Thursday, January 26, 2012

I loathe mediocrity

I loathe mediocrity.
I want to make a clear distinction before I even start. Trying your hardest and failing is part of life and that is not what I mean by settling for mediocrity. It is when you put forth only the minimum effort and end up with a result that is just passing or then failing that you have strived for mediocrity only.
Trying for mediocrity really bothers me. We’re all guilty of it on some level. Sometimes we just don’t feel up to the task that is at hand. Sometimes it’s a task that we’re really not enthused about. Sometimes we just don’t know what we’re doing. So instead of putting out that effort that could end up in a great result we just put out enough to know that it satisfies the criteria for completion.
This could stem from a fear of failure. Often a go big or go home, an all or nothing attitude is what it may take to succeed at a difficult task. The less difficult path may not offer as stellar of a result but may offer the safety net of no chance for failure. That’s not to say that striving for excellence is always a do or die, win or lose scenario since each situation is different. Putting out what is acceptable instead of exceptional though is what we see all too often in our society and what continues to lower the bar for others and bring us down a notch as human beings and as a society.
Too often in recent times we had discouraged competition, thwarted healthy rivalries and detracted from the hard work of those who are successful, in order to not offend or upset those who are only putting for the minimal effort. I would argue that we should instead be rewarding and incentivizing those who do well, who succeed and put forth the extra effort and encouraging those who put forth a worthy effort but fall short of the goal to try harder the next time. Those putting forth only the minimal should be encouraged to put more effort in, incentivized to put their best effort forward and praised for it only when doing so.
On several occasions I’ve read in horror stories of little league games that don’t keep score, where everyone gets a trophy at the end of the year. Really? Playing and not keeping score was called “practice” when I was a kid not a “game”.  What does this scoreless type of competition really teach those kids? I’m all for teaching equality and fairness, for praising a hearty effort. I also feel though that teaching kids that putting forth your best effort and failing is sometimes all that you can do and that you must face that throughout life. I’m also for the old cliché “to the victor go the spoils”. Teaching these lessons to kids is a good life lesson and when done properly will help make them a stronger individual as an adult. When those same kids try and fail showing them how to seize the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and try again is often one of the best teaching aides we can find. How else do we learn how to do something right if we don’t first understand what didn’t work on the first attempt? A toddler would not take their first steps without first learning what didn’t work to get them moving independently on two feet. Why would we coddle our kids and expect them to not learn the same things from their own efforts elsewhere in their lives? Why do we do this to ourselves and our co-workers or family as well?
Consider Thomas Edison. Edison was one of the great scientific and engineering minds of the 1800’s, revolutionizing the way we use electricity and coming up with a practical and safe electric light bulb (among many other fantastic inventions). Depending on the account you read it is said Edison failed to satisfy his requirements for an electric light bulb anywhere from hundreds to thousands of times before finding the right combination of correct parts and processes to create the bulb that satisfied his demands. Edison is often famously quoted as saying he did not fail hundreds (or thousands) of times he simply found that many ways not to make a bulb.
Imagine if Edison had simply strived for mediocrity. Safe, practical, longer life bulbs might have taken years or even decades to perfect if ever at all. The industrial revolution might have stalled or at least slowed down greatly. Reliable lighting in our homes and work places might have taken years to develop.
Consider this as well. There is often talk about decreasing the demands placed on medical students. These students often must work grueling hours completing internships as well as finding time in between to study what would seem to be a ludicrous amount of material in order to take and pass tests. I would argue these tests and ways of doing things exists for a reason. Physicians make life and death decisions, even treating a minor illness if done poorly could turn into a major ailment for a patient. Would you keep going to a physician who was unsure, indecisive or who appeared to cave under pressure when it was time to make difficult decisions? I am by no means saying physicians are perfect or that they never make a mistake. However if we lower the bar, relax the standards and settle for mediocrity with our medical professionals what quality of service are we going to get? Are you going to want to be treated by a mediocre physician?
Have you ever been somewhere and received bad service? Whether it was a restaurant, a retail store, getting your car fixed or buying a car? Why were you unhappy with that service? Chances are good it was because someone involved at some level, maybe not even the person you were dealing with was only putting forth a mediocre effort.
As a country we have in many ways settled for mediocrity because it’s comfortable. We’re fat, we’re lazy, instead of playing sports we pay big money for cable or satellite or game tickets and we watch other people get paid millions to play. We spend hours in front of the TV stuffing our faces in a comfy chair, if you like that sport so much why not go out and participate in a recreational league? Their all over the place. We’ve generally accepted and decided that it’s ok to file for bankruptcy; it’s ok to be on welfare or food stamps or other public assistance. I’m fine with you being on public assistance of some sort if you really need it, what is not ok is people who mooch the system and abuse it because they’ve settled for mediocrity instead of striving to be the best they can be. Those who choose to sit at home in their subsidized housing watching daytime tv and waiting for their next check to come in so they can buy some more scratch off lottery tickets at the store. The same goes for bankruptcy, if you’ve done all you can and you’re left with no other alternative then you are forced into it. If on the other hand you went out ran up a bunch of bills and instead of paying them you just decided it would be easier not to work hard and pay it off, then you have settled for mediocrity. There are all types of examples I could keep going on about, it has become too easy to take the low road instead of the high road and that’s the point I’m trying to make. What are we missing out on, what are we limiting ourselves to?
When I run in an event/race I know my limits and I work that entire race to run at the limit I set to meet my goal. Prior to that event I have spent countless hours in the weeks or months prior putting countless miles under my feet. I spend time training my body to get faster, become more efficient and be stronger. I spend hours each week in the swimming pool as cross training, improving my heart muscle, getting stronger and my improving my lungs. I stretch, I eat healthy food. On race day I often wake up at 4 or 5 am to eat a breakfast that will provide me with the energy I will need in a few hours (I go back to sleep after I eat). On some of those training days when my alarm goes off very early and I need to get a run in, or on those nights when it’s cold and rainy and it would be easier to stay in bed or stay on the couch than go to the YMCA and swim, I remind myself that I’m working toward a goal and that settling for mediocrity is what too many other people are doing at that moment. I really think that training physically has made my attitude better, and made me a better worker and better person.
Yes these are economically and in some ways socially difficult times. No, you are not expected to be the next Thomas Edison. Hardship though is often the fire that tempers an individual and breeds innovation. If we could all strive at our daily lives the way that we do at many of our personal goals, the way that many of our relatives did during times like the depression or the second world war then we might lose that acceptance of mediocrity and might make our society and our world a better place. Think of what we could do if we would just hold those ideals of doing our best high again.

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