In celebration of mediocrity

October 24, 2016

Joseph Heller wrote this in his novel, Catch 22

‘Some men are born mediocre.

Some men achieve mediocrity.

Some men have mediocrity thrust on them’.

Barely a week goes by without a new report coming to light suggesting that children and young adults are more distressed and unhappy than ever before. The reasons for this are complex and I try to address some of them in my book ‘We need to talk, a straight talking guide to raising resilient teenagers’ to be published in May 2017.

One of the factors affecting our children’s dissatisfaction with their lives is the gap between their expectations of the life they think they will lead and the reality. They seem unable to countenance living a life of mediocrity, a life, incidentally, that most of us end up living. It’s as if a life that doesn’t guarantee fame/success and constant excitement is deemed too depressing and too boring to contemplate.

School reports, school sports teams, social lives and exams all nurture a kind of Darwinian competition where the accolades go to the winner and the loser becomes symbolically extinct. They are bombarded on social media with lives that are allegedly happier, more fun and more exciting, bodies that are prettier, thinner or more muscular. There is a pervasive undercurrent that suggests if our children don’t succeed in school, socially or at work they are losers. There is precious little recognition of the value of effort and an over evaluation of achievement. This winner takes all view of life, probably numbering no more than 1% of children, leaves the other 99% in one hell of a hole. The fall out from this distortion is that an inability to live with a measure of mediocrity is a recipe for a permanently dissatisfied and unhappy life.

Children have it drilled into them that they are special and that they can be anything they choose to be provided they have the right drive and determination. Where do these ideas come from? Do parents want to live through their children’s achievements, hoping that their successes will somehow offset their disappointments with their achievements?

It is patently untrue that all children are special, in fact most don’t have a special talent for anything and are none the worse for it. What is true is that all children are unique but this isn’t the same as special. Those who are special, at maths for example or the violin, or athletics belong to an elite club. It’s not a club open to all; our children know they aren’t special and have to shoulder the burden of these falsehoods, is it any wonder they are miserable.

Nor is it true that you can be anything you want as long as you have the requisite drive. I could have all the drive and determination in the world but I still wouldn’t be able to beat Usain Bolt in a 100m race. Does that mean I shouldn’t bother ?

No it doesnt, we need to focus on celebrating efforts to fulfill dreams no matter what the eventual outcome as a real measure of self worth and be on hand to help our children deal with the failures and disappointments as sympathetically and honestly as we can. Promoting hard work and resilience in the face of the myriad disappointments that they may face is of far more use to them as adults than banging on about their achievements.

Mediocrity as a goal is a cop out but as a result it’s ok.


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