When Mediocre is Good Enough
Exhibit A: A girl invites a friend to join her at Zumba. The friend goes once, and never goes back.
Exhibit B: A writer does not submit their work to be published. Ever.
Exhibit C: A student forgoes a career path outside of their comfort zone after a semester with questionable grades, choosing instead a major that requires skills they already possess.
I’ve found myself thinking about fear a lot these past two weeks. Not the big fears—not death or failing all my classes or being kidnapped by a clown with googly eyes and being stuck in a birdcage for the rest of my life (hey, it happens). No. Being in college fills me with everyday fears and reminds me of everyday failures.
For example, I live in mortal terror of being asked to make a seating chart for a class. Sounds fake, I know, but hear me out. My interests as a child leaned heavily on the language arts side of the spectrum. I read. I wrote a lot of terrible short stories about missing puppies and mean girls. And since my best friend could draw fantastically well by the age of eight, well—it wouldn’t matter even if I started drawing; she was so much better, and always would be. Her pencils turned paper into gold. I decided if she was the art girl, I was the words girl. That’s all I needed to be.
So that’s all I became.
As a result, when a teacher asked me to sketch out a seating chart during my senior year of high school, I literally couldn’t do it. My visuo-spatial thinking and hand-eye coordination were so underdeveloped that I could not draw a bunch of squares on paper and have it come out looking roughly like the classroom setup. My language skills were completely useless for this task, and when my teacher returned at the end of the period, I had to sheepishly hand her the sorry piece of paper and admit my incapabilities.
Why hadn’t I ever learned to draw? Because, at the ripe old age of eight, I was afraid of not being as good as my artistic genius best friend.
A confession. I am exhibits A, B, and C. While changing my major was a good decision and I much prefer running to Zumba and I do not write for the sole purpose of being published, the fact remains that each of these decisions was made out of fear. No matter how well some of them turned out, I’ll never know if submitting that short story would’ve made me famous, or if Zumba might’ve introduced me to an awesome new friend group, or what my life would’ve been like if I’d stuck with my psychology major. This system of playing it safe doesn’t just apply to 8-year-old me—it’s a habit that manifests itself over and over again.
I am afraid of being bad at things. I am afraid of failing. I am afraid of taking risks.
But why? I think, first of all, that my pride is easily wounded. Even good-natured ribbing from friends—if it’s not about something I feel confident in, I take it personally, feel it and remember it for months or sometimes, for years to come. Secondly, I fear rejection. What if I talk to someone and they think I’m annoying? What if I raise my hand in class and the teacher thinks my question is dumb? And even if it isn’t, what if it’s not good enough? Ultimately, I fear being mediocre.
It’s true that surviving in our world requires a certain level of accomplishment. So if we aren’t great at something straight off, many times we walk away. We’re afraid of being only “decent,” afraid of squandering all that potential they told us we had in elementary school--because if we aren’t automatically successful, then maybe that potential didn’t exist in the first place.
But mediocrity doesn’t deserve your disdain. And while it’s true that you have to be decent before you can be good, mediocrity doesn’t have to be the step that comes before mastery. You don’t have to be good at everything. Being “decent” can be an end in and of itself. So you could shoot hoops all day but know you’ll never play on a real team? Awesome, you’ve got a fun way of staying in shape and know enough to play with your friends! What’s that? You love picking out pop songs on the piano, but you’ll never win prizes for your skill? Your family probably loves it when you play for them! And you like sudoku and casual number games but your head spins at the thought of calculus? Cool, you can still balance a budget or do mental math gymnastics at the grocery store to figure out how much you’ll spend. Mediocrity is not something to be afraid of. Rather, it is the only thing that enables us to live a well-rounded life.
Fear paralyzes us. It spins our heads, cripples us in ways we don’t even realize. It keeps us from our potential, steers us clear of opportunities and prevents us from being truly fulfilled.
But it doesn’t have to do that. The best thing about being human is that you have the ability to change things. Everything could be different tomorrow. You could sign up for that class, try out for that choir, talk to that cute senior at vespers. You may not get an A. You may never get a solo. You may find that the senior you’re crushing on is crushingly boring. Or you may find yourself discovering new talents, new abilities, new things to learn and new people to love.
I wish someone had told me in elementary school that I could be the words girl and an artist, too. I wish someone had told me that I didn’t have to be good at something to make it worth pursuing. Most of all, I wish I’d been brave enough, back then, to try.