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Daytalking (Completely in the Park), Nightwalking (courtesy of who is awesome), and Stargazing (light a fire, kill the dark).

The Best Defense Against Becoming Mediocre

“Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity.” — Will Smith

I’ve thought about this since I was a kid. Well, it seems at least that long.

And I’m willing to bet it occurred to me around the time I developed a fascination with Leonardo da Vinci, Edgar Allen Poe, and Vincent van Gogh. Of course they’re artists that most people would now hold up as examples of excellence.

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All-Time Hall of Excellence Greats. Oh and Homer too.

That probably wasn’t the case in their time. (And yeah, I know: aging white males. Guess this has been an ongoing problem for centuries.)

It got me thinking, curious preteen that I was, about my place in the world, raising questions such as, “Am I exceptional? What about my family? Were my late parents examples of excellence? Or were they just mediocre?”

That really got under my skin.

So now I have to ask: What is mediocrity? What is excellence? If mediocrity exists, is it harmful or helpful? Is excellence always good, or even necessary? Does one impede the other? How would we know?

Call me old fashioned, but excellence, I believe, is worthy of respect. Even of awe.

Mediocrity is the polar opposite. To call it a “nemesis” would mean it had a plan. It has no such thing. Mediocrity, I believe, is conformity, passively accepting “things as they are.” Mediocrity thrives on the assumption: “That’s the way we’ve always done it. Don’t change it just for the sake of changing it!”

Excellence, to me, isn’t talent or natural ability. That, I believe, is overrated. Excellence means starting from one level (maybe even beginner) and rising to another, higher level. The best of the best can still fail. That doesn’t mean they’re forever branded that way. It goes back to the definition of mediocrity: “That’s the way…” and there you go. Excellence can mean a multitude of things depending on ability. If you’re actively striving (and not just wishing and hoping), then you’re on the path to excellence. It doesn’t end. There is no finish line. And that’s a good thing, strange as it may seem.

However, a person can claim to be exceptional, but performance can prove otherwise. I’m thinking of a particular “world leader,” one who “knows all the best words,” but never questions how he might improve on his amazing, “very stable genius”-like attribute.

Even the ability to question oneself isn’t necessarily a free pass — that, too, can be a sign of mediocrity. I know. I’ve used it: “Oh, I think I’m exceptional, but you know, I might just be wrong. I could very well be mediocre.” That verbal sleight of hand might fool some people, but doesn’t cut it. An “exceptional person” who questions their abilities could just be a chronic self-doubter. And self-doubt, as we all know, builds on itself until the doubter falls further and further into despair, regret, and inaction.

So let’s break it all down:

Level One Mediocrity: Blind acceptance of “the way things are.” Everyone recognizes the shrug, the stupid “Can’t change it, won’t change it” attitude — and whooshaway we don’t go. I’m willing to bet the Dark Ages began this way.

Level Two Mediocrity: Favorite pastime of the overthinking crowd. It’s Hey Mr. Big Talker time, “I’ve got it all figured out so lemme tell you what I know”: a couple of easy-peasy verbal backflips and away we go — straight into the Dead Letter Office.

Late-Stage Mediocrity Remediation: Begins with questioning, but doesn’t stay there (or, disappear down a rabbit hole of self-doubt and personal stagnation). After the questioning (best written down, so it’s a rock-solid document and you’re not dealing with some amorphous blob of vague emotions), it then gets broken down into do-able segments, workable chunks of skill-building and re-adjustment. It’s drawing up the blueprints and laying down the foundation. Once those are in place, it’s time to move on to…

Early-Stage Excellence Development: This can be scary AND wonderful. It’s risky as it actively tests your skills and abilities. You’re out there actually “doing things.” You have people who expect you to “show up,” “perform,” and “honor your commitments.” I remember this was the case when I taught my first screenwriting class. It was a disaster (even as I’d planned it out) because of random things that cropped up. But the course improved with every iteration. Or, think about how a recently disabled person, struggling with relearning what they thought their injured body knew how to do but now couldn’t, has to show up for therapy. The effort to do what was once easy becomes extreme; it feels like push-pull. And it can’t be a one-off. The new focus becomes regular effort: putting in the time, day-in and day-out, working the body (and mind), and tweaking the results.

And that’s where I hope to be in the next couple months. A friend recently told me: “If you’re feeling that, it’s inevitable. It will happen.” I love that sort of encouragement. I cherish friends like that. (Thanks, Jen.)

I realize this post seems preachy, but I think it’s possible to go through cycles of effort and laxity, as long as you don’t psychically surrender to Level Two Mediocrity and disappear down the fucking rabbit hole forever.

My advice is to doggedly claw your way to Late Stage. It will feel weird, but even weirder when you realize you’re actually making strides. I’m at that place now. Just this morning I made a major step and, feeling the fear, realized it was okay; things were on the march. Hey, it can happen to you, too.

Guess this is the kind of advice I wish I would’ve gotten decades ago.

But then again, I probably wouldn’t have listened.

So, carry on and be as excellent as you can for where you are RIGHT NOW.

Writer, editor, and media maker. Blogs at Completely in the Dark ( and lives in Minneapolis, MN. I notice things.

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