What We Can Learn from Mediocrity about Excellence

Mastering your craft

The previous article detailed the reasons and behaviors that cause us to fall into mediocrity. Today let’s focus on the gifts—the lessons that we can discern from mediocrity about excellence and depth.

The flip-side of mediocrity

I’ve distilled the following insights as the foundation for moving forward with intentional focus. They’re not groundbreaking, but combined, they can cause a shift in the way we deal with the loud and incessant noise of distractions and the habitual urge to make quick and rash decisions.

1. We may not be able to change how we’re wired, but we can learn to live more purposefully, in spite of such limitations. We can acknowledge our cognitive shortcomings and develop habits to compensate for such tendencies (for example: patience, deep rational thinking, self-reflection, focus, and letting go).

2. There are no shortcuts to lasting success. If we want to achieve something, we need to have a long-term focus and keep at it. A lucky break is possible, but it won’t last without relentless hard work.

3. Success needs patience. Just look at Warren Buffett. He didn’t become rich by rushing in and out of investments. He thinks and acts with a forever time horizon. Patience allows us to thoroughly examine our options, make careful decisions, and move forward with slow deliberate action, even when derailed by unforeseen setbacks.

“No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.” ~Warren Buffett

4. Expert advice won’t work for everyone. You need to make your own decisions to suit your specific situation and goals. Experts will come and go, and they may change their opinions. When you seek advice, it’s helpful to have realistic expectations and not base your decision on superficial marketing hype.

5. Hard focused work is not glamorous and that’s why you hardly see it on TV. The messages we’re exposed to are usually based in fantasy, not reality. The message is carefully crafted to evoke emotions and stir desires, not to motivate you to do the grind work. Spending hours reading and thinking deeply is not entertaining, it’s boring—but essential for any meaningful success. Here is an example.

When asked for advice on how to get started in investing, or become smarter, Warren Buffett reached for a stack of reports, trade publications and other papers he’d brought with him and said:

“Read 500 pages like this every week. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

If we want the cool and entertaining, then we can’t expect any better than mediocrity. When we start embracing the repetitive and boring, we will improve our abilities.

6. Social media is like TV but with more advertising and less content. All media companies are in the business of making money, mostly through advertising. These sites rely on algorithms and data optimized to lock you in for the longest time. Similarly, we can devise our own plan for optimizing our time on social media to best suit our goals, and cut down on mindless exposure.

7. Distractions are more damaging than we think. We can’t underestimate the harmful effect of constant distractions and interruptions. They’re not only a waste of time, they slowly lower our ability to concentrate and at the same time increase our cravings for shallow novelty. If we do our best to reduce distractions, we’ll gradually strengthen our sustained attention muscle.

“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” ~Warren Buffett

8. Clarity can’t be outsourced. No one can tell you what’s important to you and how to go about it. This is your job. You need to take the time to deeply think about your goals and come up with a roadmap for your heart’s desires. If you follow the trends, you’ll have a roadmap to mediocrity that won’t take you anywhere.

9. Every aspect of life is a craft that can be honed. When we attend to the activities we’re performing with respect and focus, we’ll not only become better, but we’ll enjoy the experience and let go of wanting quick results. As we master our craft, we open ourselves to the beauty and sacredness of a task done well … and we transform the way we live.

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

10. Mediocrity is the byproduct of harmful habits that can be replaced. We repeated unhelpful actions (making rash decisions, not facing our mistakes and learning from them, blindly following the crowd, and numbing and distracting ourselves) to the point where they became the norm. We can change all these behaviors one tiny habit at a time.

Habits are born of repeated actions, and actions are the expressions of our choices.

Each choice carries with it the possibility of transformation. So, let’s use the lessons of mediocrity to form new habits by making conscious choices that honor and celebrate the art of living a focused and meaningful life.