest addictive mechanical device every instantiated Ė the television. It is furthered by the overwhelming drive in Americans to accept nothing but excellence. Americans demand excellence in the things they buy, and in the things they do.

 

I first noticed this pathology as a judo student. Judo for me has always played a minor role in my life. I work out hard while I am in the dojo (judo club), but I never had the dedication to become really excellent at it. I was busy doing other things, trying out other things Ė like dancing, playing guitar, ice-skating. Many people who came to judo years after me quickly surpassed my skills Ė and then quit.

 

Few, very few, students begin over the age of 30. The reason, I believe, is that they are aware that they are too old to ever get really good at it. I have discovered this phenomenon in many other activities Ė rock climbing, racquetball, ice-skating, and music (to name a few). It seems that, as a culture, we are very goal driven, and very driven for excellence. This works very well for some people, but (I believe) not very well for most, at least not where diversions are concerned.

 

The fact we are excessively goal driven tends to divert our attention away from the voyage. We work at some skill with some skill marker in mind; having achieved that marker (a black belt, a college degree) we stop pursuing the skill. But it is the pursuit of the marker (rather than the marker itself) that makes a diversion enjoyable. In my experience, most people stop pursuing the skill when some marker is reached.

 

The fact that we are excellence driven means it is NOT okay to be half-assed at anything we do. This argues rather strongly against starting up a new diversion which, though pleasurable, will showcase our incompetence. While it is appropriate to demand excellence from ourselves in some pursuits, demanding it from all our pursuits rather limits those things one can pursue.

 

The combination of being excellence driven and goal driven means that as we age the tendency is to harbor fewer and fewer diversions. We funnel our energies into the things we are good at Ė and become either workaholics, or couch potatoes, or both. And as our bodies age the range of new things we are willing to try contracts.

 

I believe itís okay to paint, even if you are lousy at it. Itís okay to start martial arts training at 60 because it is acceptable to not be an Olympic hopeful. Itís okay to write a novel, even if it is never published. Itís okay to do things for fun without the expectation of becoming highly proficient at it.

 

Our enemy is not mediocrity. Our enemy is sloth.

 

 

Gary Hughes-Fenchel

August 2003

 

 

Since publishing this document nearly 2 years ago I have gotten some feedback. There are two points that need clarification.

1)    Several people have pointed out that it is NOT acceptable to be mediocre in everything you do. That is most certainly the case. I donít care if the surgeon who is working on me is a lousy painter, but I do care if he is a good surgeon. The rule of thumb seems to me to be that if you represent yourself as expert at something, you should indeed be expert at it.For most of us, that means that we need to be expert at what we do for a living, but not at our hobbies.

2)    This does NOT mean that one should necessarily devote oneís life to pursuing excellence at work, to the exclusion of everything else. It is arguable whether that produces the best quality worker; it rarely produces the best quality person, or the best quality of life.

 

Gary Hughes-Fenchel

March 2005