How to be mediocre and be happy with yourself

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Excellent to Bad signpostImage source, Thinkstock

In the novel Catch-22, the author Joseph Heller famously wrote: "Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them."

He'd taken a quote by Shakespeare on greatness and turned it on its head.

The implication was clear: mediocrity is a bad thing, to be avoided. Yet most of us go on to live what by most measures are pretty ordinary lives.

So what's wrong with settling for mediocrity?

It's a subject that became a field of study for two Italian academics, Gloria Origgi, a researcher and philosopher at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris, and Diego Gambetta, a professor of sociology at Oxford University.

The art of kakonomics

It all started over a decade ago when they met up and got chatting about their experience of working and studying overseas, comparing it to how things were done in Italy.

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Image caption,
Italy's fabled la dolce vita lifestyle can come at a price

They exchanged stories about turning up at Italian conferences and finding that workshops had:

  • Twice or half as many people as they were told to expect
  • The time allocated to speak was halved or doubled
  • Proofs were not properly revised or were mixed up
  • People did not show up for meetings or showed up unannounced
  • Messages got lost
  • Reimbursements were delayed, decreased or forgotten altogether

It wasn't how things were organised in France and the UK, where the two academics had now settled.

They decided to dig deeper, going beyond their own anecdotal experiences. The result was an Oxford University paper about what they call "kakonomics" - kakos being ancient Greek for bad.

Their premise was straightforward: sometimes parties conspire, whether consciously or unconsciously, to achieve either a low-quality or a mediocre outcome.

But why?

Easing up

It appears it has to do with people shunning a perceived tyranny of excellence.

"Sometimes all this rhetoric about efficiency is just unbearable so people like to have a chance to just ease up," says Ms Origgi.

It goes some way to explaining Italy's fabled la dolce vita - its famously laidback lifestyle. But if the old adage is that all good things in life are free, then la dolce vita comes at a price and the price is high standards.

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Image caption,
Sometimes we conspire - consciously or unconsciously - to achieve the lowest possible outcome

Take the case of Italian olive oil manufacturer Leornardo Marseglia, who was charged with fraud in the 1990s for selling adulterated oil under the label "extra virgin", something that should denote it is of superior quality, say Origgi and Gambetta.

Even in Italy, extra virgin olive oil is expensive, and when Mr Marseglia was later acquitted he justified himself by arguing that thanks to his adulterated oil many people could afford to buy it with the label "extra virgin" at a reasonable price.

Mr Marseglia told The New Yorker magazine that at home, his family used ordinary oil anyway: "For us, the concept of 'good' is enough. We want to be average folks."

But the route to mediocrity isn't always paved with such disingenuity.

Getting off the wheel

For Krista O'Reilly Davi-Digui, who lives in Canada with her husband and three children, it is heartfelt.

"When I say I'm mediocre, I am," she says, posing the question in a recent blog, What if I am mediocre and choose to be at peace with that?

"I love to learn but I'm not the most brilliant person. I like to write but that doesn't mean I'm the greatest writer. I'm just kind of plain."

Image source, Magpie3 Studio
Image caption,
Krista says she isn't bothered by what she perceives as her own mediocrity

Krista studied for an education degree, dropped out after suffering bouts of anxiety and depression, and is now a certified holistic nutritionist and "joyful living educator".

"The messages are always do more, be more, sacrifice sleep for productivity, bigger is better, rush, rush, rush," she says.

"It just destroys me. I feel like that isn't life and I don't want it and I can't even begin to keep up. So many of us just want to get off that hamster wheel and just breathe."

But many of us never do. For some, sheer hard work may transform that wheel into a ladder, but what if it doesn't? What if all that hard work goes to waste?

Social media pressures

Mark Manson is a popular blogger on personal development issues who gets thousands of emails from readers every year. More recently he noticed that a lot of the advice people were looking for was for issues that weren't really problems at all

Rather, they were worrying about their achievements, about not excelling or standing out in their chosen field.

"The fact is that they just fall into the 99% of achievement which, you know, we all do," he says.

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Image caption,
We can't all be Leo Tolstoy, Michael Jordan or Albert Einstein - and it shouldn't matter to us that we won't be

The problem, Mr Manson argues, is that social media ensures we're constantly exposed to the highlight reel of people's lives and that's leaving some feeling like they're not quite making the most of their time in this mortal coil.

It's similar to the conclusion Gloria Origgi and Diego Gambetta came to in their study.

Ms Origgi recalls the experience of an American friend who was renovating a house in Italy. The Italian builders never delivered when they promised to but conversely they didn't expect payment on time either, so both sides gained something.

In the end though, the renovation was never completed, which wasn't perhaps what the American friend had bargained for.

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Image caption,
Best, mediocre or poor - which would you prefer?

But in general, the deal is you give up high standards and in return you get flexibility and an overall easier, more laidback life.

Not average

Which brings us back to Krista O'Reilly Davi-Digui. She lives in a small town of about 10,000 people in the Canadian province of Alberta, just outside the city of Edmonton.

That's rich, oil country where glass-like lakes reflect soaring, thickly forested mountains and clear, cobalt-blue skies.

It's not particularly isolated, plus she's travelled quite a bit in her life, to Africa, Europe and different parts of Canada.

What's more her husband is west African and she's taught herself to be bilingual.

I put it to her that all of that doesn't sound very average to me.

She pauses and laughs sheepishly. "I guess it just depends on who you're comparing me to."

For more from Manuela and the Business Daily team, listen at 08:32 GMT each weekday on BBC World Service or download the podcast and check out episodes and programme highlights here.