walking on custard

Can I Be Happy with my Mediocre Life?

25 May 2022

Photo by Quaid Lagan on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Hello! I’m of average height. My clothing is generally unremarkable. My ability to carry objects is middling.

… yeah, I realize this is an unusual way to greet you. I do that sometimes. So I suppose not everything about me is average.

But, statistically speaking, I have to admit that I am mostly average. I’m not being harsh on myself. It’s just how averages work. By definition, most people are near the middle by most measures.

This doesn’t prevent us from being marvellously unique and delightfully weird individuals, but it is true that there will always be many ways in which we don’t stand out. Most of these—like my height, clothing and ability to carry objects—don’t bother me at all. But sometimes my perceived mediocrity bothers me. I get frustrated that I spend most of my days unremarkably. Sometimes, I wish I were more wealthy or successful. I wish I had the house of my dreams. Rightly or wrongly, I can’t help but resent my averagenesses. (Yes, that’s a word!)

I’m often painfully aware of this when I meet other multipods. My life seems small and gray next to their huge, colourful achievements. (Oddly enough, the fact they occasionally feel the same about me doesn’t seem to make much difference.)

Sometimes, I don’t even have to meet anyone—merely thinking about other multipotentialites can make me feel low. Thanks to the availability heuristic—the mental shortcut of assuming the examples that come to mind first are normal for whatever we’re thinking about—I feel like a bad multipotentialite whenever I read about world-changing superheroes like Stacey Abrams or Galileo.

Then I remember the sheer number of people that exist. How can I possibly stand out from seven billion people? It’s impossible!

Maybe I just need to accept that mediocrity is inevitable. After all, anything else would be picking a fight with mathematics itself. So this begs the question: does being average—or feeling average—have to hurt? Perhaps not. Maybe if I fully accept that I’m average in many ways, and that’s oka—

—Wait! No! Everybody should be above average!

A few years ago the UK Education Secretary was widely mocked after he claimed that every school should be above average. I’m sure you can immediately spot the flaw: as each school improves, the average shifts upwards. It’s impossible for every school to be above average.

His specific mistake was setting a relative goal—“every school should be better than all the others”—rather than an absolute goal, such as “every child must be able to pass this exam”.

I’m guilty of participating in a version of this error myself. I look at others who I perceive to be “ahead” of me in one way or another, and I feel like I should be racing to catch up or exceed them. I’m unconsciously setting relative goals through my desire to be ahead of others.

This might seem fine, or even noble. Everyone should strive to improve their situation, right? And we should celebrate when humans raise the bar for what we can achieve. The average Olympic athlete today is far ahead of the best athletes from a century ago. Similarly, our lives today are in some ways more luxurious than that of the average medieval king.

But the problem with this focus on improvement is that when everyone sets goals relative to everyone else, we create an unstable situation.

To take an obvious example, it’s impossible for everyone to be the world’s richest person. Only one person can succeed at this goal. And there are many goals like it—goals that, technically, anyone could achieve, but that would be impossible for everyone to achieve.In other words, we can’t all be above average in any area of life. Again, that’s not an attack. It’s just how averages work.

Embrace mediocrity

For the last year I’ve regularly thought about an article entitled What If All I Want Is A Mediocre Life? by Krista O’Reilly-Davi-Digui. It’s really worth a read, but, in short, Krista shares her feelings about what she calls her “mediocre life” with refreshing honesty. She explores how she accepts mediocrity, and grounds this acceptance in everyday examples:

What if her marriage is just good enough, and her home is clean enough and her body is mostly looked after and her career isn’t especially successful? What if her life is just average, and she’s happy with that?

This acceptance is part of a recipe for contentment on an individual level, a means of growing a life that we can personally be happy with. But it also helps to address the problem of ever-increasing relative goals on a societal level.

A world where everybody’s goal is to be better, wealthier, more famous and more successful is doomed to unhappiness. Just as schools improving raises the average, these relative goals push the bar higher and higher, so fewer and fewer people are able to be happy as long as their happiness is tethered to these metrics.

If we want to build a world where everybody can be happy, then it has to be based on absolute goals such as “I have enough for me,” rather than relative goals such as “I have more than everyone I know.” (Of course, in this better world we’d also need to make it possible for everybody to have enough… but I’m not sure I can solve all of society’s problems in a single blog post. Another couple of posts ought to do it, though!)

Comparison shouldn’t matter, but it does

From the standpoint of somebody who’s used to dreaming of being ahead of others, switching to an absolute goal like “I just want enough” sounds like giving up. But it isn’t. It’s arguably the only way to be sustainably happy—and it’s definitely the only way we can all be sustainably happy.

Just as we can set absolute targets for schools to reach, we can still have concrete ambitions for our own lives. We just need to break the habit of allowing those ambitions to involve comparison to other people.

Sadly, while it’s easy to recognize that comparison is a trap, it’s almost impossible to stop doing it. Advice about breaking the comparison habit is difficult for me because it mostly boils down to “don’t do that,” so I found this forum post by a new-ish member of the Puttyverse helpful:

When I read about what most people here are doing and how fast, I was intimidated. But now I believe that there just are different species of multipods, some like hummingbirds, beautifully glittering and whizzing from blossom to blossom, whereas I am more of a brown bear, who can be quite content at a place as long as there is some interesting honey around – but once the bear gets going, it will cover some miles and mountains to discover new places.

You may not relate exactly to this analogy, but the point is that we can all find our own unique way to accept ourselves and our place amongst our peers. We don’t all have to be hummingbirds, and we don’t have to all be bears. It’s okay to embrace who we are, even if that’s—in Krista’s words—“mediocre”.

Embracing mediocrity means recognizing that there’s nothing wrong with not being a world-changing superhero like Stacey Abrams. It’s fine to have gentle dreams and to build a happy life, however average it may appear from the outside.

In the past, I’ve reacted angrily to this idea. I suppose when I’m putting lots of effort into fighting to be ahead, it’s threatening to imagine that I might just…not have to do that.

But “mediocre” dreams are even superior to grand ones, in some ways. For one thing, they’re achievable. And it’s tiring to constantly have huge standards, particularly when those standards are above what you might expect from others.

Whether you feel like a whizzy hummingbird, a chilled-out bear, or some animal in-between, I hope you can embrace the parts of you that are averagely mediocre and enjoy some gentle goals. Aim high, but be happy with enough.

It’s the best way for all of us, mathematically speaking.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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