4 Apr 2013
UPDATE: Published in the Daily Princetonian April 2, 2013.
(Originally uploaded here while the Prince website was down, so the original comments are here.)
Mediocrity is an old, bitter foe. For years my greatest fear has been to take mediocrity as my companion, one that would forever hold me back from the longed-for Land of Greatness.
All this time I have fantasized about drawing out my sword and defeating Mediocrity in one swift, fatal battle. That is the battle I must face, the challenge that separates me from greatness. Perhaps going to college will do it, or joining a big company or going to grad school is the answer — something, anything.
But whatever I do, however hard I try, no matter how fast I run, Mediocrity always seems to be around. At every point of success I look around, convinced that the final battle has occurred. But Mediocrity reappears to remind me that it has not. The fight continues.
Over this long struggle, Mediocrity and I have shared some heartfelt moments. At the turn of an apex, in the glow of a little success or in the face of a grand challenge, I embrace Mediocrity as a partner. I’m done with it all, I say. Done with the tiring day and the sleepless nights, the constant struggle, the will to continue fighting. Today, Mediocrity, I embrace you as one. We shall settle together in a life of ease.
But this is a dejected, fleeting partnership; the specter of ambition kicks in soon enough. Lo and behold, I declare the battle with Mediocrity open once again. Like bitter lovers, we start it all anew — I run away toward the Land of Greatness but somehow run back into Mediocrity. I must be running in circles, and the only answer must be to get rid of Mediocrity once and for all, to do something so unquestionably great that it must certainly take me to the Land of Greatness. But I fail.
After many nights of panic and anger, I have realized that I give Mediocrity (and myself) too little credit. I haven’t been simply walking in circles after all. I have been walking toward the Land of Greatness, but Mediocrity has slyly been following me. As I have grown, Mediocrity, too, has learned and taken on new forms.
I look back on my dreams from four years ago. I was so stupid. Not that I’m not stupid now, just less so. I used to want to be an entrepreneur — to one day come up with a great idea, make it, sell it and change the world. It doesn’t seem that simple now. The complexity of the world seems to fit my growing mental capacity. There’s a strange, unlikable entropy at work: The same points in life now seem farther away, the path to get to them more complicated.
As I have met greater, smarter, more accomplished folks, I have begun to see myself as unassuming and static while the world around me keeps moving to better things. But I am not static. I’m just moving more slowly than I thought I would as a kid because I underestimated how far away the Land of Greatness was. It just appears that I am static in relation to the new heroes I now aspire to be. And it’s even easier to forget that Mediocrity is on my tail, moving just as I am.
As time goes by, my relationship with Mediocrity grows too. I have learned to see Mediocrity not as a monstrous enemy but as a competitive rival, a friend who eggs me on to move faster, to see if I can do what I once thought. I haven’t failed by befriending Mediocrity — it has just grown with me.
I used to have very simple dreams. They were easy to follow, easy to play up. Today I feel that those dreams are gone; it’s not as easy to convince myself of a direction. But while the dreams appear less real, the world appears more so. I see the problems more clearly — the solutions less so. It’s easy to stereotype this as stagnation, but that’s just a lazy way of understanding ourselves. We now know more clearly that the dreams are harder to achieve. But to convince ourselves that they are now unattainable, that we must have stagnated in the process, is just an easy way to divest ourselves of the responsibility to keep fighting. I am not out to defeat Mediocrity in one epic duel. We will slowly struggle together toward the Land of Greatness.
People used to tell you and me to go change the world. We used to tell ourselves to go change the world. But nobody seems to say that anymore. The hope has dried up, the dream has faded; we seem to have failed. But we haven’t. We’ve just gotten a little smarter, a little less naive, a little more aware. Today I stand with you, and I will watch you go change the world. It won’t be one swift battle, but I will watch you change the world, one step at a time. I may be far away, but your friend Mediocrity will keep you on your toes, will keep you fighting and will be there for a cup of tea when the chips are down.