Sunday, October 12, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 1054 - In Praise of Mediocrity

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 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.


ken coe said...


Please let me know if my comments are not welcome. As Marg may recall, I have put many a foot in my mouth without thinking.

This blog brought some memories back. A number of years ago I was asked to speak for someone who could not:

"How do we measure a life? Is it by the amount of debris accumulated in the Dumpster when we depart from it? Is it by the level of noise we made before we are, as the liturgy suggests, granted eternal rest? Or is it by the extent of the heart breaking, gut wrenching, loneliness than pervades the survivors' world when the sun sets on the first day after a life ends? I presume, if it were not for this hurt, then it would seem that, as Henry Miller wrote, "the barometer never changes and the flag is always at half mast". This is not the case here."

I think mediocrity is the essence of life. It is the limit of connections to home, love, yea, OK, if we must... work... for you guys who do that so well and friends, pets, trees, water and the warmth of the sun and the cold tinkle of ice in a well mixed drink.

We, who care, will always measure by what was taken from our world and that will not include the vital statistics. Height, weight, baskets, and distances are not included in this assessment. It is what is not there...what is missing, that measures the life.

If this has caused any pain, I am truly sorry.

Don Spencer said...

No pain at all, Ken. Just comforting thoughts coming from someone who articulates so well what loss feels like from a survivor perspective.

Hurt and sorrow remind us of both the cost and grandeur of life. It is the nature of things that you can't have one without the other (as my "good-sister" would say - "It is what it is." (a phrase I picked up from George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga where good-sister means sister-in-law).

Thanks for commenting, Ken. Do so anytime.