While I usually publish less personal posts on here, I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot since I started to learn snowboarding and skateboarding a couple of years ago – in my early 30s, which has been not just a physically painful experience, but also stirred up a lot of emotions about my own sense of worth.
I’m not an expert in anything. I’ve never learned to play an instrument. I enjoy exercise and sports, but I’m far from actually being good at anything. I’m fluent in my second language (English), but will probably never be at the level of a native speaker, and I’ve been struggling to reach any kind of fluency in Spanish for over a year. I did well (not amazing) in school and in my PhD, I’m decent at my job, and (luckily) I’ve always had the chance to work with plenty of people who are significantly smarter than I am. In short, I’m just kind of… okay at things. Good enough where necessary to not be a burden to others (like my job, organizing events, public speaking and teaching), and somewhere between pretty bad and decent at everything else.
And I’ve resented myself and my parents for that pretty much my entire life. While some of my friends joined sports teams or started taking music classes at an early age, learning a skill that would last them their whole life, I sat at home, watching TV, and eating top ramen. Others appeared to have an interest and internal drive to learn and excel at their chosen hobbies at an early age, as well as the determination and ambition to stick with it through years of hard training, competition, failures, and successes. Meanwhile, I became addicted to online chat rooms at age 13 and didn’t leave my computer for years, racking up enormous phone bills until we finally switched to a flat rate.
A lot of this is my own fault – I had the chance to speak up and ask my parents to enroll me in a class or club at any point during my childhood. But I almost never did, and the one attempt I made at taking piano lessons at age 12 (copying a friend of mine from school) failed after several months because I preferred to take afternoon naps rather than go to class. Some of this might be due to my parents leaving me to figure things out by myself at an early age, emphasis on “by myself”, and the lack of support from any adult who might have had a more long-term view of the benefits of extra-curricular activities. Besides, US schools put a lot more emphasis on extra-curricular activities than German schools (or from what I know, any European country for that matter), with scholarships being an important factor in gaining entry to college education, so any activity outside of class is usually driven by parents who did the research required to find the right clubs and lessons for their kids.
Whatever the reason, I have been struggling with my mediocrity my entire life, but ironically also never attempted to actually rectify this and put in the work required to become an expert at something – at any point, I figured it was already too late anyway. Now, at 34, I’m a decent software engineer (thanks to the internet and wonderful smart and patient coworkers) who can play a handful of songs on the harmonica, ride up and down small ramps on a skateboard, survive blue runs on a snowboard, do a few yoga poses, bake a nice cake, get a couple of laughs when doing standup, and communicate in mostly broken Spanish (old people usually find that charming though, so I guess that’s a win). I’m not great at any of these things – I’m the textbook definition of “okay”. On the other hand, my partner is a software engineer and multi-talented musician who plays and performs in several bands, has been skateboarding for decades, and knows how to ride and maintain a motorcycle, just for good measure. And I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t pain me to face my own ineptitude every time I see him perform on stage, land a seemingly impossible trick at the skate park (first try!) or bomb black runs on a snowboard.
So. Where do I go from here? Should I stop doing the things I enjoy because the chances of me becoming an expert are fairly low, given that I’ve never shown any sort of stamina and determination when it comes to learning anything outside of what’s required for my job (I have a strong sense of duty that seems to kick me into overdrive mode when needed)? Should I work hard to finally change my personality that’s been shaped by 34 years of mediocrity, self-loathing, and abandoned plans to become a better person? Throw money at the problem and pay someone to coach me? And once I’ve achieved expertise in something, will I be able to lead a happier and more fulfilled life? Why do I even believe that it’s so important for me to become an expert at something? Do I want to get better because it’s the only way I’m able to enjoy something or because it enables me to do even more enjoyable things, or do I want to achieve expertise because expertise is highly valued in society, and I crave the attention and praise that might follow from it? Why do we value expertise so highly for interests like arts and sports that have little actual impact on other people’s lives? (I’m not talking about professions that require expertise to ensure safety and wellbeing of others – being a mediocre pilot or doctor is not exactly an option.) Why the hell am I beating myself up over this so much when I don’t even know what I’m doing this for, other than my own enjoyment?
Interestingly, while writing this post I did a quick Google search on “is it okay to be mediocre”. Most results told me “NO” – it’s a sign of laziness, you should strive for greatness, no one is average – everyone is special! and so on, and so forth. And then I found a post from Mark Manson, author of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” which I actually read about a year ago. In his post “In defense of being average”, he writes:
It’s my belief that this flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that “exceptional” is the new normal. And since all of us are rarely exceptional, we all feel pretty damn insecure and desperate to feel “exceptional” all the time.
A lot of this might be obvious to others, but things only just clicked for me here:
- Praise and recognition are a wonderful result of doing something, but most of what I do voluntarily is already enjoyable, even if I will never receive any compliments or applause for it. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. Or maybe shouldn’t be doing it.
- I also realized that one of the reasons why society values expertise so highly is because it makes your skills valuable to others – they can benefit from it, whether it’s you working for them, or providing entertainment of sorts. Just about average performance isn’t worth anything to others. Especially in tech, we’re constantly looking for rockstars and ninjas and superheroes – people who are exceptional at their job, devaluing everyone who is good but not amazing.
- Mastery may open up new opportunities – maybe a black run really is disproportionately more fun to ride a snowboard on than a blue run – but for me, even easy runs are still fun and challenging. Even if I don’t practice and train at the level to become an expert, if I keep doing as much as feels right, I’ll most likely make a little bit of progress eventually and get to try out something new. Or I might not. Maybe I’ll keep doing the same blue runs over and over without ever getting any better, and eventually give up on snowboarding because it’s getting boring. And that’s… also okay?
A lot of people are afraid to accept mediocrity because they believe that if they accept being mediocre, then they’ll never achieve anything, never improve, and that their life doesn’t matter.(Mark Manson again)
While I still wish I had invested more time and effort into mastering something earlier in my life, I should probably just accept that I can’t go back, and at the same time, that mastery might not even be the right goal for me. I’m not an expert in anything. If you say “you still have time to become one”, trust me, I won’t be, I’m not the kind of person who will. But I’m neither a pilot, nor a doctor, and I’m both confident enough in my job skills and aware enough of my deficiencies to consider myself competent, employable, and not a risk to others. Whether I’m just mediocre at the things that I enjoy doing shouldn’t matter to anyone, and it shouldn’t matter to myself. Maybe it’s okay to just be okay.