And preserve my mental bandwidth for what’s important
“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one (of them) should be really excellent. Because this is our life.” — Steve Jobs
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” ―Vince Lombardi
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” — Confucius
If you’re anything like me, all these quotes don’t sound inspiring, they sound — tiring. The pursuit of excellence is all well and good till you have a full-time job, a side-hustle you’re trying to get off the ground, laundry that never ends, and kids and pets depending on you for survival and entertainment.
So, what must one do? Give up and stay stuck in the rut? Or ruthlessly cut out things from your life (maybe not the kids or the pets) in order to focus on the remaining ‘important’ stuff?
None of these options work for me. That’s why I chose the third option.
To be mediocre.
Yes. Turns out, mediocrity is an underrated skill.
Our brains have a tendency to overestimate our performance and aptitude; this phenomenon is called the illusory superiorityor the Lake Wobegon effect, named after the fictional town where all the children are above average.
This phenomenon leads to various real-world outcomes:
- increased stock-market trading despite ample proof that it isn’t the best for long-term wealth creation — each trader thinks they can beat the market
- people over-estimating everything from their IQ to their health and even the state of their friendships and relationships
- the ever popular example of 8 out of 10 American men thinking they drive better than average
Okay, so we think we are better than average, and we are also conditioned (by the aforementioned quotes etc) that we must strive to get even better. What do these two facts add up to? An unhappy person, who is overconfident, arrogant and always on the go.
The world (and your employer) also takes advantage of this ‘pursuit of excellence’ that has been drilled into us. Don’t believe me?
- Ever noticed how the overachiever ends up doing all the unpaid overtime? Ends up ‘helping’ other employees so that the work gets done? Is called a ‘team player’?
- At home, if you are the one who wants a clean house and healthy dinners, it is going to be you who’s doing the lion’s share of the work. Unless you want to spend time nagging the other person to death.
- In relationships and friendships, notice how it is always one person (you, I assume, since you’ve read upto this point) who has to make the first move, initiate a conversation, make plans?
- In parenting, it is usually one parent who is more involved in teaching, figuring out new activities, keeping up with the kids’ social lives.
These are all direct consequences of our desire to be EXCELLENT in all that we do. However, it is also an exhausting way to live.
The antidote? Mediocrity.
But wait. There are, of course, areas in your life where you WANT to excel, and that don’t stress you out, or even if they do, you think it is worth it.
The trick is to lay down exactly which areas you care about being excellent in, and which you are okay being just that — okay. Here are the exact steps I follow to keep my life running while also taking a break.
Step 1: Write down every single thing that you do/are
This is usually a pretty extensive list if you sit to think about it. Include not just what you do career-wise, but also other parts of your life. Let me give you a sample from what my own list looks like:
- Career: Civil servant, Blogger, Author
- Relationships: Wife, Daughter, Mother, Family Member, Friend
- Hobbies: Reader, Crown watcher
- Household: Financial manager, administrative task-doer
- Self Development: Law student
- Health: Work-out newbie, Believer in Intermittent
This is a sample. My actual list contains a lot more, but let me pretend to have some privacy here.
Step 2: Pick three areas to excel
Okay four. Or even five.
Mine (with my own personal reasons for it, and in no particular order) are:
- Civil servant — This was a career I wanted, worked (pretty hard) for, and that gives me tremendous satisfaction on most days. Excelling here doesn’t give me any monetary gain, since that is just the way bureaucracies are structured. But it gives me the contentment of knowing that I am giving my best to the people who are impacted by the job.
- Blogger — Strangely, this was also a career I wanted, but one that I was only able to start now, at the age of 30. Writing about topics that I care about — personal finance, productivity (and anti-productivity, like this one), and whatever else tickles my fancy that day, is something I look forward to.
- Mother- My kid is young, schools are shut, and they can’t go out to play (due to COVID restrictions). All of this means that I need to step up and be teacher, playmate and mother all rolled into one.
These are my only three focus areas right now. Sometimes I have more (up to five), depending on my mental bandwidth. Sometimes I switch one out for another. For example, I am an author who has books in the (long) process of publication. There are times when my attention is needed for editing. At those times, I will consciously and willingly become a mediocre blogger, may be putting an article out once a month, not updating my blog, not responding to comments. All blasphemous deeds as per whatever articles I have read, but it is what works for me.
As a law student, I also have exams and submissions which then require me to focus there. I usually step back from work when that happens; I will either front-load my work before such exams so that I can tread water for a bit, or I might even opt to take some leaves. It is okay.
I even switch out the mother role sometimes. It then falls to other family members to entertain the kid, or there might be more screen-time. There, I said it. It has been important to do so occassionally, because other roles needed to be switched in; friends needed help, family members had been neglected.
So, go ahead. Pick three areas you want to focus on. They aren’t written in stone, you can change them around as often as you like!
Step 3: Ruthlessly and guiltlessly discard the remaining
Now comes the tough part for all us perfectionists.
For all the remaining things that you do/are, deliberately be medicore, do the bare minimum, be indifferent — and do so without the tiniest shred of guilt.
For example, I want to be healthy. Therefore I workout, but unlike earlier, when I spent anywhere from an hour to two doing so, I only spend about 20–30 minutes now, once every couple of days. Although there is much room for improvement, for now, it is enough.
I also love reading. I read a chapter when I find a spare few minutes a day. I do not feel guilty about not reading ‘voraciously’, neither do I aim to complete one book a week.
For now, it is enough.
It is easier to be mediocre everywhere else when I know I am pursuing the dreaded ‘excellence’ in the areas that truly matter to me right now. Knowing that I can switch in (subject to switching something out) any neglected area, also gives me peace.
Be proudly mediocre in most things in life, and save yourself from crashing and burning, brighter than the sun but still dead.
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