“I want to be great, or nothing” is one of my favorite lines from Little Women (2019), directed by Greta Gerwig. Amy March, portrayed by the one and only Ms. Florence Pugh, accurately captures a rather depressing, but current, perspective on excellence in life.
If I do not excel, then why would I pursue? I would rather be unknowing than know failure.
A few weeks ago, I went to ping pong try outs. Now, I’ve never been an expert in ping pong, but I consider myself fairly skilled. Yet, when I started the first match, I realized that the other girl would rarely touch the ball twice. In other words, my shots would either catch the net or lobby off the table.
I was mediocre.
What does it mean to be mediocre? The OED defines mediocrity as, “a moderate or average degree of mental ability, talents, skill, etc.; average capacity, endowment, or accomplishment.” However, I would argue that our warped definition of mediocrity has become much more simplified: mediocrity is the failure to excel.
There’s nothing wrong with being mediocre. The only problem was that my ping pong skill level was far too low to match my ego and pride. I felt humiliated. Horrified. By coming to the tryouts, I was proposing the claim that I thought I was on par with these people who could do corkscrew spins and trick shots. It is embarrassing to be proven wrong.
I went home with my head hanging low. Upset at myself, not for being mediocre, but for feeling embarrassed to be mediocre. Is my self-esteem so fragile? I can’t even tolerate the possibility that I may not excel at everything I do. Goodness, I am pathetic.
I am pathetic, but so are most people. We like to excel; it feels good. There is pleasure and glee hidden in every step as we walk around with a blue ribbon on our shoulders. Not only do we pride ourselves of these blue ribbons, but also, we thrive on posting and promoting these blue ribbons to the rest of the world through likes, comments, and retweets.
There’s nothing wrong with being mediocre. The only problem is that we feel there is nothing worthy of celebrating in mediocrity. There’s nothing impressive about a random pattern of darts on a dart board. Disproportionate drawings of Ariana Grande and Jojo Siwa are scorned and turned into viral memes. If it’s not worth celebrating, then it’s not special.
In the same way judges rule people guilty or innocent, we deliver our own verdicts: mediocre or exceptional. In a time when everyone can easily leave a mark on the world through a series of celebratory posts and 30-second shorts, being mediocre is almost like a crime. (If you were a criminal, at least there’s a chance that Netflix will remember to make an exploitive documentary of you). We perceive mediocrity as a crime because of our binary perspective. Special or not special. Smart or not smart. Average or excellent.
The minute we designate ourselves as mediocre, we find ourselves locked behind bars constructed of our own judgement and self-consciousness. Mediocrity is the failure to excel. What value am I if I am anything but exceptional?
When did we become so stringent with our happiness? Leisure has become a sin, and failure is punitive. I know being “great” has an appealing chase, but there is so much freedom abandoned in mediocrity. Do we always have to excel to have value? Have we backtracked to times when flinging a ping pong ball onto the ceiling tiles of Wilson Gym is embarrassing rather than endearing?
There’s nothing wrong with being mediocre. The only problem is that we believe mediocrity to be a problem. What if we took our narrow, binary perspective on mediocrity and expanded it across a scale, creating a spectrum? What if I valued the encounter not by my performance in comparison to others, but by its influence on my outlook on life? Sure, “ping pong pro” and “ping pong amateur” still exist on this scale, at the endpoints. However, the value of my ping pong encounter is not evaluated by my performance, but by the experience. Was it a meaningful experience? Did it spark joy? If yes, even if I was mediocre in skill, the encounter was a valuable experience.
Earlier in the article, I defined mediocrity as the failure to excel. I’d like to amend that definition: mediocrity is not the failure to excel but is one experience of many on a spectrum of a set standard. We tend to value everything we do on a measure of performance, depicting mediocrity as shameful. Yet, mediocrity should also be valued on a measure of meaningfulness.
The reason we view mediocrity as a failure is because we have a purpose: to excel. What if we didn’t have a purpose? What if I was to play ping pong for fun? What if I was to enjoy and thrive on the competitive adrenaline pumping through my veins as I lobby the ball off the table (again)? What if I could laugh, be carefree, and celebrate the one single point I won against my competitor? There is so much joy, happiness, satisfaction, and freedom in those experiences. A mediocre experience can still be meaningful because all experiences, even with the poorest performance, is a learning opportunity. Subsequently, these learning opportunities drive us to discover the world and society. As we experience these learning opportunities, we may invite new discoveries about the world and, perhaps, ourselves.
There is so much untouched potential in mediocrity, to be free of judgment and simply live for the experience. We must learn to embrace our mediocrity and be reunited with leisure. We should not be pressured to know how to do everything well; we should celebrate just knowing how.
At the end of the day, I realize that I’d rather know failure than be unknowing.
Linda Cao is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternative Wednesdays.
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