So what is wrong with mediocrity?
The way the world is set up, unfortunately, only a few will ever make it to the top. The top here being top-level financial or social capital . A larger group will sit in the middle, not poor, not wealthy, just getting by. This is to question why we have attached financial averageness/failure to self worth. If we all know we are all NGMI (not gonna make it), then what is wrong with simply wanting to get by? What is wrong with not wanting to expend so much energy into a risky venture that may or may not be rewarding, when the odds are even more stacked against you? What is wrong with optimising for an average, decent life?
*Mediocrity, in this context, is defined as average. Not good, not bad. Just there. Some other definitions consider mediocrity as “being of low or average quality”.
When I was much younger, I did a lot. I was not a very physically active child, because I just never had enough strength. But I enjoyed reading, making up scenarios in my head and snooping around. I read a lot, mostly books categorised as self-help. I’d get motivated for a day or two but realised, many of the strategies did not work for me. So I started to despise self-help books and generic advice. The writers barely acknowledge their privilege and the disparity in the context of the readers. So, when many of my friends and colleagues attended a lot of motivational speaking events in university, I sat those out. I already had enough. But at least, they fueled the dreamer in me, however temporarily.
I generally did well in school, without much effort. I’d receive prizes for the best performance in a class, every now and then. At the end of my primary school education, I was branded a “gifted child”. As a teenager, I would look at my parents and the adults around me and wonder, with some disdain, why they weren’t richer or making more money. I would blame it on their settling for mediocrity. I’d wonder, “If you spend an extra 2 hours a day on something else, you’d be making more money and we’d be more comfortable.” I blamed our financial status on their lack of ambition.
At 17, I was well on my way to being a chartered accountant at 19/20. My relatives were excited, “the youngest chartered accountant in the family”. Until I failed my first professional-level exams. Of the four courses I enrolled for, I passed only one. I had never failed an exam prior to this. It left me stunned and of course, for someone whose entire self worth was built on being the “gifted” or brilliant child, my already negative self esteem took a hit. Worse still, I started to develop different symptoms of an undiagnosed chronic illness, which led to mental struggles. I was struggling to keep up with school work, non-curricular activities and professional exams. In my third year, I mostly couldn’t get out of bed. My roommates would call me lazy. I’d cry. I’d do a lot more medical examinations. “There’s nothing wrong with you”, all the doctors said.
Fast forward 10 years later, working in one of my teenage dream fields, earning what is considered and fairly so, better than the average Nigerian with my qualification and years of experience, I’m sitting on the floor of my one bedroom apartment that I share with a colleague, asking whether the long hours of work are worth it. As a millennial living in 2022, year 3 of a pandemic that forced us as a species to reflect on the sustainability of our choices in life. The majority of us are also realising that we’re not necessarily in better financial positions than our parents were at a similar stage of life, even though we have had better opportunities, especially internet access and technology. We’re all asking similar questions — What’s the point of all the hard work? When does the rat race end? What is the reward at the end of the marathon?
I have since come to realise that financial inequality, success, productivity or happiness, generally, is not just a function of hard work. If it were, many Lagosians would be wealthy. Many young people I know work multiple jobs, handle other projects on the side and still try to be excellent at it all while battling mental illnesses in a world that isn’t designed to help the average person thrive. We make jokes about how humans are the only species that need to earn a living, how existence is a ponzi scheme. We are having honest conversations about trauma, about what we truly want out of life outside external expectations, about how difficult it is to keep up with it all. Slowly, you start to realise that none of these guarantee you a soft landing, especially if you’re coming from a low/average income household because unfortunately, the system is pre-rigged against you and it takes a special blend of ambition, grit, education and a whole lot of luck to actually “make it”. And even if or when you do, at what cost? In most cases, you would have put your health, your relationships and your joy on the line. Is it really worth it?
I have had many moments of self reflection and I have decided not to be a rat in this never-ending race. It simply is a lot of work I am neither interested in nor equipped for. I have decided that I want a simple life with a positive impact on the people closest to me. I want comfort, because it is the only way I thrive. If the world, especially Nigeria where I live, was much more comfortable for the average person, that’s exactly what I want out of life. I have no dreams of creating mind-blowing inventions/innovations that change the course of the human race. I just want to make my own little contributions to the betterment of human beings and leave. I want to create things that outlive me but not necessarily for the consumption of a large number of people. What is wrong with that? What is wrong with just wanting to get by, having my needs being met and being there for the ones I love?
At some point, you’ll realise that a system that thrives on your sense of inadequacy will always sell you pipe dreams — buy more, do more, get more. I wish that we meet ourselves with a little more compassion. And while we work and create value, because frankly, that’s the only way to receive value, we are also prioritising rest, softness and the things that spark joy. And of course, this looks different for each person, but rest or ease should not be a reward for labour. All living things must rest to survive, even the sun goes down.
I believe that human life is inherently valuable, not as a function of what we’re able to create or produce, as important as it is to create. Neither is human value defined by how much wealth or social capital we are able to amass. In the end, we will die and leave it all behind. Recognizing and insisting upon your inherent worth as a human being, is what I would consider a sacred practice. A holy defiance.