Sunday, June 26, 2011

In Defense of Mediocrity

At an early age, I got the mistaken idea that the only choices in life are to do things perfectly or not to do them at all. 

A wise woman once told me I was a perfectionist.  I laughed and told her she didn't know me.  I assured her that I seldom do things perfectly.  Then she gave me a real jolt by saying, "I don't mean that you do everything perfectly.  I mean that you're waiting to do anything until you can do it perfectly."  I've never forgotten her, and it took me a long time to forgive her.  Her comment irritated me for years until I finally admitted to myself that it was true, and that my worship of perfectionism was literally paralyzing me.

No doubt a high degree of excellence must be maintained in some areas - like brain surgery. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of life, there's a lot to be said for mediocrity.

The modern world has given mediocrity a bum rap.  Today if someone says your performance at some skill is mediocre, you feel insulted.  And you should because mediocre often means inferior.  Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines mediocre or mediocrity as "of moderate or low value, ordinary, so-so." The dictionary app on my iPhone pulls no punches and just comes right out and calls it "inferior."

Far be it from me to argue with the dictionary, but when I read these definitions, I said, "Bull!"  Something told me that mediocrity wasn't always a word of ill repute.

I lugged out the 1828 edition of The American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster. I bought this dictionary a few years ago just for these wordy occasions.
Here's how Noah Webster defined mediocrity 1828:
1. A middle state or degree; a moderate degree or rate. A mediocrity of condition is most favorable to morals and happiness. A mediocrity of talents well employed will generally ensure respectability.

"Men of age seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success." Bacon

2. Moderation; temperance.

"We owe obedience to the law of reason, which teacheth mediocrity in meats and drinks." Hooker

It appears to me that since 1828, mediocrity has gone from a virtue to a vice.  Yes, I know - language changes - it evolves.  Even so, there's something sinister about a perfectly respectable word evolving to the point that it means the opposite of what it once meant.

I think this is an indication that we humans have become full of ourselves.  We've got to be the best, have the most, climb to the top of the heap. 

I think Robinson Crusoe's father gave him some good advice.  He told his son that a middle state in life is best. The middle state isn't exposed to the hardships and sufferings of the poor, and neither is it "embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind."  In other words, Robinson Crusoe's old papa was a believer in mediocrity in the classic sense.  So am I.

Lately we've been putting mediocrity into practice right here on Bywater Farm.  We've committed ourselves to fifteen minutes of de-cluttering every day - a mediocre commitment to be sure.  But we're accomplishing more than we ever did with the "Gung ho!  We're going to devote a week (or two or three) to getting this place cleared out and ship-shape!"  Long live mediocrity!

1 comment:

Renee said...

Hi Judy!
Just wanted to tell you I posted your letter today ( have been having terrible allergies so my updating has been very slow.I just wanted to say thanks for writing and that noodler pen is husband (and all of us,too) couldn't believe how amazing your penmanship is....I could look at your handwriting all day long it's so beautiful!I also love your english desk...could use those for my girls.Thanks again and hope everything is going good.