Celebrity. Greatness. Reputation. Power.
So much of our lives is devoted to worship and emulation of those who are "successful". It's simply everywhere. The implications of success are, when unexamined, absolutely ridiculous:
- having the most money
- being the most attractive
- elected to the highest office
- being the tallest, the most muscular, the thinnest, the youngest
Actors, entrepreneurs, athletes, politicians, authors, and a few other occupations are part of a category where you either succeed and become giants within your vocation or struggle to get by, part of the multitude of dwarves who didn't scale the heights. Those occupations are scalable.
Most of the rest of us work in occupations where we are paid by the hour (if paid at all) where we produce a unit of work. We may discover a few tricks and become more efficient. We learn a bit more and get a few raises. We make a little more, a little less, but will probably never match the wild extremes of poverty and wealth of those in so-called scalable occupations.
In a word, we're mediocre...at least according to the prevailing perspective on success.
But viewed from another perspective, it can easily be argued that the vast hordes of the mediocre collectively make very significant contributions. In my own work life, I've seen this repeatedly. Programmers and developers, designers, writers, quality assurance staff, customer support specialists - their collective efforts make the difference between corporate success and failure. From that perspective - from the perspective of the collective - there is no progress without the aggregate contributions of those who will never receive the extreme rewards of outlandish, scaleable, success.
I guess it's inevitable that when you stare death in the face, you wonder about how your own life will be evaluated. Will I be considered a success? Will my contributions stand the test of time? In the world of high technology especially, what does it really mean to stand the test of time? What about on a personal level? Will my character and influence be judged in a positive fashion? Will the way I face declining health and end of life inspire others?
I'd like to argue here that mediocrity, especially when viewed as a modest kind of tinkering with the "stuff" that comes your way in life, can be considered a success. Right now, for instance, I find myself tinkering with ideas and the stuff of everyday life in the context of metastatic colorectal cancer. Unlike Randy Pausch and Leroy Sievers, I don't have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people following my blog entries to see what I've written. I don't have dozens of people contributing their own accounts in the comments section of my entries on a daily basis. In other words, I don't have the "numbers" associated with standard models of success.
On the other hand, when the ripples of my own tinkering are viewed on a collective basis, my "mediocrity" is definitely making a contribution. My doctors, my nurses, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my acquaintances, my silent readers, my unpublished, private correspondents - they all demonstrate to me that I am making an impact.
On Friday, I start my palliative chemotherapy treatment. Ten years ago to the day, one of my dear friends died from the scourge of metastatic colorectal cancer. I miss her dearly. But as her husband corresponded with me recently, her imprint is still felt today in the lives of those she touched, both in life and in the example of meeting death head on and with tremendous courage.
By almost all popular standards of success, we are both examples of the mediocre. And yet I'd like to think we can both be considered successful. Those incremental imprints, those modest contributions of courage and tenacity, those moments of insight - spread out over the admittedly small cadre of people who care - they will help other people meet their own life-and-death struggles. I really don't know if such contributions should be praised, but I do believe they help us move forward with greater confidence and meaning.