We are obsessed with being number one. Nothing else matters it seems. Win or die. Losers suck. No one remembers second place. Champions are given immediate celebrity status, no matter how they won or what sort of character they might be missing, after all, who cares about that soft stuff. We have forgotten there is only one winner in a field of many players, so then do the other players simply not matter? Millionaire players complain about not being billionaires to the fans who can’t afford their daily lives yet, sacrifice the health food isle at the grocery store for the official jersey. We have certainly put the prize ahead of the process and there are incredible and devastating consequences that perhaps we are “failing” to see.
My brilliant older sister, Julie, talks fiercely about what she calls, “The Tee-Ball Mentality.” Her voice gets quick and sharp as she describes the insanity of this violation of true sport. Not that she is a baseball or softball fan, but she is a fan of learning and the learning process because she has been a teacher for decades. She has borne witness the degradation of the adolescent work ethic and the hyper-focus on winning at every cost, especially to that of the child. Lie or cheat, it doesn’t matter, as long as he or she gets into XYZ super college. This could very possibly be traced to the 1970’s invention of Tee-Ball, the non-game game where everyone plays, everyone wins, and everyone gets a trophy; absolutely ridiculous. There is no learning, no growing, no striving because there is no need. Parents hover and micro-manage, children cry, coaches don’t coach, and pizza profits. In actuality, it does teach something, it teaches that failure is avoidable and that all you have to do is show up to get a trophy. It teaches kids that effort is optional and winning is a guarantee. Parents model behavior that reinforces the importance of the win or the trophy, not the invaluable lessons of losing and figuring out how to get better. However, the long-term cost of these lessons is killing our culture and future. Yet, none of this has been intentional. Parents are following suit and doing the very best they can to do the best for their children. This mentality has been like a frog in the slow boiling pot, it happened over time and in increments too small for the eye to see or the psyche to avoid. The chemical cocktail of winning overpowers and disables the cognitive understanding of process, learning, and how failure is the great teacher. Now what?
Scrolling through some form of social media the other day, someone I respect and care for posted a quote, not sure of the source, demanding that you were not born to be mediocre. Innocent in intent and meant to inspire greatness and action, yet it rattled me and has not left my thoughts since. See, we have also abused the poor word, “mediocre,” making it into some sort of personality villain, a condition to be avoided at all costs. In researching this, I found some interesting tidbits. The dictionary sites define mediocre with words like, “acceptable, adequate, of moderate or low quality or performance.” Perfectly ordinary, run of the mill, so-so. When I think about mediocre in this form, its true intended form, there is peace, calm, and relief in my body. No panic to excel or achieve something impossible or unreasonable. The irony of the word is how it has stood the test of time and retained its meaning and purity of definition in over four centuries of use. A word that describes the ordinary has been extraordinary in its longevity and consistency. Ha!
What’s so wrong with being mediocre? There are times when I find great solace in not having to be the best or win all the time. Not everyone is designed to win and be a high performer, yet we have zero understanding of this “fact.” After nearly thirty years of living, competing, and working in the world of high performance, I have learned a few things. One is that the super high performers, the ones that actually do win most of the time, are a breed. They are wired differently and behave as such. It is almost as if they breathe different air. They walk among us but are not like us, only looking similar but not even close to acting, thinking, or behaving like us. They are the few, not the many, and yet, we all compare ourselves to them unwittingly, as if that makes sense. I also have a brilliant younger sister, Justine, and she understands this in a wonderful way. Constantly striving to improve, she calls me up and asks why all the self-help materials always refer to the superstars as models. “Become a billionaire just like Oprah or Steve Jobs, by doing these top three things they did!” (**Click here to buy this list typically follows this headline) It infuriates her in the purest way. “I will never be like Oprah so telling me to think or behave like her is ridiculous!” Her aggravation with the constant comparison to super-dome for us mere mortals is spot-on.
Perhaps the most important distinction I have learned in my journey of performance and psychology is ultimately about relativity. Wishing I could truly credit Einstein with my insights, my understanding of it is less profound than a physicist might dream of. The best question one can ask of oneself is, “At what level should I be playing (with playing meaning sport, business, or any other place we seek to perform)?” Where do my talents, drive, work ethic, and passion put me? An example: The NCAA has three levels of collegiate competition, Division I, II, and III. D-I is hard core and the most competitive with the most financial support (scholarships) available to the athletes. D-II has lesser financial resources and thus attracts less talented athletes, making the competitive level a bit lower than D-I. D-III schools do not offer any athletic scholarships, providing for a competitive level much less intense. Division I is obviously what all high school athletes strive for (well, most athletes). Very few D-II athletes end up as professionals, so the draw is different. The truth is not everyone can play D-I. The bummer is many try and miss out on the opportunities and joy that playing D-II or III might have provided. Except my friend, Lisa. Not quite a D-I swimmer, she opted to swim for a D-II program and had the best career one could have imagined. A national champion, she swam to her full potential and had the best time in college she ever could have imagined. Could she have walked-on to a Division I program, sure, but she wouldn’t have traveled or made it to the national championship meet, let alone won it! She was smart enough as an 18-year-old to recognize where her level of accomplishment would land and to put herself smack dab in the middle of it. Extraordinary because she won? Ordinary because she swam D-II? Yes and no to both questions.
Not everyone at every company is destined to be CEO. Not even everyone in the executive level is destined to be CEO. Only one person or team wins the National Championship and the rest should be happily disappointed but thrilled with the pursuit. The push for everyone to be a leader leaves no one left to lead. Margaret Heffernan has a great TED talk (actually three great talks total) about pecking order and an experiment with “super chickens.” Basically, when you fill every role with a super star, they kill each other; too much competition. Organizations or teams that do this end up failing. Think the 2004 Olympic Men’s Basketball “Dream Team” losing badly to Puerto Rico and winning bronze versus the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team comprised of a group of “nobodies” and they beat the Russians for gold. Go figure.
Find your fit and you will find your greatness. You can’t be great at everything, but you can be great at something. Then, figure out what greatness really looks like and get to work. Be wary, though, because our world has conditioned us that greatness is out of the ordinary and special and makes you millions of dollars. I see so many great people doing so many great things every day that get written off as ordinary because they fail to meet some unreasonable or unrealistic mark. There are so many players that contribute to a great match or game that don’t win, but the game would have been nothing without them. The number of glamorous acts is dwarfed daily by the number of necessary, dull or boring, or seemingly unimportant tasks. Comparing yourself to some celebrity or super star is a ridiculous habit we all get sucked into. Find someone reasonable to compare yourself to or to model your goals and aspirations after. Instead of being convinced that you must be extraordinary, perhaps be great at being ordinary. “Mediocre” did and look how that worked out.