I’ve had a bit of epiphany. It was provoked by this blog post, written by a very good friend of mine, no stranger to bravely putting his own work out there and standing behind it:
The point made was that the fear of mediocrity is almost as potent as the fear of outright failure. In some senses, we view being mediocre as a form of slow, prolonged failure. In that sense, it’s an unendurable torture. You never quite succeed, but you are never such a failure that you give up and attempt something else. It’s like a hellish limbo, mediocrity.
Another point made in the post was that mediocrity is an inevitable stage in attaining success. So why do we fear mediocrity? I have a theory. We’re told by people, such as Seth Godin, that we have to excel and be outstanding just to survive in a world where everybody is competing with everybody else and information is frictionless. He’s right. Now that all the competition is on the same stage, you have to be very good to get a look in at all. To be mediocre is to be invisible.
We also live in a political and social climate where if somebody has failed, is down on their luck, is vulnerable or just hasn’t quite made it yet and are at the end of their resources, then it is believed that they deserve a good sound kicking for their moral turpitude. It is further believed that kicking them hard, when they are down, will correct them. What it does, in actual fact, is sink them even deeper down. When I was young, society and politicians were not fans of the so called “tough love” theory. It was simply called what it really is, back then – “cruel”.
What is never explicitly recognised about being outstanding, of course, is that it’s a double edged sword. If you are not mediocre, but outstanding instead, that can be good, if it leads to you being rewarded for it. It’s not so good, if you are pilloried or harassed for your outstanding trait. Which outcome happens to you depends almost entirely on the fickle tastes of the general public. Are you in tune with the zeitgeist or at odds with it?
So, being mediocre is frightening and so is being outstanding. It’s all risky. Yet, being mediocre, while you hone your skills, is an unavoidable and somewhat necessary stage to becoming great. Few (if any) people are great immediately. The path toward becoming outstanding is risky and so is the goal.
The thing that complicates it all is that mediocrity is not a constant, concrete concept. Mediocre can mean you don’t live up to your own standards or that you are way ahead of your time and hence out of step with the aesthetic tastes of most people. You also might not have found your audience yet. There are degrees of mediocrity and no agreement on what is and isn’t mediocre. Some people love what other people detest. There is no mediocritometer or SI unit of mediocrity.
As an artist, you have to decide whether you want to please most people today, or else do something nobody has ever done before, at the risk of being seen as mediocre in the present, but appreciated widely (perhaps) in the future. Pleasing everybody today may mean that your work is acclaimed while you’re alive, but considered mediocre and forgettable by future generations, because tastes inevitably change. You have to make a choice about your goal and choose your mediocrity, but also realise that you won’t necessarily have a say in whether or not your work is seen as mediocre anyway. It’s not up to you. Something you did which you believed to be brilliant might never find an audience, but something you thought was banal and kitsch might be widely admired. Many bands find that their most contemptible, throw-away, joke of a song becomes their biggest and longest lasting hit.
Mediocrity is a moving target. Punk was thought to be both a work of sheer genius by some and degenerate by others. In hindsight, was its impact as great as it was thought to be at the time? Probably not. If your work is too challenging or too different to what is known, you will be labelled as mediocre, whether or not you really are. All you know for certain is that on your road to self improvement, there will be work that you initially do that will be nowhere near as good as the work that you will ultimately do.
It’s also true that your creative powers may decline, after a peak, for a variety of reasons. These could be health issues, despair, or waning motivation – a wide gamut of reasons why your later work may not reach the standards of your earlier output. Continuous improvement is not guaranteed, nor is linear improvement. You can have temporary periods of mediocrity, on your way to better things.
Mediocrity is a relative judgement made against the ephemeral shifting sands of the prevailing aesthetic preference of the time. It’s not a final judgement or a binding one, though it can do you a lot of temporary damage; sometimes an unendurable amount. The label of mediocrity can be very difficult to cast off, regardless of the quality of your later work. It all depends on what people choose to remember about you.
Unfortunately, our society is poor at recognising and appreciating this growth and progression, or the twists and turns involved in mastering something. We support flash-in-the-pan one hit wonders, but decry seasoned veterans producing their best Prog Rock ever, for example. If the work you do doesn’t please the masses, you are consigned to the economic sidelines and eventually fall into the clutches of those that love to kick and punish the less successful, while they are down. The dubious justification for this cruelty is that it’s retribution for their supposed moral failing. The artist is made to pay dearly for the perceived sin of producing work that was ignored or rejected. If you look at how society reacts to those that strive, you realise that it’s quite barbaric and antithetical to anybody achieving anything. No wonder we fear mediocrity as much as we fear failure. They lead you to the same place.
There are nuanced shades of being mediocre and mediocrity is an inevitable stage in achieving mastery, but our acceptance of these realities is not quite so developed. As a society, we still regard it as an all or nothing, once and for all thing. Mediocrity is much more dynamic than that.
In the final analysis, though, nothing is as mediocre as making no effort to try at all. As unpleasant and risky a ride as pursuing mastery can be, it’s as nothing compared to caving in to the fear of being mediocre.