Dismantling the Mediocrity Fallacy

By Nivsy P

Giving in to the fear of mediocrity stops us from creating something valuable more than the fear of failure does. This is because the fear of mediocrity stops us from starting. If we don’t start anything, there’s zero chance we create something. Overcoming this fear is extremely valuable and we need to empower ourselves and others to do this. 

Illustration by @designsbyindraja

The Mediocrity Fallacy

The mediocrity fallacy is that we shouldn’t do something because our efforts might turn out to produce something mediocre — this fallacy needs to be be dismantled because: 

  • the process of creating any work is valuable in itself; 
  • mediocre work can lead to great work; and
  • stripped of pre-judgement, what you thought would turn out mediocre might turn out brilliant. 

Giving in to the fear of mediocrity stops countless constructive conversations, pieces of creative work, and the first steps to something greater. It’s important to understand why this happens and what we can do to overcome it.

Some Context

To set some context, I’m talking about the realm of creative endeavour when there is no external expectation to produce something. I’m writing about it because it is a realm where I constantly feel my work may turn out mediocre. I have very often not started anything, let alone anything of substance, out of fear that it will be mediocre. 

I’m therefore not talking about an approach connected to external expectations like writing a PhD thesis, submissions for a court case or drafting a commercial contract. Usually in those situations, a sense of responsibility (or high cortisol levels) kicks in to drive you to produce valuable work of a high standard.

In saying that, the value of not giving in to the mediocrity fallacy can apply in situations like speaking up at a work meeting or starting a business idea. For example, there is well known literature on the concept of the minimum viable product, with a great chapter on this in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Similarly, Reid Hoffman in his writings on “Blitzscaling” refers to one the key principles as making sure “you’re embarrassed by the early release of your product” so you can get customer feedback, iterate rapidly and grow a company quickly (but importantly, not be “ashamed”of that product as a result of subverting laws and regulations).

Why does the fear of mediocrity affect us? 

The fear of mediocrity gets us worried about outcomes and the resulting judgement from ourselves and others towards what we might produce. Here are my four semi-deep dives into this question:

  1. Numbness. Your work being called “average” leaves you with a feeling of numbness; a feeling that your work is not even worth paying attention to. With failure, it’s polarising and there’s a reaction — but at least you feel like there has been some attention paid to it. Feeling mediocre and not paid attention to can feel even more painful because irrelevance can feel worse than doing something that’s had an impact.
  1. Social pressure. There are social pressures to be the best at what you do. Someone else has probably written what you’re about to write, with more clarity, more articulately, more well-researched, and has garnered critical acclaim. That someone else is out there, and your work compared to theirs, might not make you feel good at all.
  1. Waste of time. If something’s just going to be mediocre, why spend any time on it when you could be engaging in a host of other activities? If it’s not a earth-shifting breakthrough, what’s the point of putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard? We can feel like we’re not adding anything to the conversation.
  1. Risk of exposure. Linked to all the above, we fear being exposed as the fraud that we secretly think we are. To take writing this article as an example, I’ve had multiple thoughts like: Who am I to say anything about this subject? What if “they” think this article is poorly written, whoever “they” are or even worse, what if “they” look down on it as not even being worthy of discussion? What if I’m disappointed by it? 

Why it’s extremely important to overcome the fear of mediocrity

The fear of mediocrity is a fallacy because the value lies in the creating, not the outcome which we fear (and can’t control). Here is why it’s extremely important to overcome the fear, and why engaging with the creative process is valuable, regardless of the outcome:

  1. Your work is relevant to you and that is valuable in itself. It is important to recognise that anything creative we do is relevant to us and that’s the relevance that matters most. The fear of being irrelevant to others is an illusion that should be seen as just that, an illusion — if we place significance on creation rather than the result, then external validation is not necessary to attribute that work value. 
  2. Doing is learning. Whatever we write and whatever the response is to that, we will learn something. That is valuable. At the least, we learn about ourselves, we learn and become more aware of how our minds work. You open the possibility of learning from others through engagement. If there’s a negative response, we learn and how to react, or not react, to that too.
  3. Mediocrity is a relative measure. There’s no way to know if the work we produce will be mediocre if we haven’t created it. It might even be great. Sure, we get a sense but killing it before it even exists closes the door unfairly on what might have been.
  4. Originality can be contextual. Yes it’s probably true that what you’ve just produced isn’t the first of its kind and entirely original (not referring to plagiarism btw). It may not be as well received as other pieces of work on the same subject, if you’ve chosen to make it public. But it’s the first and most original work that you’ve created. That is valuable because it allows you to bank it against your previous works and let it give you an opportunity for growth. 

Going back to this article as an example, I’m fairly confident this isn’t the first, or objectively near the same quality as many other writings on this subject. But I’ve grown my knowledge on the subject just by writing on it. Being comfortable with this being relevant to me, regardless of whether it’s shared or not, I’m more comfortable producing more. And the more you produce, the better your chances of producing truly great work.

How do we not give in to this fear?

Notice in the very first sentence of this article I said “giving in” to the fear and not simply getting rid of the fear itself. Like most uncomfortable feelings, the fear exists, whether we like it or not. It’s how we react to it, that matters. And if we react in the right way enough times, we may well conquer it for good. Here are a few practical tips I’ve used in writing this article:

  1. Defer judgement. One method you can use is to defer your judgement of the work. You can say to yourself, “Okay I can’t help my mind from judging what I write but why don’t I just park that judgement and then unleash it in full force once I’ve written this”. Chances are that instead of dwelling on and being disappointed about what you’ve just written, you’ll simply be going through how to make it better or excited by how you somehow managed to get some words on a page.
  2. Reframe the scenario. If you’re feeling like you are about to write something mediocre, ask yourself some re-framing questions like Shall we see what this experiment brings? and Who am I writing this for? When we don’t write for external validation, we are freed from the fear. Writing this article, for instance, I was calmed by the thought that I may be the only person to read this and that’s okay but also excited by the prospect of what might spill out in the way a kid gets excited by a cool science experiment.
  3. See the fear. To be able to react to the fear, it helps immensely if we can clearly see and classify the fear. Hesitation and your mind racing with doubt is the first sign it’s there. Next, asking yourself if you’re hesitating because you think your work will be mediocre is the next step to seeing. Cultivating a healthy mind through diet and exercise is of course beneficial in seeing your thoughts clearly as it is in other areas of life. For me, meditation is another tool that helps with separating thoughts and feelings from yourself and then to see those thoughts and feelings with a clearer perspective. 
  4. Call an ally. If you’re thinking about publishing or making something public through posting on your blog, newsfeed or timeline, just ask a trusted ally to read it and get their thoughts. That’s what I did with this piece and if you’re reading this, then it’s a sign I felt comfortable taking the step to share.

Chasing vs Not Fearing

Not fearing mediocrity as an outcome is different from chasing mediocrity. You’re not setting out to produce something mediocre, you’re simply not letting the fear of outcome prevent you from starting. In saying that, it would be an interesting experiment to intentionally set out to produce something mediocre — some no doubt have the skills to do this, mine are too mediocre to attempt or even know that I’m attempting that.

Value in Starting and Doing

I’ve been plagued by a fear of mediocrity for most of my life, as I’m sure many others have. This can result from a number of societal factors we all face, whether it is from our upbringing, comparing ourselves with contemporaries, and our own inner voice. But there is value in starting something, to creating something that previously didn’t exist, and if we are afraid of producing mediocrity, we stop ourselves from legitimate growth opportunities. It’s a good exercise in thinking about how we judge ourselves and our perception of judgement from others. 

In spending a bit of time to write this despite the dread at how average this article might be, I took a leap into the realms of potential mediocrity. But you know what, I’ve written it and I feel okay. If I choose to share it, someone might call it great, someone might even call it garbage. In any case, I’ve learnt something about mediocrity and how I write, I’ve created something that’s original to me, and someone might even chat to me about it. All those things, like not being afraid of mediocrity, are valuable.

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