A few years ago I started a sort of “vision board” that I never finished. Photos and articles taped onto a canvas that has been moved from house to house for nearly a decade. Since I never finished it, I still don’t really know what it means for me. I don’t know what role I’m supposed to play at the intersection of the insect apocalypse, a native flower arrangement, and a hearty bowl of stew. But I remembered this vision board because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of mediocrity.
In the bottom right-hand corner is the essay, “In Praise of Mediocrity,” by professor Tim Wu. When I first read this essay I immediately cut it out and taped it to the fridge. I was about four years into a dry spell with my writing. I had also recently left a job with a long commute and finished grad school so I had some more time on my hands to get into other hobbies as well.
One problem at this time was that my blog didn’t feel safe anymore. I know it was just my perception, but it felt like my writing was under more scrutiny ever since a couple of blog posts had gone sort of locally viral years before. Up until that point this place had just been a sandbox for my ideas and observations without any pressure. I wanted to get back to that. But not only did the blog not feel as safe as it had before, social media had also gradually taken up more space as the venue for ideas and photos. While I did get joy out of sharing and seeing posts on social media, I had this feeling like my posts belonged to them because it was on their site. I also hated the idea that my posts would be forced into people’s faces on social media rather than just hosted on a blog where they could be found or ignored. I always said that the blog was for me, but I would be glad to know that any one else had enjoyed it as well. Social media was different. It started to feel like everything in the world, even my thoughts, existed for other people. To be shared, consumed, and evaluated (to “like” or not to “like”).
I still love this essay and enjoyed reading it again while writing this, remembering favorite parts and noticing aspects I’d missed. Rather than quote from it, I think it’s worth a read:
It feels like we have allowed the standards of financial value, capital return, and professional growth/advancement to invade our personal lives and pastimes. We are no longer content with ourselves and our own joy. We go from work to happy hour to dinner to sleep. Our careers are often what we talk about when we are getting to know each other and how we identify ourselves when we walk into a room. When we do have hobbies, I have felt personally, there is this pressure knowing that it could become something. There is a new generation of entrepreneurs who have made their success by perfecting a hobby. And often they do it while sharing every step of the way with all of us on social media. I support and celebrate them while also wondering if it could or should have been me.
During the fall of 2016 I finally decided to part ways with Facebook. I felt like the platform had become too contentious and I didn’t want it in my life anymore. Except that I did. I was addicted to checking Facebook, I was getting sucked into the dopamine hit of “likes” and the cycle of rage and outrage. It is weird to be able to look so closely at other people’s lives. Comparison is the thief of joy, but it can also be the giver of smugness. Criticizing other people on social media is definitely an undercurrent of the entire enterprise. But the criticism doesn’t give back joy. It makes us feel more isolated with less in common than we thought.
I can’t say I deleted my Facebook, but I did have someone change the password for me (along with the backup email and phone number) so that I wouldn’t have to fight with myself about checking in. At the same time, I decided to subscribe to the Sunday Times. I wanted a full, physical newspaper that I could fold and feel. I knew there was so much interesting and important news happening in the world below the fold that I was missing out on because it would never go viral or get shared. I wanted to escape “the passive, screeny leisure” I felt constantly drawing me away from the things in life I loved. I wanted to take in more art, culture, history, and book reviews. Another thing I love about the newspaper is that it is actually professional content rather than the aspiring-to-be professional posts on social media. I can admire, appreciate, and critique the articles and photos without having to feel jealous or make comparisons to my own life.
This introduction to an article about Japanese Washi describes our current era of software-mediated life and the reaction I have joined toward physical, tangible alternatives:
If social media is about comparison and consumption, I’ve begun to see it also as an instrument of surveillance. We willingly share and subject ourselves to the surveillance, but I feel like we are still losing control of our actions and thoughts just the same. Before we even share something on social media, we are aware of the surveillance, the panopticon of the social media world, and we allow it to rank or value our actual lives. Often the surveillance guides not only what we share, but the entire curated, shareable life itself. I can’t remember how many times I’ve had a fun thought then wondered if I should share it somewhere. I think about whether people would like it and what kind of statement it would make about me to share it. Rather than write it down and save the idea like a poet, I would often either share the thought or decide it wasn’t shareable (or share it then regret it and delete it).
While the internet has connected us in ways that are beautiful and life-giving, I think we all might agree it has also gradually siphoned away a measure of privacy and intimacy. I think about the quote below fairly regularly. It is more directly related to oppressive governments, but I feel it in my own life regarding the internet and in the context of social media especially.
Last November, I decided to take my social media cleanse one step further. I permenantly deleted Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. After a year, I honestly haven’t missed any of them for a single day. Instead, I have leaned more into friendships, family, and the things that interest me. I share photos and articles directly via text messages and GroupMe. I’ve enjoyed being a part of more niche social media like the local RVA gardening group on NextDoor and the fitness app, Strava. I’ve also written more on this blog. I started to care a little less about other people’s opinions and I especially stopped thinking about the moments of my life in terms of their shareablility. I stopped sharing my ideas in bits and pieces before they ever had the chance to mature.
Social media can be full of such beauty, stories that are remarkably interesting, and people that are impressive. I realized that in order for my blog to be enjoyable, I had to be ok with it not always being as remarkable. If I am enjoying myself, the mediocrity shouldn’t matter. Mediocrity like this requires safety, time alone, time away from preying eyes. Mediocrity also requires free time in general.
Within the last week I created a new LinkeIn profile. I’ve been told that this is required to be considered a legitimate adult. Even though I didn’t see the benefit, I went along with the advice and I already want to delete it again. What I have always disliked about LinkedIn is that from the first time I created my account in college I felt like I was strip mining my life for relevant experiences and transferrable skills. Everything that I had done out of enjoyment became a selling point for a job. Once I got back on the site, I immediately realized that it’s incredibly deflating for me to be writing a blog post about mediocrity then be reminded how well my friends and former classmates are doing professionally.
But this is my hobby. Why shouldn’t I write a blog post about mediocrity if I’m interested in it? Writing about mediocrity is not the same thing as being mediocre. Then, when I see the careers I could or should have attained it makes me think that my private time would be better off devoted to more school, training, job skills, and applications rather than writing just for the sake of it.
That’s because the more we feel our time is scarce the more we believe that it must be optimized.
In a recent edition of The New York Times Style Magazine, Adam Bradly picked up where Professor Wu left off with his essay, “Good Enough” which online was changed to, “The Privilege of Mediocrity.” He writes that mediocrity is something most available to the privileged because there are more opportunities, there is less scrutiny, and because failure for someone in the majority population won’t be held against everyone else of that race or culture.
He writes, “Mediocrity is…a way station on the journey to excellence, a space for radical experimentation and a momentary respite from the unrelenting tug of ambition. The right to be mediocre is also the right to psychic safety that, paradoxically, produces the conditions for artists to take risks.”
Mediocrity is the safe space that we create for ourselves in order to flourish. The flourishing can look like excellence, but it would be a mistake to assume that excellence had been the goal. Instead, it could be seen as a biproduct of someone who took back the freedom to enjoy the pursuit something and the time and space to do it. There isn’t always a “goal” when you’re lost in something. And the end product is usually not where anyone could have predicted at the start.
Mediocrity also doesn’t imply a lack of effort. It’s usually more difficult when you first start working on something, doing it somewhat poorly, than it is later on when you’ve mastered it. And those early days are when you need the privacy and safety the most. What is also true is that mediocrity (average) for one person can look like genius to another. Mediocrity is more about the attitude of experimentation.
This flower arrangement is, in many ways, excellent, but it is made up of elements that might be considered mediocre. It is the product of someone taking the time to appreciate native flowers, seed pods, and grasses rather than use material shipped in from elsewhere. These are cast-off plants.
From Bradley’s perspective, the ability to experiment and take risks is not equally available to all of us because of racism. I would add that younger people are also being disproportionately affected. Children are so stressed out and depressed right now. I wonder if they feel that they and their lives are just too devastatingly mediocre compared to the lives they see being lived online. Childhood and adolescence are the epitome of mediocrity. It is the time of life when people should be experimenting and learning the most. It’s the developmental stage when minds are already prone to insecurity and comparison. Social media takes that comparison and makes it inescapable.
I think we need to take the fear of mediocrity seriously. Social media isn’t the only source, but we know that it’s a major one. With the looming Metaverse and steady growth of online life in general, I’m sure we will have plenty to talk about in the years ahead.