Here’s to Mediocrity

I’ve been staring at this blank screen for minutes now, though it feels like an eternity. I  despise looking at a new page. To me, the blank page feels like a breeding ground for various  emotions: fear, feelings of inadequacy, judgment and mockery — not necessarily from others,  but from my own comparison to others’ writings that I perceive to be flawless. I attribute these  feelings of terror to an array of factors. Translating one’s thoughts into words is challenging  enough, but when we add emotions that feel ineffable, and experiences, we suspect to be  unrelatable, the endeavor feels cumbersome, if not impossible. I also have another affliction, one  that I have been dealing with for almost my entire life — perfectionism, or a wish to remain as  unimpeachable as possible. My perfectionistic tendencies can sometime transform a task as  simple as returning emails into something closer to climbing a mountain. At its best, it can lead  me to be as conscientious as possible in both my personal and professional life. However, I have  come to learn that while perfectionism and conscientiousness are often presented as somehow  identical, they are actually driven by completely different motivations. Perfectionism tends to  draw its sustenance from fear — whether it’s fear of appearing weak or incompetent, but  conscientiousness is typically fueled by a desire for excellence.  

At its worst, my perfectionistic tendencies serve as a major handicap manifesting itself in  the form of avoidance or procrastination and ironically, mediocrity. Because why bother striving  or trying when the standards feel too unreachable? This, of course, might then lead to confirming  my fear of not being good enough. Maybe that’s what lies at the bottom of my perfectionism — 

the fear of not being good enough, the fear of being exposed as an imposter waiting for the jury  to issue their verdict. Okay, let’s entertain the thought that I am not good enough, but what does  that actually mean, and what am I really afraid of? I recently asked myself that question on my  drive home after delivering a somewhat mediocre lecture — or at least, , that’s how I felt about my performance that particular day: too mediocre and my brain was haunting me with so many  “should haves” and “could haves.” I was going down a shame spiral, and by asking myself these  questions I was hoping to better understand the makings of my affliction and perhaps find some  solace. A response came to me rather quickly. I thought, “My students might now believe that I  am not competent enough or articulate enough or confident enough” This list went on. Okay,  let’s assume my students make those judgments about you. Then what? I continued my self interrogation. Suddenly, I stopped. I couldn’t go any further because the only plausible fear I 

could identify was a bruised ego. Is that it? Am I suffering because of ego’s insatiable appetite  for superiority and recognition? I was then immediately reminded of some people’s accounts of  their psychedelic experiences in a therapeutic setting and their reports of experiencing an ego  dissolution, and as a result, some form of liberation. 

But I also came across another explanation for my pursuit of perfectionism. This line  comes from a poem by Ron Padgett: “Know that the desire to be perfect is probably the veiled  expression of another desire — to be loved, perhaps, not to die.” This perspective resonates  deeply with me. The line took me back to my childhood years. I have flashes of memories where  my innocent and kind mom, my younger sister, and I huddled around the phone with delightful  anticipation of sharing our final exam scores and ranks with our uncle, our father’s younger  brother. Why, you ask? We derived joy from him being proud of us, and he was. But there was  also another reason. We also hoped that he would share the good news with our father. Our  father, who only communicated with us once every few years, when he felt like it, and growing  up, his siblings (our uncles and aunts) were our only conduits. Perhaps this is where it all began.  This is probably when I began to form an association between my sense of worth and  performance, and over the years the two just became inextricably coupled. 

I don’t have a foolproof solution to my struggle, but I have one approach that’s been  effective for me, especially when the stakes feel overwhelmingly too high, and I feel as though I  can’t afford making any mistakes. It’s giving myself a permission to do things badly. For  instance, I used this technique when I was writing my dissertation. My desire to produce a  faultless writing paralyzed me from making any progress. And it was only when I told myself to  “do it badly,” that I was able to crack open my laptop and begin writing.  

A couple of months ago, Duke professor, author, and podcaster Kate Bowler received a  question from one of her followers: “How did you get up the courage to write a book? It’s has  always been a dream of mine.” What follows is her response, and I will conclude with that, “I  have only been able to do something like writing a book or starting the podcast or going to grad  school because I decided that I didn’t have to be that great to do it. I would give myself a set  amount of time, and I lowered the standard way, way down. For writing, I never thought I could  write a book that wasn’t a dense history book. But then I gave myself a couple weeks, locked  myself up, and told myself, “It doesn’t have to be that great.” The “it doesn’t have to be that 

great” has led me to do things that I may not have had the courage to do from the start. So, here’s  to mediocrity. May it give us all the courage to begin.” 

Feven Seifu is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of  Minnesota. If you have any writing ideas or topics you would like her to address, please feel free to  contact her at  

Photo credit: ROMAN ODINTSOV

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