This article is for you if you fear being mediocre. You yearn for success, to be exceptional, flawless or special; and if you can’t have that, then maybe at least your pain can make you special. Anything but being average!
The public image of success
We live in a time where we are bombarded daily with success stories of extraordinary individuals:
- The teenage boy who became a YouTube millionaire.
- The skinny guy who transformed himself into a fitness model
- The hedge fund tycoon who bought a £95mill villa.
- The street sweeper who became a TV celebrity.
These are just a few examples of stories that we see on social media, TV or in the movies. Some are real, some are fiction. Some are somewhere in between. Ever admired the life of a guy you don’t really know just based on his Facebook or Instagram posts? Maybe your mind makes up a whole story about him being “the guy who has it all”: the dream job, dream home, dream girl, dream holiday and an amazing group of friends he always parties with.
We all know that those posts are just images of moments in time, and often they are staged to impress. It never ceases to amaze me when I see clients in my coaching practice who outwardly seem to live a perfect life, but in our sessions, they admit to being deeply unhappy, burned out or lonely.
Yet, even though we understand that there is another side to those public images of success, they can still have power over us and create expectations of how life “should” be. We may fear to miss out in life, to waste it or to be mediocre.
The fear of mediocrity
“Mediocrity is my biggest fear.”Robert Downey Jr.
I had to cringe when I saw this quote by Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. on LinkedIn. It was followed by multiple comments from other readers joining in with the notion that “mediocrity” was indeed terrible and that we should all aim to be extraordinary.
It may surprise you that, as a life coach, I have a different take on this. Of course, I am all for ambition and self-improvement; that’s the essence of my business. It concerns me, though, when people’s desire to grow is fuelled by a fear of mediocrity. Admittedly, sometimes this fear can create amazing results, as evidenced by the success of Robert Downey Jr. Yet it can also cause mental health issues, manifesting in anxiety, low self-esteem, depression or burn out.
If you drive yourself hard to beat mediocrity and you notice that this affects your emotional balance, let me tell you about some of the side effects that chase to be extraordinary can bring. You will also find suggestions for a more wholesome personal growth journey at the end of this article.
The issue with external referencing
The word “mediocre” comes from the Latin word medius, which means “middle”. Being mediocre means therefore that we are in the middle of something; but in the middle of what? It normally implies a comparison with other people and their success. If being “mediocre” is bad, it means that we only have value if we are better than at least 50 percent of others in the same field that we want to excel in.
If this is how we judge ourselves, we make our self-esteem conditional on our performance in relation to others. That’s a rather harsh way to think about ourselves. It means that we need to be better than others to have any self-love.
It does not stop there. Even if you have made it to the top, you may still need constant re-affirmation of your value by others. Like a junkie, you will always need the next fix of external validation to boost your sense of self-worth. It also means that your self-love is not just dependent on your own performance but also on that of others. Imagine you are living a great and successful life, but your friends have been even more successful; will you value yourself less just because of the achievements of others?
If you are a father, you would probably love your child and see them as a valuable human being no matter how well they performed in life. That’s the unconditional love of a father. I encourage my clients to love themselves in the same way.
Whose standard is it, anyway?
There is another issue with comparing yourself to others: there is hardly ever a like-for-like comparison possible. We all have different values, genetics, upbringings, resources, talents and life journeys.
Here are a few examples of comparisons that are unfair and unnecessarily harsh on yourself:
- You judge yourself for not having the same body as the fitness model on Men’s Health, although you would never want to live the life that is required to attain this kind of body. You simply have different values and priorities. Maybe you also have different genetics and even the hardest work would never create similar results.
- You feel inferior to a friend who managed to attend the best university in the country because he had access to funds that you did not.
- You envy the business success of a friend, but discard the price he had to pay for his wealth. He lost his wife, estranged his kids and abuses alcohol to numb his depression. You only want to have the good stuff, not the downside of his success.
- You compare yourself with somebody who does not even exist. I know a few men who aspire to be like the macho lawyer Harvey Specter in the TV show Suits. This guy does not exist! He is a fantasy—and having been a lawyer myself I can tell you it would not be advisable or possible to run a law firm in the way he does in the show.
Is your ambition love-driven or ego-driven?
The more we focus on comparing ourselves to others, the more we remove ourselves from the love of what we do. Let me explain:
Imagine you are an actor like Robert Downey Jr. and you love your profession. You love acting, you love the joy you bring to people and you love working on improving your professional skills. This love can create a deep satisfaction with your life. You may well manage to get to the top of your profession, but your satisfaction with your life and your self-love are not conditional on this achievement.
If, on the other hand, your ambition is fuelled by a desire to feel superior to others, then this comes from a place of ego. This ego needs to be at the top to be satisfied. It tells you that you are only worthy if you are better than others.
I invite you to reflect on where your desire to grow comes from. Is it from love for yourself and the subject of your interest, or from an ego that needs an emotional stroke to validate itself?
What do you think of people who are “just” average?
If you fear mediocrity, what does this say about the way you view other people who you perceive as “average” or less? Do you judge them for not being good enough? What about a guy in an average job who enjoys a simple life, is a caring father and happily married? Is this worse than being a burned-out dot.com millionaire?
There can be a certain amount of arrogance in judging mediocrity. There is also an elitist angle to it. Since only half of the population can be above average, by implication the other half is less worthy. This seems like a harsh worldview.
The alternative is to turn your fear into love for yourself and for what you do, to feel compassion for others, and see the beauty of individuality in all of us.
Does your fear of mediocrity create good results?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the ambition to be at the top of society may, in fact, create good external results despite my mental health concerns. But sometimes it does not. What I encounter frequently in my coaching practice is that the fear of mediocrity can block a person’s growth through self-doubt, anxiety and procrastination.
Take Paul, who came to me in his twenties because he wanted to create a legacy. He did not know what type of legacy, but a legacy it had to be. We explored a number of ideas, but Paul either decided they were not big enough to have the potential to become a legacy or they were so big that he lost heart and did not even start developing the idea. He was stuck, and judged himself harshly for his inability to create something special.
I explained to Paul that his desire to create a legacy seemed to be more ego than love-driven. His primary goal was to be special no matter how. Most legacies start from a different intention. For Bill Gates, it was his fascination for computer programming, for Mahatma Gandhi his passion for civil rights and for Mark Zuckerberg the fun of connecting students at colleges. As far as I know, none of these people started with an intention to create a legacy. They followed a passion that later turned into a legacy because of its success. I encouraged Paul to find his own passion first and then to work on something that brings him joy and fulfillment long before it has turned into a legacy.
What drives your fear of mediocrity?
The fear of mediocrity is common and in many ways natural to human beings. At the root of this fear is a craving to be loved, safe and significant. We all want these things, but have different strategies for pursuing them. We developed those strategies as children and they turned into subconscious patterns that have been staying with us since. They drive how we think, feel and act. Those strategies helped us survive as kids, but as we grow up and no longer depend on the approval of adults they don’t always serve us well.
Learning about your own patterns can be the best thing you do for your personal growth. I use psychometric testing with the Enneagram model to help my clients learn about their patterns very quickly and then to create strategies for growing beyond their limitations.
The Enneagram is based on ancient knowledge about patterns of human behaviors. It recognizes nine main personality types which are further divided into 27 subtypes. Three of the main types are particularly relevant in the context of this article as they try to fight mediocrity in different ways:
The Strict Perfectionist – Be perfect. People who resonate with this personality type are driven by the core fear of criticism. They try to avoid being criticized by aiming to be perfect. This is, of course, impossible since nothing ever is perfect. A Strict Perfectionist can be extremely reliable and good at maintaining standards in society. Yet they often drive themselves very hard and rarely enjoy the fruits of their success—because, in their view, they could always have done better! I resonate most with this personality type and, believe me, it’s a tough way to live your life! I have done a lot of personal growth work to manage this aspect of my personality and to soften its impact on my life.
The Competitive Achiever – Be a winner. This personality type believes that she is only valuable if she outshines others. It’s either winning or losing. Competitive Achievers are often ambitious and successful, but can easily suffer from vanity and self-deception. They can take failures very badly, rather than accepting them as part of any success journey.
The Intensive Creative – Be special. If you resonate with this type you will be deeply connected to your emotions. The Intensive Creative is driven by the desire to be special by any means. It does not even have to be success. Often they define their special status through their suffering, their dramatic life story or by the depth and authenticity of their emotions. They tend to be creative and intuitive, but are at the risk of taking their life stories and emotions too seriously. This can result in an exhausting roller coaster of emotions, and sometimes depression.
These are just three examples that show how the fear of mediocrity can manifest in very different ways.
How to grow healthily without fear
There is an alternative way to grow and create success. This journey takes its drive from love and vision, rather than fear and ego. Here’s how to start it:
Create your own benchmark of success
Rather than measuring yourself solely through external referencing, establish what success means to you. What is most important to you in life and what do you need to satisfy these desires? Is it really wealth and recognition, or is there an underlying desire for something deeper, maybe love and connection?
Make sure that you create a healthy distance from the opinions of other people about your life, such as your parents, your friends, your partner, your religion, your community or the voices in the media. If you align your life to the opinions of those external voices, you are at risk of living their lives, not yours. Step back and decide what’s really important to you to feel alive, excited and fulfilled. What would you do with your life if there was nobody else you could disappoint?
Learn from masters without putting yourself down
By all means, look for role models who have achieved what you are aiming for. You can explore the mindset and strategies that led to their success and experiment with modeling them. Yet I encourage you to do this from a place of self-love rather than putting yourself down in relation to them. You are special and loveable in your own way. Life does not have to be a constant competition.
Once you have a vision for your life and a strategy for growth, enjoy the ride. It’s quite likely that you will have ups and downs, success and failure. That’s part of human life and not something to avoid. If you look at the journeys of highly successful people, you will probably find that each of them experienced many failures on their way to success.
You may have heard the expression that there is no failure, just learning and success in progress. What this means is that failure is part of the way to success, not something you can avoid; and without failure, it’s hard to learn.
Indeed, if you don’t ever experience any failures, this could mean that you play too safe in life. The bolder we live, the more rejections and failure we will experience.
This is probably the most important part and it may sound cheesy: whatever you do, adopt a mindset of self-love. You are the most important person in your life and you cannot run away from yourself.
We all want to be loved and it’s beautiful when we receive this love from others. Yet you will create a stronger foundation for life if you reduce your dependence on validation through love from others. It’s fine to enjoy it, but at the same time strengthen your unconditional self-love. Make it strong enough that it can survive the ups and downs in life that you will encounter, and strong enough too that you don’t need to reject yourself as a means of motivation to grow.
If you feel inspired to improve your relationship with yourself, you will easily find numerous books on this subject. You can also work with a therapist, or with a coach like me.
I am going to be honest with you: I am not invulnerable to the fear of mediocrity, but I know how to keep it at bay. It can be a nagging voice that could easily take over my life if I let it. The fact that I can see the patterns I describe in this article in myself and others helps me to laugh at myself and shrug that nagging voice off.
If you spend your life being with people you love and pursuing activities that fulfill you, what more do you want? Life is too short to waste it worrying about how we compare to others.
Previously published here and reprinted with the author’s permission.
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