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In Defense of Mediocrity

Is Your Personal Best the Enemy of Your Personal Good?

by Ben Scofield

Generic image illustrating the article
  Ben confesses to mediocrity and explains why you should, too.  

I am a thoroughly mediocre chess player.

There, I’ve said it. Whew! That’s a weight off my shoulders.

I am a thoroughly mediocre chess player. And I’m mediocre at baseball. Tai Chi? Mediocre. When you get right down to it, I’m mediocre at a lot of things, and I accept that.

Competency Porn

Why was that so hard to say? I think it’s because we’re constantly surrounded by a cultural obsession with mastery and excellence. Our entertainment is built in large part on watching people be excellent at things—heck, the USA and TNT networks have built entire schedules around “competency porn,” with shows like “Burn Notice,” “Leverage” and “White Collar.” I know I love watching someone be the best there is at whatever it is they happen to be doing.

I also love a good training montage. I saw the remake of The Karate Kid about a month ago, and my favorite scenes were the ones where the young, impressionable youth was made to pick up his jacket, hang it up, take it down, put it on, and do other mundane tasks for an interminable amount of time (in the timeline of the movie, it was probably a month or so), all so that he could find out—just as he was about to quit!—that he’d been implicitly training his body to adopt proper kung fu positions. Once he made that leap, the training really picked up.

No, I mean it literally picked up and moved. Next thing you know, he’s training atop the Great Wall and climbing endless steps to a peaceful temple in the mountains. Of course, it all culminates in a battle with his nemesis, and his two months of unconventional training end up allowing him to defeat someone with years of arduous practice under his sash.

Wait, what?

See, this is the problem. We love watching people be excellent, and we love watching them attain mastery, but television and movies lie to us. The training montage is a lie. It takes years of effort to achieve the highest levels of performance, but we’ve been convinced that all it really takes is a wise, somewhat damaged guru and a few months of unexpected work.

This leads us to think badly of ourselves and others for not trying to achieve mastery.

Understanding Mastery

To get rid of this stigma, we have to revise our understanding of mastery. To start with, mastery is a journey, not a destination. Whether you agree with Anders Ericsson’s suddenly-popular research that says mastery requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice or not, it’s clear that no one becomes the absolute best they can be without a huge investment of time and effort.

That investment isn’t just hours and sweat, though; it’s deliberate practice, which by now we all know to be the following steps:

  1. Set a goal that’s just beyond your current abilities.

  2. Try to reach it (and fail, most likely).

  3. Gather feedback (this is why even professional athletes still have coaches).

  4. Incorporate that feedback into your next attempt.

I like to say that deliberate practice is a string of nearly continuous failure punctuated by the occasional short-lived success. It’s mentally (and often physically) draining work, which means that there’s a pretty hard limit to how much of it you can fit into a day. Let’s be generous and say that you can do 3 hours of this sort of practice in a day, and that you can keep that level of exertion every day. If the 10,000-hour rule is correct, that means it would take you over 9 years of daily practice to achieve your potential in some domain.

The average person lives somewhere between 70 and 85 years. If you started practicing when you were, say, 7 years old, then you might be able to reach and maintain mastery in five or six different domains. I don’t know about you, but in the course of a single week I might easily touch the following realms, all of which seem to be potential targets of mastery: relationships, parenting, psychology, software development, writing, speaking, philosophy, volleyball, art, and various games—that’s at least nine different areas, and at different points in my life I’ve been interested in wildly different domains (physics, music, architecture, evolutionary biology, fiction writing, and more come to mind). Clearly, there’s just not enough time to master everything that we do.

Beyond even that practical consideration, however, there’s another aspect to mastery that we need to explore: motivation. I already pointed out that the path to mastery is paved with failure, and that’s not a great deal of fun. You also can’t rely on the joy of performance to get you through the rough patches, since the things you focus on while displaying your skills (playing in a band, for instance) are very different from those you focus on while practicing to improve. How many times have you heard a guitarist stop and restart a song while in concert? Performance just isn’t practice.

And finally, mastery isn’t even really required for much. Out of all the potential jobs and activities in the world, mastery is a prerequisite for a vanishingly small fraction of them. All-Star in a professional sport, certain positions in academia and government—those are about all I can think of that really require people to be the best they can possibly be. There just aren’t external pressures motivating people to attain mastery.

Instead, there’s internal motivation. A student practices her martial art for hours every day because she is driven internally to better herself; a chess master spends an equivalent amount of time reviewing historical matches and traditional chess problems for the very same reason. This drive is wonderful, but when you dig deep enough, it’s actually quite rare.

Stages of Expertise

So, if mastery’s so difficult, takes so long, and isn’t even required for most things, what are we left with? I typically split up the continuum into four stages: mediocrity, adequacy, excellence, and mastery.

Mediocrity is the baseline of performance. Once you know the rules and how things generally work, you’re mediocre. I mentioned above that I am a mediocre chess player. That’s because I know how the pieces move and I’ve picked up jargon and a smattering of strategy (really only enough to confuse myself) via osmosis over the years, but I lose much more often than I win—and when I do win, it’s most likely the result of luck or a terrible mistake by my opponent. When you think about it, most of us are mediocre in a huge range of skills.

Adequacy is very interesting. For one thing, adequate performers win more often than they lose. At work, for instance, the inadequate are fired for their failures. The adequate survive. Most people have a fairly wide set of adequacies.

The most interesting thing about adequacy, though, is that there are a couple of different paths to attain it. You can become adequate by being in the early stages of the path to mastery, with some (but not too much) deliberate practice under your belt.

The other path is easier: repetition. If you just do something over and over again, you can get better at it. If you’ve heard the years of experience joke—do you have 10 years of experience, or one year repeated 10 times?—then you’ve heard the textbook definition of adequacy via repetition.

Strive for Excellence

I call the range between adequacy and mastery excellence. This is the hardest state to identify, because it’s enormously wide. If mediocrity is the result of no practice and adequacy is the result of minimal (or non-deliberate) practice, then excellence is some amount of deliberate practice less than that required for mastery. I think of excellence as the ultimate choice: if you’ve decided to settle (and how pejorative is that word?) for excellent instead of continuing towards mastery, then you can stop at whatever point along the path you like.

And really, that’s the goal I think we should all strive for most of the time. It’s easy to get caught up in the obsession with mastery, to think that we’re inadequate if we aren’t actively trying to improve every skill we have. But in fact, we just don’t have the time or the energy to master everything we do. The right thing to do is to make informed, intentional choices about where we want to spend our limited time and effort. It might very well be that I choose to be mediocre at chess and baseball, merely adequate as a volleyball player and a philosopher, and strive for increasing excellence as a parent, speaker, and software developer—the key is that we should all make those decisions consciously, instead of falling into them by accident.

Ben Scofield is a developer, speaker, and author living in Durham, NC, where he is the Technology Director for Viget Labs’ Durham office. He’s been with Viget for nearly five years, during which time he’s worked with a number of startups in a variety of roles, from project management to usability analysis, but with a focus on system architecture and development.

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