Stop trying to be so good at so many things. Pursue strategic mediocrity
Excellence is a fabulous habit. When you’re 18, it gets you into a top university.
However, at some point in your twenties or thirties, it becomes necessary to let go of the overachiever mindset.
We’re trained as teenagers to believe that we should be good at everything. We’re supposed to earn As in every subject, play sports, run student clubs, volunteer, have creative outlets, and have a full social calendar.
The message is exhausting
It’s also dead wrong. At least, once you finish your education, it’s a recipe for disaster.
In adulthood, success comes when you are most fully yourself. More yourself than you think you can be. More yourself than you think you can get away with.
This means that you accept not just who you are, but who you are not. You allow yourself to stop pursuing goals that are inauthentic for you now.
Webster’s dictionary defines mediocrity as "not having the special ability to do something well". None of us wants to be mediocre at everything in our lives. What’s easy to forget, though, is that we have to be mediocre at many things to excel at what truly matters.
Alas, we can’t all be visionary billionaires with six pack abs, tight knit families, and rich community involvements. Adulthood is about specialisation and prioritisation.
Instead of playing a game with one definition of success (going to the right school, working for the right employer, etc), we’re each playing our own game. This means that – cheesy as it sounds – we can all be winners.
Only one racehorse per year can win the Triple Crown.
You are not a racehorse. You are a unicorn
“Always remember that you are absolutely unique,” said anthropologist Margaret Mead. “Just like everyone else.” You are an unprecedented mix of strengths and weaknesses.
The good news is that every weakness is the flipside of a strength.
Are you indecisive? Well, congratulations, because you are also a thoughtful person who knows how to weigh all sides of an issue.
Are you bossy? Woo hoo! You might be the next Sheryl Sandberg or Tina Fey. (Read Lean In or Bossy Pants for inspiration.)
Are you impractical? Hello, visionary!
The goal of adulthood is not to become a well-rounded success machine. The goal is to polarise yourself. The goal is to take bold actions that allow your tribe to recognise you as one of their own. The goal is to double down on your strengths and build a career around them, rather than trying to shore up your weaknesses. (Check out Seth Godin and Marcus Buckingham for more info on these concepts.)
And when you’re not taking bold actions, the goal is to relax, get lots of sleep, spend time outdoors, and enjoy your loved ones. (Sleeping when you’re tired: the #2 most useful thing that most people don’t do.)
The hard part for recovering overachievers isn’t doubling down on strengths - it’s allowing ourselves to suck
It’s letting go of promising roles and opportunities that are just not a fit. It’s giving up on old dreams.
For the record, I’m not saying that we should simply accept bad habits. Being bossy is no excuse for being an asshole. Being impractical is no excuse for not learning effective tactics to get your visions to market.
But often, I think, we’re trying to fix a part of ourselves that is actually not broken. We’re too quick to assume that we are flawed. We think that we should be able to succeed at anything we put our mind to.
The truth is that only a few things in life are really worth succeeding at. It is the work of a lifetime to figure out what those things are for you.
If you’re not sure where to become mediocre, here are a few ideas. Some of these things are sure to be important to you, others will not be. Most of these things are ‘good,’ but it’s tough to make them all a priority.
Is there anything here you could put on the back burner, at least for today?
Wealth, status, fame, achievement, keeping your house clean, owning your own home, being fashionable, having a nice car, owning a car at all, looking fab in a bathing suit, training for a triathlon, going to a top tier university, going to grad school, going to college, getting married, having kids, starting your own business, changing the world, eating vegan, eating paleo, overcoming addictions, having a rich spiritual life, staying healthy, working on your art, volunteering, getting promoted, traveling the world, learning new things, keeping up on social media, having an active social life, networking, reading up on industry news, being active in your community.
Being OK with mediocrity in the things that don’t matter – even if everyone around you thinks these things are really important – gives you the energy you need to immerse yourself in the things that do matter.