I admit it:
I am ambitious.
I am driven.
I strive for excellence.
I have been known to have over-achiever tendencies.
I have struggled with the perfectionism monster.
Is all this striving for excellence a big fat mistake?
Recently, a Facebook acquaintance has shared some sentiments and articles that have suggested that this is the wrong way to be. That this cultural abhorrence of mediocrity and worship of achievement are doing our society no good. That, in fact, they argued, we should try to appreciate mediocrity and lovingly accept being average, and that we’ll be better off for it.
These views suggest that our society’s constant striving and hard-driving ambition are causing us to be unhealthy and unhappy. And that if we took our foot off the gas a bit, and learned to appreciate the slower, less stressful life of mediocrity we’d enjoy ourselves more.
I say, “NO, NO, NO!” (emphatic enough for ya?)
As a lover and seeker of excellence and beauty and the good in all and everything (that’s what my Instagram profile says about me, anyway), I reject this premise wholeheartedly.
In fact, I'm totally disturbed by it.
If this is the trend in the culture, I will find it very ominous.
I really hope it's not a trend, but I’ve decided to take up the fight, here on my blog, to support the cause of striving for excellence.
Four mistakes about mediocrity and the reason to say NO to it
Here are four common thinking mistakes the mediocrity-lovers make and my four reasons why you should say no to mediocrity and yes to striving for excellence:
Mediocrity Mistake #1: Striving for excellence when you are not likely to actually be exceptional is stressful and uncomfortable. You are never happy with who you are. Once you can accept you’ll most likely be average at everything you do, you can relax and be yourself.
No! Accepting mediocrity condones passivity and stagnation. Striving creates active, positive momentum.
If you reflect upon your own life and proud achievements you’ve had, think about the pride and excitement you’ve experienced when you worked hard to achieve them. Whatever the accomplishment was, it was always incremental – not the top of the ladder with nothing further to accomplish, but rather a stepping stone along the journey to continued improvement and ongoing skill development.
When you strive, you push yourself to accomplish better and better results. And when you do, it motivates you to keep striving. It’s a virtuous cycle of positive progress and momentum. You must gauge your own progress as compared to your previous accomplishments and future ones you aspire to, not to where you are in comparison to others. And being a perfectionist is a trap to avoid – it’s incremental progress, not perfection, you should seek.
(Listen to this podcast guest describe the proper way to view achievement and pride.)
Mediocrity Mistake #2: Always striving for excellence and achievement brings nothing but disappointment and self-loathing. Recognizing you’ll never be one of the exceptional few makes you feel less badly about yourself and makes you happier.
No! Accepting mediocrity diminishes motivation. Appreciating excellence fuels it.
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Striving to become better at anything requires a target, milestones, and interim accomplishments. Working hard and tracking progress allows you to gauge your achievements, big and small, and celebrate the journey. When you focus on progress and the journey of development rather than just the shiny object at the end of the rainbow, you are more likely to feel a sense of happiness, motivation, and satisfaction.
Accepting that somehow you’ll never reach that shiny object and just settling for where you are right now, as the mediocrity-lovers suggest, causes you to get complacent and lazy. If you only gauge your own achievements as they compare to others’, you’ll never be satisfied. But if you measure your progress in comparison to your own journey, you’ll achieve much more by striving and working hard to beat your old record and going for what currently feels out of reach.
I love how actor Will Smith says it (among MANY brilliant insights) in this video collection of his interviews: "Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity". We need to strive to be above-average and unrealistic in our goals.
(Listen to my story about when this happened to me at my CrossFit gym and the lesson it reminded me of.)
Mediocrity Mistake #3: When you see other people excel, it makes you feel badly about yourself. But accepting you’ll be average helps you feel okay with who and where you are. The law of averages says the majority of humans are average at any given pursuit or task.
No! Accepting mediocrity in yourself causes you to resent excellence in others. Appreciating others’ excellence and success provides inspiration and never diminishes your opportunities for your own achievements. You don’t need to value your own achievement in comparison to others’ – you need to compare to your former self to see progress.
Envy is not helpful. When you notice others’ success, it doesn’t take away from your own. Most of life is not a zero-sum game where winners denote necessary losers. There are abundant opportunities for all of us to excel and accomplish greatness.
Every person has strengths and special gifts to share, and each of us should do our utmost to optimize our talents and maximize our contribution. Seeing success and achievement in others is proof that hard work and dedication pay. It should help you see possibilities in yourself, not compare yourselves to the others on some kind of finite bell curve.
At the least, if you think about human achievement over the centuries, our bell curve is in constant progress, with ALL of us achieving greater and better results collectively than our ancestors could ever imagine. This is all due to striving and hard work, not to accepting of averageness.
Mediocrity Mistake #4: Striving for excellence all the time is draining and you end up getting burned out and feeling unsuccessful.
No! Working hard and pushing yourself (with appropriate opportunities for leisure and recharging) energizes you and gives you purpose. Living with mediocrity makes living purpose-less.
To be excellent and to pursue excellence need not mean having no leisure, no time to rejuvenate, no hobbies, etc. That's a ridiculous and false dichotomy. Everyone must recharge their batteries and enjoy distraction in order to be able to be high performing at their job and/or craft. That's NOT the same as being mediocre, quite the contrary.
Hard work must be punctuated with play and relaxation. Our evolutionary biology dictates that we oscillate between intense effort and rest to survive. We cannot thrive if we run ourselves ragged with no opportunity to recharge our energy sources through rest and leisure. The people who don’t heed this basic human fact really do get burned out and their ability to excel becomes capped.
But if you’ve ever experienced the state of flow that comes from being intensely focused on something worth doing, so focused that you lose a sense of time, you know how energizing and life-affirming that feeling is. We humans NEED to achieve such a state as frequently as possible. We crave it once we’ve experienced it. This is part of our evolutionary biology, too - our body and mind TELL us that we were meant to do this very thing that we’re doing, and that we can accomplish great results when we do it in this focused, hard-driving way. It makes for a life worth living. We shouldn’t deny it and wallow in a purpose-less, peak-less, average, steady-state energy existence. That makes life seem pointless and boring.
Striving for excellence does not equal comparing yourself to others for your self-worth.
Striving for excellence is the proper state for humans, evolutionarily and biologically. You thrive when you strive, and you wither when you become complacent.
Striving for excellence does not require that you eschew leisure and rest – it mandates it.
Striving for excellence fuels you for achievement, motivation, and happiness ALONG the journey, not at its mythical end.
So, resist the striving naysayers, fight back against the promoters of mediocrity, and be excellent and strive forth, for goodness sake!!
What do you think? What’s been an experience you’ve had with this challenge? Write me about it in the comments below, and let’s get a conversation going!
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