Mediocrity

The night before my first book came out, I lay awake envisioning all the ways it could ruin my life. What if I get sued because I made a mistake? What if I get harassed online? What if I get such bad reviews I never work in journalism again?

I’d spent the past 18 months obsessing over the project, thinking about it on a loop. I often struggled to sleep, ruminating over all the ways it might fall short. I started seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. My career was at its high point, and I had accomplished a dream so big I’d never actually thought it would come true, but my mental health had never been worse.

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The fact that I was also living through and writing about the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic certainly didn’t help, but it was the stress of the book that really had me spiraling. By the time it was published in mid-2021, I was mentally and physically exhausted. I longed to do less, to forget about work and productivity and self-promotion and just…be.

As it turns out, I had—and have—plenty of company. Around the time my book came out, so many people were quitting their jobs the media began calling it the “Great Resignation.” Then people started “quiet quitting,” proudly doing the bare minimum at work without actually resigning. Now, lots of people want a “lazy-girl job” that’s low-stress and high-pay. That’s hardly an unprecedented desire, but it now seems to be pervasive. Federal data show that preference for part-time work is rising and, at least according to one 2022 study, the pandemic ushered in a “sharp decline” in the number of hours U.S. adults want to work. The idea of a four-day work week is gaining mainstream credibility, too. Increasingly, it seems, people are rejecting the stress and burnout traditionally baked into U.S. work culture in favor of a slower, more peaceful life.

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These trends hit me on a core level. During all those sleepless nights leading up to my book’s publication, I began to reevaluate my relationship with ambition and what I want from my work and life. And the truth I came to is this: mediocrity is a far better fate than misery.

American ambition

Embracing mediocrity goes against everything Americans are taught to believe. Hard work has been valued throughout U.S. history, dating back to the Puritans who built New England on the belief that labor was inextricably linked with salvation. The idea that anyone can succeed with enough hard work forms the backbone of the “American Dream,” a phrase popularized in the 1930s. The concept of the American Dream has evolved over time—until the mid-1900s, the phrase was associated not with material wealth but with furthering the common good—but it has always placed a premium on progress, on striving to be better as both individuals and a people. In more recent decades, the American Dream has become closely aligned with the kind of economic prosperity required to own a big home, a nice car, and the latest iPhone, with cash to spare for a glamorous vacation every summer.

To pursue that prosperity in a deeply capitalist society, anyone not born into immense wealth has to work for it. So it’s perhaps no surprise that U.S. culture lionizes hard work and looks down on leisure, that we’re raised to earn and do and achieve as much as we can, to shoot for the moon and settle for landing among the stars. We are taught, from an early age, that we can be anything we want to be, that with enough elbow grease we can accomplish big things. The subtext being that we should accomplish big things, no matter what it takes to get there.

For a long time, I bought into that mindset. I was the straight-A high school student, the summa cum laude college graduate, the magazine intern happy to give up my personal time to write articles for free if it meant advancing my nascent career. It was only once I achieved the big thing and watched it tank my mental health that I realized what this mindset had cost not just me, but also others who subscribe to it.

As of 2023, more than three-quarters of U.S. adults report feeling stressed at work, almost 60% experience elements of burnout, and almost 20% feel they work in a “toxic” environment, according to the American Psychological Association. We often normalize these problems, turning them into topics for happy-hour venting sessions, but they are not trivial. Countless studies show that chronic stress is bad for the body and mind, and burnout is linked to everything from depression to premature death, research shows. Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General declared improving workplace mental health and well-being “a critical priority for public health.”

Some companies have responded to these warnings with anti-burnout programs and extra vacation time. But the solution, as I see it, requires a broader rejection of the ceaseless pursuit of greatness that often leaves our health and happiness in its wake.

How striving affects well-being

In 1922, a group of more than 1,500 high-ability U.S. children were enrolled in a study through which researchers would track them for years on end. Ninety years later, a pair of researchers used some of the resulting data to assess how ambition had affected the participants over the course of seven decades.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who self-identified (and were described by loved ones) as ambitious achieved more lucrative and prestigious careers. But when it came to life satisfaction and longevity, the researchers didn’t find a strong connection to ambition. In spite of their professional accomplishments and cushy salaries, go-getters were not significantly happier or healthier than less-ambitious people, although they weren’t significantly unhappier either.

Similar conclusions come up often in scientific studies. Researchers have found that countries with shorter average working hours tend to have happier populations; achieving a huge career goal may not bring lasting satisfaction; and traits that frequently accompany ambition, like perfectionism and desire for power, can predispose people to burnout, anxiety, and depression.

Meanwhile, things that reliably boost happiness and well-being—community, time in nature, movement, mindfulness, personal growth, and learning—are often seen as unserious pursuits for which only underachievers have time. Research suggests that, in work-obsessed modern society, busy people are regarded as higher-status than people with lots of leisure time, a reversal from previous eras when only the rich had time to relax. When busyness and productivity are brandished as badges of honor, it is daring to prioritize activities that result only in rest or relaxation or joy.

But these things, so often skipped or squeezed into our 48 hours away from the office each week, are what make life feel manageable and rewarding. “Feeling good within yourself is about way more than ambition and striving forward,” says Emma Bradshaw, who researches the relationship between aspiration and well-being at Australian Catholic University. “Sometimes sitting in place is perfectly healthy.”

Bradshaw’s work is guided by a school of thought called self-determination theory (SDT), which holds people have three key psychological needs: a feeling of choice and control over their actions, connection with others, and a sense of competence and achievement. But the type of achievement matters.

SDT research, including Bradshaw’s, suggests that people who are motivated by internal, or “intrinsic,” goals are more likely to feel fulfilled than people who are striving toward external, or “extrinsic,” markers of success. “Things like building quality relationships with other people, growing and learning new things about the world and about ourselves, contributing positively to the community…tend to be better for you, as opposed to things like wanting lots of money and wanting to be really beautiful and wanting to be popular,” Bradshaw says.

That’s not to say everyone who is successful, wealthy, or popular is unhappy, or even that ambition is inherently bad. Lots of successful people, Bradshaw says, tap into intrinsic motivation in their work, pursuing new projects because they genuinely enjoy the process or have a higher motivation for doing so. The problem is that we often chase promotions and raises and awards by default, even if those things are unlikely to bring lasting fulfillment or satisfaction without a deeper purpose.

Trying to obtain these external trappings of success can feel like forever chasing moving goalposts. “It’s infinite, how much money you could try to earn,” says Sheri Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched the relationship between ambition and mental health. “You may be stuck in that striving state without satisfaction.”

Who gets to be mediocre?

But giving it all up isn’t so simple, as scholar Avram Alpert learned when he wrote his recent book, The Good-Enough Life, which explores how the pursuit of greatness harms individuals, communities, and society at large. Initially, Alpert says, he wanted to focus on how learning to be pleased with “good” instead of “great” might affect individuals’ happiness and well-being. But it felt impossible to say with a straight face that people should “chill out and be good enough” in the face of huge societal barriers like wealth inequality, racism, and sexism.

“If you say, ‘I’m going to be good enough. I’m not going to be overly ambitious and I’m not going to pursue every last award and every last degree and I’m not going to try to rise to the top of the pyramid,’ and then you find you’re doing that but society isn’t respecting that,” Alpert wondered, where does that leave you?

Checking out of the greatness grind often requires a safety net that millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck or in poverty simply don’t have. It is one thing to tell someone who is already financially comfortable that money can’t buy happiness. But what about someone struggling to pay the rent or put food on the table? How could anyone tell them to be content with less?

“We shouldn’t have layers of society where people have to work that hard and live in those dire conditions,” Alpert says. But since we do, choosing mediocrity is perhaps the greatest privilege of all—and one that historically has available only to white people, says Michael Harriot, author of Black AF History: The Un-Whitewashed Story of America.

“A Black person has to work twice as hard as a white person to get half as far,” Harriot says. That means choosing to be average often isn’t an option for people of color, just as it isn’t for others who have to swim against the current of discrimination every day, including those who are not able-bodied, cisgender, or heterosexual.

But, at the same time, “we can’t expend all of our energy and work ourselves to death trying to accomplish things that are unachievable because of systemic issues,” Harriot says. He bristles against the narrative that “rugged individualism and hard work is how [people of color] get ahead in America, when we know that’s not true.” Individuals can’t fight against centuries of systemic oppression on their own.

It was that realization that led Amil Niazi to write a viral 2022 essay about renouncing ambition, which she is now adapting into a book. Niazi felt for a long time that being exceptional was her only choice. “I’m an immigrant. I grew up very poor. I’m a woman of color,” Niazi says. “I was never able to be mediocre. I would not be able to be where I am today if I had just sat back and said, ‘It’s okay for me to be average.’”

But even decades of striving didn’t prevent Niazi from being passed over for professional opportunities and promotions, which she says often went to people—predominantly white men—who could relate to her bosses in ways she couldn’t. After years of burning out trying to play their game, Niazi decided to quit and start her own, leaving her job in media to freelance and create her own definition of success.

Accepting “good enough” in a world that wants great

Even as an objectively privileged white woman, I’m nervous to attach my name to an essay with anything positive to say about mediocrity. As much as I craved it in the depths of my pre-publication stress, I do not actually want—nor can I afford—to torpedo my career. Numerous times as I wrote this essay, I wondered, Do I really want to be known as the mediocrity girl? And if I feel uneasy, how could I expect anyone without my advantages to embrace this concept?

That fear says a lot about the culture we live in. It should not be controversial to say that life exists beyond work and achievement, that the ways we’ve been taught to strive are hurting us—all of us, but particularly those who are marginalized by systems of power. And yet it’s a scary thing to put in writing.

So how can I, and everyone, live a good-enough life when the world isn’t there yet? Alpert thinks it’s about applying the philosophy of good-enoughness to whichever “pockets” of your life you can, whether that’s sometimes taking on a behind-the-scenes role rather than seeking credit; adopting a hobby just for fun; or trying to remember that, as he puts it, “the things we find most meaningful and wonderful and purposeful,” like being with loved ones, are not lazy or frivolous, but vital.

Dr. Gordon Parker, a psychiatrist and founder of the Black Dog Institute, an Australian research organization focused on mental health, believes that aiming for a 20% more laidback lifestyle can enhance well-being, particularly for the kind of type-A people who are prone to perfectionism. In other words: you don’t have to reject the system in its entirety. Sometimes it’s about trying to do just a little bit less, and becoming okay with that.

That’s been the case for Kathleen Newman-Bremang, who has written about embracing mediocrity as a Black woman. Newman-Bremang was raised to believe she had to be excellent, always, to succeed in a system that wanted her to fail. But that constant pursuit left her exhausted and disillusioned. Eventually, Newman-Bremang realized the far more “radical act” was to embrace mediocrity, even with all the negative baggage that word carries.

“Maybe my worth is not weighed by my weariness. Maybe my worth is not what kind of worker I am,” she says. “If I am just mediocre professionally, that’s okay. That can still mean that I am a good person, a good friend, a good wife, a good dog owner.”

That mindset shift is a work in progress, Newman-Bremang says. She still has to remind herself to rest and take breaks. But she no longer believes that excellence is the only option.

I, like Newman-Bremang, have tried to embody that philosophy through a hundred tiny revolutions against capitalist culture. I do my work as well as I can, but I take my lunch breaks, I use my vacation time, I resist the urge to check email on weekends. These are privileges of secure white-collar work, to be sure, and I am grateful for them. But also: they should not be as revolutionary as they feel to me, and I remind myself of that when my inner voice tells me to do more, achieve more, produce more.

Bradshaw, the SDT researcher, also gave me a piece of advice that struck a chord. When you are presented with a decision, she told me, think about why you would agree to it. Is it because you genuinely want or need to do the thing, or because you think it will make you look good?

This, too, is perhaps not so revolutionary, but it felt that way to me. So much of what I’ve done in my life has been to appear impressive, to get my foot in the door so that someday I could step all the way through. But I’ve been through the door, now, and the room inside wasn’t all I imagined it to be.

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